As the number of craft breweries skyrockets across the U.S., Oregon State University is continuing to grow its fermentation science program, offering students hands-on training in the art of making beer.
The latest equipment to arrive at Wiegand Hall on campus, a sparkling new brewhouse, is nearly commissioned and ready to start producing batches of experimental ale, pilsner, lager or any other beer style, for that matter.
Specially made by the German company Esau & Hueber, the Oregon State brewhouse combines rows of sleek metallic tanks with a computer interface that controls the flow of liquid from mashing to fermentation.
Tom Shellhammer, Nor’Wester professor of fermentation science at the university, said the high-tech system is not only what students can expect to find at modern breweries, but should allow greater efficiency and reproduction of beers for research.
“It is going to have a transformative effect on our program here,” Shellhammer said.
Oregon State purchased the brewhouse thanks to a $1 million donation from Carlos Alvarez, chairman and CEO of The Gambrinus Co. in San Antonio, Texas, which owns several high-profile breweries across the country — including BridgePort Brewing Co. in Portland.
The brewmaster at BridgePort, Jeff Edgerton, is an Oregon State alum, and the brewery maintains a close working relationship with the college, Shellhammer said. Edgerton occasionally does lectures on brewing, and BridgePort has used the fermentation program’s facilities in the past to develop new products.
“Our students would often be working with them,” Shellhammer said.
Meanwhile, the number of American breweries has increased from 1,460 in 2006 to 5,301 in 2016, according to figures from the Brewers Association. That’s a 263 percent increase over the last decade, driven mostly by smaller microbreweries and brewpubs.
Shellhammer said the industry growth is opening plenty of job opportunities, and Oregon State is one of just a handful of universities that offers studies in fermentation science. The program, which started in 1996, is now attracting students from across the country, he said.
“Craft brewing has been taking off,” Shellhammer said. “The whole thing has grown tremendously.”
From an industry perspective, Shellhammer said the new brewhouse will continue to set Oregon State apart from other fermentation science programs. The equipment was delivered from Germany in February, and could be commissioned within a matter of days.
Shellhammer explained how the process works, beginning with the combination of malted barley and water into each of two large mash cookers. Steam heats the containers, and enzymes in the barley get to work chewing up starch into simple sugars.
From there, the solution — known as wort — goes into a vessel that separates the barley husks from the liquid. It is then pumped into a boiling kettle which sterilizes the wort, while brewers add hops for flavor and bitterness.
The hops are filtered out in a whirlpool separator, and the wort is cooled and left to ferment in tanks with yeast. The brewhouse is computer-controlled and capable of making up to six kegs of beer per batch.
On Wednesday, the fermentation tanks contained four different beer varieties, including Triumph IPA (made with the university’s newest hop variety), two types of German-style Helles lager and a pilsner.
“I imagine next month we’ll be doing a lot of playing around with a lot of beer,” Shellhammer said.
The program does intend to keep its old brewhouse, which Shellhammer said is more evocative of smaller brewpubs. But the new technology means students will be that much more job-ready when they start work in a modern brewery, he said.
“I feel like we’re in front of the pack,” Shellhammer said.