March 22, 2016

Fermentation science degree on tap at SIU

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. – The beer brewers, wine vintners and spirit distillers of tomorrow can officially begin their professional training starting this summer at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. 

The Illinois Board of Higher Education recently gave SIU the go-ahead to create a new Bachelor of Science degree in fermentation science. Students will be able to declare fermentation science as their major beginning this summer semester, said Matt McCarroll, director of the Fermentation Science Institute at SIU, and professor of chemistry and biochemistry. 

“This has been a lot of work by a lot of people here, and it’s great to see it becoming a reality,” he said. The university is planning an array of classes, hands-on research and community outreach to help brewers, distillers and vintners learn and appreciate the science behind the age-old art of fermentation. 

The IBHE approval, which officially happened March 1, was the capstone of an effort that began at least three years ago, when university faculty and administration envisioned locating such a program at McLafferty Annex on the campus’ far west side. Two years ago, after the IBHE gave its initial approval to create the program, the university set to work creating it, putting long hours of thought, planning and paperwork into the effort, along with committing substantial brick-and-mortar investments into the facility at McLafferty Annex. 

That facility, now finished and almost completely outfitted with scientific instrumentation, classroom technology and – naturally – brewing and fermentation equipment, will be the epicenter for the new, highly interdisciplinary program. McCarroll said a handful of students who came to the university to pursue the new degree already are attending SIU. He anticipates many more to follow, now that the university has received final approval from the state, and said the program will recruit students both regionally and nationally, as well. 

Demand in fermentation-related industries drove the effort, McCarroll said. While fewer than 100 breweries existed nationally in the mid-1970s, that number exploded to more than 1,500 by the turn of the century, with about 95 percent of that growth occurring over a 15-year period. 

By the end of 2015 there were more than 4,000 breweries nationwide, McCarroll said, and such breweries need brewers who are highly trained in fermentation science. In addition, many breweries are establishing quality control laboratories that will be staffed by highly trained fermentation scientists. 

The market needs new brewers and advanced training for existing brewers, McCarroll said, and the new SIU fermentation science program can meet both of those needs, especially considering the strong chemistry, biochemistry and microbiology foundation students will develop in the program. 

“The rapid growth in the craft brewing industry has led to demand for fermentation scientists with strong scientific training and coursework focused on brewing science,” McCarroll said. “We know this is a growth industry and our students will be well prepared to gain employment in this field.” 

Fermentation science involves basic and applied science in several core scientific areas, including microbiology, plant biology and chemistry, as well as the more applied areas of the agricultural sciences, McCarroll said. Students will master such core areas, as well as advanced areas of fermentation. 

The strong scientific core of SIU’s program will provide students with distinct advantages, especially compared to more narrowly focused certificate programs, McCarroll said. Students pursuing advanced degrees in fermentation-related areas also will find excellent opportunities as educators, due to the current and growing demand. 

The new program is the only one like it in the state and region. A handful of similar programs exist and are concentrated on the west coast, making SIU well positioned to be a leader in the field, McCarroll said. 

Officials said the program’s coursework will enable graduates to pass important industry certification exams, such as the Diploma in Brewing of the Institute of Brewing & Distilling. They also will train for careers in such fields as brewing, brewing science, viticulture, enology quality control and assurance, sensory analysis, fermentation and other related positions. Students also will be in a position to pursue graduate programs and advanced degrees in related fields. 

Students who sign up for the new program will spend much of their first two years being heavily steeped in science, chemistry and mathematics, though they also will have the opportunity to take some foundation courses that touch more directly on the art of brewing, wine-making and distilling. Faculty from several disciplines, including various agriculture and horticulture areas, microbiology, hospitality, chemistry and others, all will teach classes aimed at creating highly trained, well-rounded professionals to work in and lead the fermentation industry. 

The FSI at McLafferty Annex includes a teaching laboratory and a multiuse meeting space, as well as areas for pilot-scale brewing. The FSI and the program also will support the local fermentation industry in Southern Illinois through operation of the Service Laboratory, which includes a yeast culturing facility and an analytical laboratory for performing standard methods of analysis for samples of beer, wine and spirits. Such analysis will allow local manufacturers to adjust their processes and improve products as they see fit.