Bottoms up: Students learn to brew beer at some colleges, where making suds can be major fun

A bachelor's in beer? A master's in malt? Not quite. But these days some colleges are teaching students to make beer as part of their studies.

When California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, fired up its gleaming new stainless steel brewery in December, it joined a small but growing number of colleges instructing students how to produce high-quality craft beers. At the same time, it took the movement a step beyond — kegging the results of their labors and selling it on campus.

"To make the beer here and sell the beer here and have a cafe and have an educational component, we're the first to have put all those pieces together," Aaron Neilson, director of dining services for the Cal Poly Foundation, said over a lunch of pizza and — of course — beer at the school's new Innovation Brew Works.

A few feet away, senior chemistry major Stephen Moser was in the back room of this former campus bookstore, brewing up a batch of ale. In a few weeks, his work will end up in the glasses of patrons in the brew works' cafe, where signs at the front door remind people to drink responsibly.

"Right now my goal is to work for an established craft brewer," said Moser, who graduates in June. "I really want to do small-batch projects, like creating new and interesting brews."

Although Cal Poly officials say theirs is the only college in the country to make its own beer and sell it on campus, that could soon change. Colorado State University expects to begin selling its microbrewed beer at a campus pub later this year, said Jim Francis, director of the school's Beverage Business Institute.

Students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Oregon State University and other campuses around the country also make beer on campus.

A pioneer in the process is the University of California, Davis, where students have been brewing beer since the makers of Lucky Lager built them a microbrewery in 1959. Like the other campuses, however, Davis doesn't sell beer and has no plans to. Charlie Bamforth, the university's Anheuser-Busch endowed professor of brewing science, believes getting into the retail end of things would be a distraction for him and his students.

Asked what happens to his students' creations, his gives a reply guaranteed to send a shiver down any serious beer drinker's spine: "It all goes down the drain."

Well, almost all.

Students studying for bachelor's and master's degrees in fermentation do have to taste each batch to ensure what they have produced is not what Bamforth, a former Bass Ale executive, would dismiss as "absolute swill."

There's also an annual competition to determine the school's best brewmaster.

What's driving the interest in college brewing, beer makers say, is the increased fascination with craft beers. They note that the number of U.S. breweries has tripled over the past 10 years to about 3,000. That counts everything from those operated by industry giants to small regional producers.

"A lot of young people, 30 and under, consider themselves beer geeks," said Francis, whose school offers a degree in fermentation science.

Cal Poly, Pomona, located in a semi-rural section of Southern California 30 miles east of Los Angeles, appears well-positioned to take the trend to the next level.

For years, the university, with a strong emphasis on agriculture and hospitality studies, has operated its own ranch, hotel and events center. These days, the ranch is producing several of the ingredients going into the school's half-dozen new signature beers.

Bronco Brown, a pungent dark ale named for the school's mascot, is made with ranch-grown barley and hops. Oranges and barley from the ranch go into Ortiz Orange, a light, flavorful witbier named for the university's recently retired president, Michael Ortiz.

Associate Dean Michael Godfrey, who brought brew studies to Cal Poly in 2000 with a single class on the culture and history of beer, envisions Innovation Brew Works eventually becoming the centerpiece of studies for chemistry students interested in learning the complicated science of making good-tasting beer, as well as for hospitality students interested in marketing beer.

With the industry expanding, there is a need for just such people, said David Ryder, chief brewmaster for MillerCoors.

"This could be a natural progression for college programs," he said, although he cautioned that key will be finding instructors who know how to make high-quality beer while ensuring classroom studies don't result in big booze fests.

"They've got to get the quality right and, most importantly, they've got to make sure this is regulated toward responsible, legal drinking-age consumers," Ryder said. "But I think if you can do that you can bring some new excitement to college programs."