OSU’s Fermentation Sciences

Getting college credit for brewing and drinking beer? It sounds like a fantasy — but in the College of Food Science at Oregon State University it’s serious business. With a newly upgraded brewery and a flock of dedicated students, this program is unique and well respected.

“Part of my job is to teach students about how to make beer, and part is about research on the flavor,” said Dr. Thomas Shellhammer, a Professor of both Fermentation Science and Food Science.

According to Dr. Shellhammer, around 60 percent of the undergraduate students in the College of Food Science are studying Fermentation Science. Of those students, the bulk are interested in beer, while the others are studying wine and spirits.

The students are studying a variety of affects that dry hopping, or adding hops to the brew to give it more aroma, can have on beer. Other projects include working on the extraction and sustainability of hops, oxygen efficiency during brewing, and the fleeting nature of hop aroma and flavor. 

I had to ask, though, what about the tasting of beer?

“The courses for beer, wine, and spirits involve a sensory element,” said Dr. Shellhammer.

He explained that the classes involve tasting beer and deconstructing it, learning how to taste alcohol and break down the different elements.

“A pallet can be somewhat taught,” said Dr. Shellhammer.

Along with the actual tasting, students study the statistics around sensory data and make meaningful analysis of it.

The beer comes from The Pilot Research Brewery, attached to the college. There, they’ve just received new equipment which became fully operational in mid-March, according to Jeff Clawson, the Pilot Plant / Brewery Manager. Clawson noted that the old brewery equipment they had since 1996, when the program started, was very manual.

“They would do everything — weigh the grain, run it through the mill, change the mill settings, pour it in, control the temperature of the steam,” said Clawson.

He said the new system is run by computers.

“You program the recipe that you want to brew, you load the hops, load the malt, do a few other manual operations, and then the computer tells the machines what to do,” he said.

He explained that this type of system is what big breweries like Deschutes, Full Sail, and Widmer use. 

Working with this modern equipment better prepares students to work at a larger brewing operation. “For our research, it gives a lot more control so variables are limited. It’s also safer to operate, and also a lot more expensive,” said Clawson. 

He explained that with the equipment, results are much more reproducible, and it’s easier to scale up production and to trust in results.  

“We want the beer that we make today to be the same as if we make it two weeks from now, or two years from now,” said Clawson.

Though the technology has improved, the heart of brewing is still present, Clawson reported.

“The art of brewing is still there no matter how sophisticated your brewery is. It’s just a different way of approaching the fabrication. The technology gives us a lot more control, but it doesn’t limit our imagination.”

By Jonah Anderson