Imagine majoring in a discipline that allows you — actually, requires you — to drink beer. In class. And sometimes wine. Even distilled spirits. Beer brewing and fermentation may seem like majors suitable for the movie Animal House, but they’re actually sophisticated sciences for serious students eyeing careers in a trillion-dollar industry. So, yes, you can major in beer.
According to our friends at Best Colleges, a number of colleges offer the opportunity to take that occupational path. Students are majoring in sustainable brewing, brewery operations, and fermentation science, learning not only how alcoholic beverages and fermented foods are made but also how to succeed in a trillion-dollar industry. And the good news is that graduates are in high demand.
Make no mistake: This is an intensely rigorous field involving chemistry, microbiology, physics, and advanced math — a STEM gauntlet suitable for pre-meds.
But how many pre-meds get to brew their own beer?
Growing Industry Gives Rise to New Majors
Humans have been making and consuming fermented beverages since 7,000 B.C., when the Chinese concocted a drink made from rice, honey, and fruit. Since then, alcohol production has become a bit more sophisticated and a huge business.
Craft brewers are helping to drive sales volume. In 2021, overall beer sales rose by 1%, while craft brews grew by 8%, accounting for 27% of the U.S. beer market.
These smaller beer makers — by definition, producing fewer than 6 million barrels annually — multiplied dramatically during the 2010s. In 2009, the U.S. had about 948,000 microbreweries and 7.1 million regional breweries. By 2019, those figures were 4.9 million and 17.7 million, respectively.
Such growth didn’t escape the attention of college faculty, including Matthew McCarroll at Southern Illinois University, who in 2011 took a leave of absence to visit brewing programs at the University of California, Davis and Oregon State University, with an eye toward establishing one on his campus.
Capitalizing on the burgeoning craft beer movement, which was taking off like crazy, McCarroll created the Fermentation Science Institute, home to the university’s B.S. in fermentation science.
In 2012, App State became the first institution to establish a standalone program in fermentation sciences, according to faculty member Brett Taubman. Many are subsets of food science or chemistry departments.
Western Michigan University took a different tack, partnering with nearby Kalamazoo Valley Community College on a joint brewing program that offers students certificate, associate degree, and baccalaureate degree options.
“There’s a huge craft beer scene here,” Steven Bertman, a Western Michigan professor who teaches in the university’s sustainable brewing program, told BestColleges, “and so we thought, what a perfect place to start a program like this, where people appreciate a good beer.”
A Rigorous STEM Curriculum
Like many faculty in this field, Bertman is a chemist. Brewing, after all, is biochemical engineering. Bertman said his students gain a “really strong foundation in fundamental science as part of the program, taking courses in organic chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, and microbiology.”
From day one, it’s a steady diet of science and math.
“With this major, you could go on to medical school or dental school, Herbert Bruce, a Virginia Tech professor who teaches the chemistry of beer making,” told BestColleges.
Yet the science doesn’t remain theoretical. Students apply their learning through hands-on lab work, often brewing their own beer, making their own wine, and fermenting various foods such as cheese, bread, yogurt, and miso.
That makes courses more fun and knowledge easier to digest, said McCarroll.
“I think that’s an advantage in fermentation science because students are able to see applications from the first semester,” he said.
Brewing, Taubman suggested, becomes a “medium for teaching students the science.”
“If students really like hands-on work — working with foods and beverages, getting their hands dirty, working in a lab — then this is a great option for them because it is similar to a chemistry or biology degree, but much more applied,” Taubman said. “It’s something that anybody can wrap their heads around and get excited about.”
Coleman Rock, a Virginia Tech senior majoring in food science and technology, began his college career as a biochemistry major but discovered his passion and purpose with the food and beverage fermentation concentration.
“I was concerned about what I wanted to do because I had no clue where it would go and how it would apply, he told BestColleges. When I moved over to food science, it was the complete opposite.”
Age Restrictions Vary by State
Can underage students actually consume alcohol in class? Yes and no, depending on state laws.
Some are strict. In North Carolina, students can’t drink in class until they’re 21. That’s why App State reserves beverage sampling for senior-level courses, Taubman explained.
Other states are more lenient. The Michigan Liquor Control Commission differentiates tasting from drinking, noted Bertman. Students ages 18 and over can consume up to 4 ounces of alcohol under the “tasting” provision.
Illinois falls somewhere in between. The state’s liquor statute allows students majoring in culinary arts or fermentation to taste alcohol but not imbibe it, McCarroll said. In other words, they have to spit it out. The same holds true for Virginia.
Likewise, some universities can serve or sell student-made beverages on campus and in the community, while others cannot. Kalamazoo Valley Community College runs a restaurant featuring “Taps on Tuesday” events that pair student beer concoctions with food prepared by the school’s culinary arts students.
Southern Illinois University is developing a student-run, licensed brewery to produce beer that will “go out to the community and out into the world,” McCarroll said.
And at Metropolitan State University of Denver, students in the brewery operations program are making Buck Buck Moose, a Vienna lager offered to patrons at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch resort in Avon, Colorado.
Non-majors can take courses in fermentation and beer making as well, though they normally don’t involve tasting. And what do other students think of a major that allows you to make and, in some cases, consume alcohol?
They’ll be like, ‘Oh, so you get to drink beer and wine for your classes,’ Virginia Tech’s Rock said. “That sounds like so much fun.”
Logan Isley, one of about 50 App State fermentation sciences majors and president of the university’s Fermentation Club, told BestColleges fellow students think “it’s so cool that we get to use chemistry in a fun way.’
“We do sit around and drink beer sometimes,” Isley added, “but it is for educational purposes.”
Her program offers a course titled “Social Implications of Fermented Beverages”, which Taubman said deals with the ethical considerations of alcohol consumption.
“A lot of people, in a cursory sort of glance at our program, say, ‘Oh, great! You’re teaching students how to drink beer at college,’” he said. “No, students don’t need any help learning how to drink beer in college. What we’re teaching students is how to handle alcohol responsibly.”
As a result, Taubman said, students have a “much more mature view of alcohol consumption.”
Graduates Are in High Demand
A burgeoning market means graduates of these programs remain in high demand, with placement rates at or near 100%. Many students complete required internships to help ensure a seamless transition.
“We always have more employers seeking our graduates than we have graduates to fill those positions,” Taubman said.
Popular career tracks include production — working as a brewer, winemaker, or distiller; lab work such as quality management; and sales and marketing. Having a degree in the field will not only open doors but also will enable graduates to advance further in the industry, faculty say. New hires might enter as an assistant brewer with sights set on becoming a head brewer within a decade.
Many also venture into food science, a field with an 8% projected growth rate in the coming years. About a third of all foods contain some element of fermentation, Taubman said.
Still others hope to open their own brewery or winery. App State offers courses on business and entrepreneurship to help students interested in that path.
Similarly, Western Michigan gives students more comfortable with the consumer aspect than the science an option to pursue its “operations” track focused on the front end of the business instead of the back end, Bertman explained.
He added that the serious toll the pandemic took on the hospitality field, including a 40% attrition rate in the craft brewing industry, has caused some students to “rethink their aspirations” of opening a brewery.
Craft brewers that survived the pandemic and those newly opened face fierce competition and a discerning public, requiring them to be on top of their game, Bertman noted.
“Bringing on a workforce that already is formally trained — not just in the science but in critical thinking skills and problem-solving skills — it gives them a leg up,” he said.
Months away from graduating, Isley hopes to work at a brewery or in a lab and appreciates the solid grounding App State has provided her.
“It’s really comforting to know I’m not going to walk into some place with no idea what I’m doing,” she said.
Aaron Ross, a Kalamazoo Valley Community College professor in the school’s sustainable brewing program, told BestColleges he believes industry growth coupled with a constant need for capable, educated students will result in more programs like these cropping up on college campuses.
“Where there’s a brewery opening, there’s a need for a well-trained workforce,” he said, “so I’m pretty confident we’re going to see this specialized pathway continue to grow over the next 15 to 20 years.”