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Fermentation Science, a major at some universities

By Sylvia Cunningham
On October 16, 2012

Beer is a beverage rich in history: there is an annual 16-day festival in Germany called Oktoberfest that centers around its consumption. The Discovery Channel released a documentary in 2011 entitled "How Beer Saved the World," which attributes the birth of civilization to the beverage's creation. Beer graces ping-pong tables with its presence on college campuses every weekend. And now, there is a major being offered at a handful of universities across the United States dedicated to the science behind it.
The major is called "fermentation science," and the field encompasses not only the production of beer, but the making of other fermented products such as cheese, yogurt, bread and wine.
Dr. Thomas Shellhammer, professor of food science at Oregon State University, said that students who graduate with a degree in food science and technology have the option of focusing on fermentation.
"Our program is growing from 45 students in 2001 to over 200 this fall," said Shellhammer. "Half of those are in the fermentation science option."
Many graduates from OSU are employed at breweries of various sizes all over the country. Shellhammer said students who elect not to work in the brewing or wine industry might seek careers in the broader food industry.
One of Shellhammer's former students, Peter Wolfe, began working two months ago as a scientist at Anheuser-Busch InBev. Wolfe, who graduated with a master's degree from OSU, said Shellhammer's brewing lab was fantastic.
"We had a good time," said Wolfe. "There was a lot of camaraderie. If I could do it over again, I would stick with the same lab."
Before Wolfe delved into the field of food science, he planned to be a doctor. He said his brother and sister, who both work in medicine, talked him out of it. Wolfe, who studied biology and human physiology at the University of Oregon, said although he had a wealth of knowledge when he graduated, he was uncertain of how to apply it; graduating from OSU was different.
"Coming out of OSU with a master's degree, I felt very qualified to step right into the lab and just start working," Wolfe said.
Wolfe said that if undergraduate freshmen come into OSU thinking they are going to college to major in beer alone, the university's counselors do a good job of re-educating them. The coursework is rigorous, but the possibilities are endless.
Many students settle down in careers outside of the brewing world. Wolfe said he has a friend working as a cheese maker in a creamery. He said there is a great demand in the field of fermentation, simply because people are not going to stop eating and the population continues to increase.
"Food science in general pays really well and the field is exploding. There is a big demand for competent food scientists," said Wolfe, adding that if a student's intent is to become a brewer, a graduate degree is unnecessary. "A brewer doesn't make nearly as much money as a food scientist."
Dr. Seth Cohen, director of fermentation sciences at Appalachian State University, helped make the program at ASU what it is today. Although ASU has been offering classes in fermentation science for a couple of years, the state granted its approval to the bachelor's degree program this past summer.
Cohen said that the tendency for students to associate fermentation with the assumption that they will be learning how to drink beer all day is an obstacle that must be overcome.
"It's a misconception," said Cohen, who explained that the field encompasses everything from pharmaceutical products to chocolate. "A lot of people don't understand the broad range of fermentation science."
Dr. Richard Mancini, a professor of animal science at the University of Connecticut, said that although he is very familiar with the concept of fermentation science and it being presented as a course, he had not heard of it being offered as an undergraduate major.
Genevieve Flock, a first-year master's student studying food microbiology at UConn, said she would be interested in taking classes in the field of fermentation science. Because food science is offered as a minor but not as a major at UConn, Flock said that more courses in food production would be beneficial to her studies as a graduate student.
The University of Wisconsin at Madison is working toward developing a certificate in "Fermented Foods & Beverages," and a lab course will be offered with that title for the first time in the spring, according to professor of food science, Jim Steele.
"There is certainly a great deal of interest from students. Some students simply want to understand the microbiology and biochemistry of these products out of personal interest; others are hoping for employment in this industry," Steele said.
Some, like Wolfe, find that the field offers a compromise. Wolfe said he was a scientist at heart but always had a passion for beer and brewing history; fermentation was the perfect marriage of the two. Wolfe said that although brewing science had its birthplace in the United Kingdom and Germany, American breweries are now experimenting in ways that push the envelope. He named Portland, Oregon as being today's beer capital of the world.
The Prohibition in America in the 1920s had a huge effect on the breweries, Wolfe said, and it took a while for America to bounce back. America got a reputation for making poor quality beer, but that was not the case prior to the prohibition. Wolfe said that people abroad think brands like Budweiser are tasteless.
"I would like to change the world's opinion of American lagers," Wolfe said. "Hopefully we'll get these beers back to what they tasted like before the prohibition-before they got so watered down."
Mancini said although there is definitely a market in the field, he does not think a student necessarily has to major in fermentation science to work in the industry. He said that the Department of Animal Science at UConn is looking to hire a dairy food specialist. Whether or not the potential professor would be interested in delving into fermentation remains to be seen.

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