Thursday, August 13, 2015

Now You Can Major In Beer

(From the August 13, 2015 Grand Haven Tribune)

The fall college semester begins in a few weeks, and as I have been getting ready and already answering students’ questions, it occurs to me that there has been a significant change in educational opportunities since I was an undergraduate decades ago.

You can now actually major in beer.

Back in my day, we might comment humorously that some other student was majoring in beer. It was a joke, an insult, a comment on someone’s unfortunate favoring of partying over studying.

But now, it is possible for college students to look at a major declaration form and write down “beer” and not get expelled. They may call the major ‘brewing’ versus just beer to make it, um, go down easier, particularly with parents. Grand Rapids Community College has such a certificate program in beer brewing. But it is possible. Some are certificate programs or focused programs at community colleges. But around the world there are universities that offer four-year degrees in programs that set people up to become brew masters. Right here in Michigan, Kalamazoo Valley Community College and Western Michigan University collaborated on a brewing program that taps into (yes, pun intended) the sustainability movement. The sustainable craft brewing program begins this fall.

A major reason for the formalization of beer brewing as a college program of study has to do with the explosion in popularity of craft beers. The Beer Institute and National Beer Wholesalers Association recently completed a study called “BeerServes America” to show the positive economic impact this trend has had. Breaking down information by state, the study showed that in Michigan there is $6.6 billion of beer-related economic output.

Nationally, the numbers from the beer industry are significant. It provides 1.5 percent of the nation’s GDP (gross domestic product) and $48.5 billion in tax revenue at the state and federal level. Brewers gave 49,576 people their jobs in 2014. The microbrew segment alone employed more than 10,000 people.

I’m not sure if the study included everything related to beer brewing. But a Marne-based company called Coldbreak Brewing caters to the craft brewers need for special equipment. Apparently they have been around since 2004, but intend to expand to meet market demand. So there’s money to be made not just in brewing, but in making and selling brewing equipment. Maybe there’s opportunity for students to double major in engineering and beer.

Michigan is 8th in the nation in the number of beer-related jobs, and sixth in the number of craft breweries. In 2014, at last count, there were 159 craft breweries in the state. More have been added locally just recently, with the introduction of Dutch Girl Brewery added to Odd Side Ales and Old Boys to the Tri-Cities beer landscape. There is also a new brewery in Allendale, dangerously close to campus and student housing.

I’m actually not sure how I feel about all of this. As a professor advertising and public relations, I see the opportunities for some of my students to get work in the promotion of microbrews as well as the public affairs work that will be necessary for the industry. But I also worry a bit about some students being drawn to a different major for less than scholarly reasons. Already we have too many students who choose a college program because it sounds easy, fun, or familiar. Could the possibility of a major in beer be detrimental to intellectual diversity?

On the other hand, the academic interest in beer is simply a response to a social trend and a burgeoning market need. As the reports show, there are jobs and careers to be had in this industry. Also, do we want our microbrews produced by some hobbyist or by an educated beer master who has a scholarly conception of the science of fermentation?

I’ll have to see how all of this plays out. I may overhear conversations like this if the popularity of beer continues: “so you’re a beer major!? What is your roommate?” “Oh, he’s just pre-med.”

Or, I may have my own interesting conversations during office hours. To the student struggling with the rigors of theoretical application and the writing demands in the advertising and public relations program, I may be tempted to offer this advice: “have you considered majoring in beer?”