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Bottoms up: Students develop real-world expertise in beer, fermentation

Students seeking a deeper appreciation for and understanding of Wisconsin cuisine, specifically staples such as the sauerkraut on brats and the beer flowing from taps and kegs, need look no further than UW-Madison’s own Food Sciences department.

Students seeking a deeper appreciation for and understanding of Wisconsin cuisine, specifically staples such as the sauerkraut on brats and the beer flowing from taps and kegs, need look no further than UW-Madison’s own Food Sciences department.

In Food Science 550: Fermented Foods and Beverages, students learn about both the processes and science behind fermentation, and the history of various fermented foods. Contrary to popular belief, however, the course does not solely focus on beer and the science of brewing.

According to Food Science 550 course coordinator Monica Theis, the lecture course covers a range of topics including the brewing and its history, yeasts and wild yeasts, wine-making and bread-fermentation.

“It’s a somewhat comprehensive course on the science of food and beverage fermentations,” Theis said. “This is a science-based course. It’s not beer-tasting or wine-sampling. The focus is fermentations and the science of fermentations.”

In addition to the 550 lecture course, students partake in a food science lab. Students enrolled in the fall semester take Food Science 552: The Science of Wine, in which the department partners with Wisconsin wineries, such as Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac, in order to teach students about the process of wine-making.

“We work very closely with Wisconsin wineries, so they donate the grapes. Students learn about the Wisconsin hearty varieties [of grapes] and learn about the implications of Wisconsin wine-making,” Theis said.

Students enrolled during the spring semester take Food Science 551: Food Fermentation Laboratory, in which they learn about a variety of other fermented foods and beverages including beer, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, fermented rice, yogurt and bread-making.

“The benefit of teaching brewing or any other fermented beverage is it incorporates a lot of multidisciplinary things” Nick Smith, UW-Madison enologist and Food Science 550 and 551 instructor, said. “Students will learn about chemistry here, microbiology there, some food engineering somewhere else, so it’s a nice way for them to take all those individual disciplines and put them together in a single kind of project and learn how they all kind of interact with each other.”

According to Theis, students this semester are working with the genetics department to develop a bread recipe using an isolated strain of wild Wisconsin yeast, which has the potential to be used commercially by a local Wisconsin bakery.

Students interested in both the science and business of brewing have the opportunity to pursue it in a more focused environment through the Food Science 299: Independent Study. In this course, students work side-by-side with a master brewer at Wisconsin Brewing Company to develop a beer recipe that Wisconsin Brewing Company would potentially brew on a full scale. Students then follow the brewing process as far as the semester will allow.

While the finished brew is a product of Wisconsin Brewing Company, the label bears a Campus Craft Brewery logo, which indicates the partnership with the fermentation science independent study.

“I think in terms of our bigger programming, the fermentations program, there’s an exchange with the partners in the wine industry and the brewing industry, and that is that we want to give back to the Wisconsin industries in terms of providing analytics, for example, to help them think through how they can improve their products for specific profiles that they’re looking for,” Theis said.

According to Theis, the previous semester’s product developed in conjunction with Wisconsin Brewing Company, a grapefruit radler, will be on sale at the Wisconsin Union starting the first week of April. This Spring 2018 brew is currently being held in barrels at Wisconsin Brewing Company. Theis says that, pending the quality of the second brew on April 27, the product will be scaled up for production.

When it comes to the ingredients used in the brews, students learn about and work with Wisconsin hops and barleys in attempt to create an all-Wisconsin product.

However, Theis says, this has proven difficult with a struggling hop crop in Wisconsin. According to Smith, the program receives barley from Briess in Chilton and malt from Malteurop in Milwaukee.

Theis says that the richness of the program lies not only in these partnerships with Wisconsin agriculture and businesses, but also in the variety of experience that students get in fermented food production.

“A really exciting piece of this is the diversity of opportunities that students get. We’ve got undergrads working in [the genetics lab] isolating, we’ve got our students working and formulating, next fall we’ll have students working in the vineyards with Wollersheim,” Theis said.

“From an undergraduate experience perspective, there’s a whole palette of opportunities for students and the opportunities to scale up, to learn what does it take to scale up a product.”

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