Brewery Engineering Program Bubbles With Potential

January/February 2019

Brewery Engineering Program Bubbles With Potential

It’s an age-old equation: college students plus beer. In one university’s Brewery Engineering program, however, students are doing much more than simply sipping suds.

Part of New Mexico State University’s Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, the 18-credit minor builds on the bachelor of science in chemical engineering.

In addition to taking courses required for their chemical engineering degree, students in the program add courses in biology, microbiology, biochemistry, food science, and two courses that focus specifically on brewing. The first is a general education course that anybody at the university can take.

As program director David Rockstraw, P.E., explains, “This class focuses on the different classification of beers, the different ingredients, how to properly evaluate beers both chemically and from a sensory perspective. The students will brew their own beer and taste various classes of beer around town.”

Ninety-five seats are offered every semester for the general education course, and by the first week after registration opens, Rockstraw says, the class is completely full.

By the end of the program, referred to as “NMSBrew,” students will have brewed their own beer, which is then sampled and evaluated by professors, fellow students, and alumni. Some of the top-rated beers have been submitted for competitions.

Students in the program also take a research-focused capstone course in their senior year in which they design a brewery, estimate capital cost and operating expenses to maintain and run the brewery, and learn more about the economics of microbreweries and large breweries.

The program dates back to 2015, when, as Rockstraw explains, several chemical engineering students suggested that the department’s unit operations laboratory should be used for brewing beer. Their argument: brewing is a “fundamental operation of chemical engineering.”

Rockstraw asked his students for further research on the growth of brewing in the US and the industry’s economic impact. They found that in New Mexico alone the number of breweries had more than doubled between 2011 to 2015, and Rockstraw and his students identified a lack of college engineering programs focused on brewing and the brewing industry.

In 2016, Rockstraw assigned the task of designing a brewery to a group of senior students as part of their capstone project, in order to conduct pilot testing.

Since then, the one-of-a-kind program has become one of the most popular minors for chemical engineering students.

“There’s not another program that focuses on the engineering side of breweries,” Rockstraw says. “There are a lot of programs that focus on food science and fermentation science, but there’s not another program that takes a holistic view of the entire brewery. That goes beyond the fermenter—the auxiliary equipment, the heat exchangers, the separators, management of the supply chain, integration of the heat sources—as far as I know we’re the only program that’s doing that.”

The unique nature of the program has allowed commercial brewers to work with NMSBrew students, bringing their ingredients to the university to run test batches to determine whether they could make the product commercially in larger fermenters. This benefits both the professional brewers and students in the program, Rockstraw says.

“The cool thing is that the industry recognizes we have this capability, and so they’re coming to us looking for students. Bringing the brewers to campus allows them to work directly with the students, learn what the students are capable of, and that puts the students into the extended interview opportunity of sorts,” Rockstraw says. “Through that type of interaction, we’re able to place more students in the industry.”