SIU's Fermentation Science Institute Offers Degree and Certified Testing

Jan 25, 2017

Southern Illinois University, like other universities, adds and removes programs each year. But a new offering aims to tap into an industry growing in popularity.

Fermentation Science came online to train tomorrow’s beer wine and spirit makers.

Fermentation is the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeast or other microorganisms that will change the material into a different product.

It’s used to make alcoholic drinks, food and medicine.

For the last three years, Matt McCarroll has been at the forefront of creating the Fermentation Science Institute. He says based on the number of breweries opening across the country, there are opportunities out there.

“Over the time frame that we’ve been looking at developing the program we’ve gone from less than 2000 breweries to at the end of December over 5005 breweries in the US so there’s a lot of need for students that are trained in fermentation science.”

Which is completely different from what the industry was 40 years ago.

“In the mid 70’s we were down to less than a hundred breweries nationally from consolidation from larger breweries, so both just the beer business overall has really been turned upside down and so it’s a real interesting time in the beer world.”

With 100’s of breweries opening every year and interest in craft beer at an all time high, McCarroll says there’s a demand for jobs in both brewing and quality control.

“It creates a lot of need and opportunity, one of the things we see is that when breweries go from being very small and start to grow to a larger brewery and the key thing is when they start to go into distribution the needs for quality control are much significant. We’re seeing a lot of the breweries trying to establish more significant quality control labs and our students coming out of the program will be very well trained for those kinds of positions.”

But that’s not the only thing they can brew up.

“It’s not just about beer, the students coming out of the program will be pretty well trained to work in any fermentation related industry so that starts with having a firm foundation in chemistry, microbiology, basic sciences, so they take a lot of sciences in the first year or two of the program.”

At the heart of this program is the service lab that was recently certified by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau making a rare academic labs in the country.

“I think we’re one of two labs that are certified for beer, wine and spirits by TTB.”

The students will learn how to test products for quality control and area businesses will also benefit from the lab.

“It was part of the plans from the beginning to have a service lab that’s dedicated for the analysis of alcoholic beverages and the idea there is to act as a service for the surrounding areas, the breweries, wineries and distilleries that are in our region.”

Lab manager Katie Strain says there’s two types of services offered in the labs that create a lot of activity.

“A yeast lab in there we can do genetic screening for beer and wine spoilage microbes, we can also do identification in yeast screening and we can also do selective plating, yeast culturing, propagation, we can do long term yeast storage and so that’s just kind of our room where all microbiology happens in there. Our analytical lab that’s kind of where most of our services are so we can do standard analysis for beer, wine and spirits according to TTB, AOAC, ASBC official methods.”

This lab can be utilized by many of the fermented beverage makers in the area during harvest when time is crucial.

Before now businesses would have to send off their samples for testing which would cause a delay in receiving those results.

“For local businesses its really nice because we’re right here a lot of times they can just drop their samples off in the morning and get results by later that afternoon so turn around time is really fast and efficient.”

That speed can have a big effect on the taste of the wines or beers produced.

“It’s important you know if you have something that goes wrong during a fermentation you can get off flavors.

Offering these services also gives students the real world experience to work in this industry.

“They’ll have to go through a training process and once they’ve gone through a certain number of chemistry analytical chemistry courses they will be qualified for working in the facility “

McCarroll says they are also serving SIU’s commitment to cross-disciplinary research by having colleges across campus like Agricultural, Engineering, Medicine and many more have a role in the institution.

“I can actually probably think of examples for every college on campus that they could be involved, so we’re unique that we’re set up as an interdisciplinary program.”

Future expansion at the Annex includes a teaching kitchen and formal sensory lab that starts construction in the spring semester.