Science of suds: Aspiring Philly brewers are getting schooled

Matt Farber is a biologist who delights in identifying strains of yeast and studying enzymes. He's also an avid home brewer.

So perhaps it was inevitable that Farber, a tall figure in a crisp white lab coat, would combine those passions to launch the region's first brewing-science certificate program, now in its first year at the University of the Sciences.

When he contacted local brewers about the idea, the response was striking.

"It became very clear there was a need for this type of program. The United States is adding two breweries a day, and there really is a need for formally trained brewers," Farber said. "It takes some breweries a long time to hire skilled employees."

The program - one of just a handful in the country to teach beer-making as a professional and scientific endeavor - is among several notable efforts to support the city's burgeoning brewing industry, including growing home- and professional brew organizations and a nascent effort to launch the area's first brewery incubator.

At the University of the Sciences' campus in West Philadelphia, the heart of the program is the new pilot brewing lab. (For the curious, it will be open to the public April 24 for a workshop as part of the Philadelphia Science Festival.)

A repurposed ecology field equipment storage room, the lab was redolent of malted barley and hops on a recent afternoon. Students were getting their first chance to brew in its twin half-barrel systems: in one, a black IPA, and in the other, a pale ale made with wild yeast isolated in Farber's lab.

Kyle Kane, 37, a home brewer from Queen Village who was weighing a fistful of freeze-dried hops, was excited finally to be brewing after months in the classroom.

"It's a lot more intense than I thought," he said of the program. "There was a lot of, 'Really? I got to relearn electrons and ions?' "

The curriculum includes brewery engineering, microbiology, and a quality control lab, as well as an independent research project and an internship. Topics range from how to design a brewing system to identifying off flavors, like "catty," "papery," and "goaty" notes, and their chemical causes. Local craft brewers serve as lecturers and sit on an advisory board.

In its first year, the program has drawn students from as far as Baltimore and Brooklyn. The program is limited to those 21 and older, one of several legal precautions. (Also, the beer cooler is kept under lock and key, sampling is limited to two-ounce pours, and - contrary, perhaps, to common decency - beer not needed for testing is poured down the drain.)

But, then, this work requires a sober mind. Assessing beer is about more than sampling it, Farber said as students held beakers up to light to examine the amber liquid inside.

"There's sensory, tasting evaluation, but also testing gravity, pH, bitterness units, color, clarity," he said.

Most of the students have day jobs. David Goldman, 38, of Williamstown, N.J., is a longtime home brewer, but he also runs Landmark Americana, a small chain of four local pubs.

He intends to use what he's learned in class to run brewing operations at his first brewpub, planned to open next year in the Piazza at Schmidts in Northern Liberties. This training - in particular, the chance to speak with industry professionals - gave him the confidence to tackle the brewing himself instead of hiring someone for the job.

Lauren Tomaszewski, 24, was using a long metal paddle to stir mash in a gleaming steel kettle. She likes brewing, but she hopes the training will ultimately land her a job in a quality-control lab.

"So many new breweries are opening all the time, and they need people who understand the quality control side of it," said Tomaszewski, who drives two hours from Palmyra, Pa., to attend the program.

Scott Dietrich, who heads brewery operations at Victory and is an adviser for the program, said these workers are needed. In the last year, Victory hired around 180 restaurant and brewery staff.

"It's an interesting challenge to the whole industry: How do we get a workforce with over 4,000 breweries in the U.S., most of which are growing?"

Tim Roberts, head brewer at Yards who is also an adviser, hopes the program won't just teach the science of brewing, but will also equip students to work with and troubleshoot commercial equipment.

"The theoretical knowledge is a big plus, but it's not the end-all, be-all of how we pick our brewers," he said. And, no matter how good the program is, it won't get you a brewing job at Yards: He hires exclusively from within and requires experience on the Yards' packaging line.

Still, some students are more interested in starting their own businesses.

It's becoming a more plausible dream in a city where more breweries are bubbling up each year. Among them, Bar Hygge is set to join Crime and Punishment in the once-again aptly named Brewerytown, Saint Benjamin and Evil Genius are growing in Kensington, and Brewery ARS is setting up shop in South Philadelphia.

Tim Patton, co-owner of the Saint Benjamin Brewing Co., said that six years ago, he constantly had to explain the concept of a nanobrewery.

"There weren't any nanobreweries in or near Philadelphia then," he said. "Now, there's a group of people that have all opened up in the last four or five years. We all get emails multiple times a week from people interested in starting a brewery."

That growth could be accelerated if a coalition of home brewers and beer lovers can launch the Brewers' Co-op of Philadelphia, envisioned as a brewery incubator with shared equipment, distribution to bars, and a tasting room. The idea has been in the works for two years, said Mike Campbell, a steering committee member. Organizers have been fund-raising, scouting locations, and exploring licensing.

Campbell, a home brewer who doesn't intend to join the co-op, said the city's community of amateur brewers is thriving: Often, 100 people will show up for home-brew club gatherings. The co-op would be a bridge to commercial brewing.

"It's really capital-intensive for an incoming brewer," he said. "It means absolutely quitting your job and going into a whole lot of debt. This is an opportunity for home brewers to see if they can brew on a bigger scale."

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