Dr. Andrew McMichael has a scholarly interest in history and considers Belgian ale to be his favorite brew.
Dr. Cate Webb is a chemist and prefers a considerably hoppier India pale ale, which her husband has dubbed “tongue-shriveling.”
While their studies may differ, and tastes in beer may vary even more, McMichael and Webb have combined a singular passion in the study of alcohol. This passion created one of the newest programs on Western Kentucky University’s campus: Brewing and Distilling Arts & Sciences.
When asked what piqued his interest in getting such a program off the ground, McMichael, associate dean of Potter College of Arts & Letters, has a joking, three-word answer.
“I like beer,” he said, with a chuckle.
McMichael’s interest in the creation of alcohol dates back nearly 30 years ago to 1989 when he first began home brewing.
“I liked beer, but I wasn’t a beer fanatic or a beer snob,” he said. “I found a kit in the back of some hunting catalog and then I was hooked on it.”
As a professor of history at WKU, McMichael began teaching a course on the history of alcohol. He said his class became very popular just as the home brewing movement took off.
He soon met with Webb, associate dean for research of Ogden College of Science & Engineering, to talk about bringing a program focused solely on alcohol to WKU.
To kick off their research, Webb said she and McMichael took several road trips to meet with brewers.
“Basically, we went to small brewers, large brewers, medium-sized brewers, people who just started in the business, people who had a lot of experience,” Webb said. “And we basically asked them just a few questions, such as, ‘What do you wish you knew when you started?’ and ‘What would you like to see our graduates know?’ ”
Webb said their answers were remarkably consistent in that most brewers wished for more business and history knowledge coming into the field.
WKU’s Brewing and Distilling Arts & Sciences program, which offers an undergraduate and a graduate certificate, is unique in that it is not based solely in science or hospitality, McMichael said.
“Right from the beginning, it was a student-centered approach,” McMichael said. “What do our students need to get a job after this?”
Webb said this program, and other interdisciplinary programs like it, is appealing to this generation of students.
“Students coming to college are interested in things that intersect—broader things, things that impact communities, entrepreneurial opportunities—interdisciplinary aspects and solutions to problems,” Webb said.
During McMichael and Webb’s road trips, they learned that brewers also needed workers who had hands-on experience.
“That’s what we do best at WKU,” Webb said. “We really are able to provide hands-on student-focused opportunities in the lab, in life, in internships. We like to think of our program as an apprenticeship in the 21st century.”
Those coming into the program don’t need any prior knowledge of brewing or distilling, she said.
Webb said the multidisciplinary certificate is designed to complement an existing major in a related field.
Distilling, while a signature industry in Kentucky, is harder than brewing for the WKU program to include in its curriculum due to strenuous federal regulations and costs, McMichael said.
“We can run a perfectly respectable brewing program with $5,000 worth of equipment—a still costs $80,000,” he said.
The main obstacle the program has faced is finding the money to purchase a still, but the program hopes to procure one in 2018.
In fact, a cutting-edge still has been specially designed for the WKU program—it just hasn’t been built.
“We designed a still so that we could, in the laboratory, demonstrate to students how to distill a variety of spirits,” Webb said. “Not focused just on bourbon, gin or vodka. It would be a unique instrument in the industry and really put us on the map.”
This new still would be an addition to the program’s state-of-the-art brewery, which has already garnered a lot of attention.
Owned and run by Alltech Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co., the 135-barrel-capacity on-campus brewery began operations in 2016. It contains classroom laboratory space where students can develop and test new recipes, conduct brewing research and get involved in the brewing process.
Webb said she can vividly remember the date the Alltech partnership was realized.
On July 31, 2014, she and McMichael were on one of their many road trips to visit breweries in Lexington, and the pair had an appointment with Alltech.
Alltech was not only interested in the professional development opportunities WKU could offer the brewery’s employees, but also using the university’s campus as a new brewery location.
The company had a brand-new, small-scale brewery on a pallet in storage, ready to be sold to a company in the Middle East. After this meeting, the brewery eventually was relocated to the Center for Research and Development, and became the centerpiece of the Brewing and Distilling Arts & Sciences program.
“This is the largest brewery on any college campus in the country—maybe in the world,” McMichael said.
The buzz of such a campus brewery would travel fast and far, McMichael said he learned soon after the Alltech deal was struck.
“I was at a brewing conference in Portland, Ore., standing in line at a bar, and I already heard brewers standing in line behind me talking about WKU,” McMichael said. “I turned around and asked where they were from, and they said ‘New Zealand.’ I said, ‘Wow, where did you hear about this?’ ”
McMichael said he knew this would be an interesting partnership, but underestimated just how quickly it would take off.
Alltech’s investment in WKU represents about $600,000 worth of cash, renovations, equipment and staffing, McMichael said.
In addition to this substantial investment by Alltech, McMichael said the program as a whole didn’t use any WKU resources to get started—everything was provided by donations.
“In a time where Western is having a lot of financial difficulty, it’s a model for how you get a program off the ground,” he said.
The program has also found a way to invest back into its students.
Four percent of all sales from the campus brewery’s flagship beer, College Heights Ale, goes into student scholarships, McMichael said.
The program’s creative generosity doesn’t stop there, Webb said.
As beer is produced, the brewery is left with a large amount of spent grain or leftover malt, which acts as a nutritious feed in animals. The WKU brewing program has forged a relationship with the WKU Department of Agriculture.
The spent grain is donated and fed to dairy cattle at the WKU Farm, which has helped fuel sustainable cheese production at the Hilltopper Creamery, Webb said.
Outside of university entities, the Brewing and Distilling program has partnered with local breweries White Squirrel and Blue Holler, McMichael said. This partnership allowed for the creation of a collaborative blond ale between the three.
“We’ve received interest from other breweries about collaborations,” McMichael said.
McMichael said he hopes the WKU brewing program can work with local breweries, creating new beers, at least once per semester.
With unique, hands-on learning opportunities, the WKU Brewing and Distilling Arts & Sciences program fulfills its creators’ vision to provide the satisfaction of a modern-day apprenticeship.
“I don’t like to watch machines do the work for me,” said Chris Parr, a graduate student from Danville, Ind. “I wouldn’t learn anything that way. It’s kind of like math before calculators.”
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