With more than 220 breweries and 550 wineries, it’s no surprise that Oregon has a national and international reputation for growing some of the best hops and grapes in the industry. In addition to this achievement, Oregon State University leads the nation with its integrated food science curriculum, which includes the option to learn the science, business and technology behind fermentation.
“Our department is the second- oldest food science department in the United States. We are also one of two national programs in fermentation sciences,” says Dr. Robert McGorrin, head of the university’s Food Science and Technology Department since 2000. Launched in 1995, enrollment in the fermentation science program has expanded exponentially over the past 20 years. In 2015, about 65 percent of students majoring in food science pursue this option.
“The success of our program is due to the many different options to choose from, and that they all speak to the Pacific Northwest, in terms of the brewing culture and boutique wineries in Oregon,” McGorrin says.
Thanks to support from local businesses, OSU has produced 215 graduates in the fermentation science area since its inception.
Studying The Science
The science behind alcoholic beverages is extremely complex, considering the many different components involved in the process, from growing the hops or grapes to bottling. For example, variability in soil nutrition, plant health, weather and the fermentation process can impact flavor, providing lots of research opportunities for OSU students.
“That’s part of the training, to understand and help direct it, essentially making consistent qualities and flavors,” confirms McGorrin. “Our students get hands-on learning, a strong chemistry component and laboratory work.”
Using grapes from the university’s 14-acre Woodhall vineyard, as well as other varieties of Vinifera grapes obtained from local vineyards, students can work with different wine fermentation profiles. Similarly, several varieties of hops are obtained from OSU’s hop breeding program and local growers in the Willamette Valley. Cascade hops, widely used by craft breweries, was one of the varieties developed at the USDA hop breeding program at OSU, and as Oregon ranks second in U.S. hop production, students face no shortage of raw ingredients for their studies.
Brewing A Business
Several of OSU’s courses, such as Profiles in Winemaking, invite local winemakers to share their experiences in vineyard management, operations and industry challenges. On the winery side, guest lectures discuss sanitation among other key topics.
These added-value interactions, coupled with industry internships, were pivotal for Christina Hahn, a 2015 graduate in food science with a double option in food and fermentation science.
“I’ve had a variety of opportunities to apply theory to practice in OSU’s pilot brewhouse and through internships at Deschutes Brewing Co. and Boston Beer Co.,” says Hahn, who’s pursuing graduate school at OSU researching hops chemistry and beer flavor.
“I chose to attend OSU because I could get the hands-on experience and industry exposure that is critical to finding success in the brewing world.”
Looking to the future, OSU is starting a new distilled spirits program and creating a center for sensory and consumer behavior research. Additionally, a new research brewery will allow professors to teach at the cutting edge of brewing science.
“Breweries today are becoming more technologically sophisticated, so we as a university have to change the ways that we teach our students,” says McGorrin, “including training new brewers to solve the industry’s technical problems.”
Students may start their own small businesses or join employers such as Constellation Wines or Miller- Coors. OSU’s fermentation sciences coursework provides not only the experience with leading technologies in the rapidly diversifying fermentation industries, but the problem-solving skills to make a difference in Oregon and beyond.