Published in Energy

WMU brewing program adds business focus, grapples with effects of climate change, COVID-19

BY Sunday, April 26, 2020 12:45pm

For the past five years, Western Michigan University has offered a bachelor’s degree in sustainable brewing, focused on the scientific process of brewing with a flavor of environmental consciousness. WMU Professor Steve Bertman, who designed the coursework and has a research history in atmospheric chemistry, will help lead a new phase of the program involving the business of craft brewing. However, the new track comes amid an industry — and economy — ravaged by the coronavirus, and it’s unclear what long-term effects it will have on craft breweries and pubs. Early next month, Bertman will be a featured speaker at this year’s virtual Craft Brewers Conference. He spoke with MiBiz recently about the climate crisis and threats to the brewing supply chain, and why it’s appropriate to discuss climate alongside COVID-19.

What’s involved with WMU’s sustainable brewing program?

It’s a pretty hardcore science degree at this point. This fall, we’re scheduled to start a new track that focuses more on the business and operations side and less on the science. We try from the beginning to teach this ethic of every choice you make — whether it’s in your life or in business — has an environmental impact. Since brewing is an inherently energy-intensive and resource-intensive operation, it’s an ideal classroom opportunity to think about those things from the very beginning.

Steve Bertman professor of Environment and Sustainability, Western Michigan University COURTESY PHOTO

How will the course shift to focus on the business side of brewing?

I think of brewing in three sections. There’s the supply chain that gets the raw ingredients. Then the brewhouse where the beer is actually made. Then there’s the front of the house — the business of getting product to customers and providing customer service.

This new track is to address the opportunities and challenges of the front of the house, which is going to be very interesting to watch after the dust settles from this pandemic. The craft brewing industry is going to take a hit in a major way — this whole business model of a brewpub that relies on retail sales in an establishment basically in that one location or distributing locally. That business model is going to have to be re-evaluated, I think, after this pandemic. 

Your upcoming talk at the Craft Brewers Conference is called, “How will climate change affect brewing.” What do you plan to cover?

The biggest impact is likely to be on the supply chain. The two main agricultural crops that are critical for beer — barley and hops — have a limited range of tolerance to drought and temperature. As those conditions change and as the range of appropriate climate and agriculture conditions moves, the availability of the supply chain is going to be affected. 

How will these disruptions to the supply chain trickle down to consumers?

There’s a couple of ways you can think about that. One has to do with the quality of the supply chain. Brewers are used to having a certain level of quality of these products, whether it’s a protein, enzyme or carbohydrate content or, in the case of hops, essential oils or the alpha acid profile of certain varieties. Changes in the growing conditions and range can have an impact on the quality of agricultural products. It may be there are certain beer styles or flavor profiles that are going to be harder to produce. 

Then there’s questions of yield, which is quantity. If there’s a limited amount of hops and barley produced, who gets the barley, how is it allocated and distributed, and what does it mean for the small craft brewers? Also there’s certain beers that are very resource-intensive. These strong IPAs, double and triple IPAs are becoming more common. These use a huge amount of hops per batch. If hops become rarer, then some styles might be harder to maintain. People might start to see their flagship beers having to change.

Given the turmoil in the industry now, what are you hearing from students and companies? How might you have to rework the course as a result of the new realities?

The big change is in the business model for craft brewing. The jury is out on whether we’ll ever get back to being comfortable being in such close quarters, which is what these small brewpubs rely on. I think there’s going to be a major adjustment. Some of the numbers are pretty huge on the number of breweries predicted to go out of business because of this.

The question for future students is: How can you maintain that social function of a brewpub with the demand for interesting and innovative beer flavors in an atmosphere that is not necessarily comfortable with the closeness that we’re used to? It’s too early to say.

There’s been comparisons between the COVID-19 crisis and the climate crisis. Why is now a good time to think about issues like climate and sustainability?

The one thing (the COVID-19 crisis) is doing is shining a bright, searing light on the ridiculousness of rejecting science in making public policy. We’re relying on scientists to find a cure for this pandemic. No one else is going to do that. We are relying on science for our survival, and that’s exactly the way we should be thinking about climate change.

As inconvenient as it is to think about, we still have to think about the impact of climate change and devise reasonable strategies of action to address it. The parallels between how we have rallied a broad social movement to address this pandemic is a beautiful model for what we need to do to address climate change. What we’ve done in the last month as a world is something a lot of people who oppose action on climate change claimed couldn’t happen.

To end on a more upbeat note: What beer is getting you through quarantine?

My standby is Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. But I am tired of drinking alone.

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