It’s a Wednesday afternoon in the Unit Operations Lab on the Mines campus, and Nick Martella, a senior in chemical and biological engineering, just tapped the keg. He fills a clear plastic cup with a light amber ale he and two classmates spent weeks brewing themselves. Just as he sets it on the table and goes to fill another, the interim department head Colin Wolden appears. But instead of eying Martella with a disapproving look, Wolden reaches for a cup, takes a sip, and jots down a few notes.
Colorado ranks second in the nation for production and economic impact of craft breweries, with more than 232 breweries state-wide (double the number in 2009) generating $826 million in 2013, according to the Colorado Brewers Guild. While many people associate Mines grads with the oil and gas and mining industries, dozens of alumni have taken a different course over the years, applying their rich knowledge of microbiological processes, mechanical design, and quality-control to engineering a better beer. With its first-ever official brewing science course so popular that it had to turn away about 40 students, the school is now mulling how to expand such offerings in the future and is even considering adding a brewing minor.
Brewing is a classic chemical engineering process, says Wolden, noting that students learn about fermentation, distillation, enzyme kinetics, heat transfer and thermodynamics, and a host of other processes that can be applied across a broad range of industries.
Both Mines and Colorado have long been very beer-centric, says Dave Thomas, retired head brewer for Coors Brewing Company and author of the book Of Mines and Beer: 150 Years of Brewing History. The first Colorado brewery, Rocky Mountain Brewing Company, opened on the Front Range in 1859 to serve the many thirsty miners that had come to the foothills in search of work. In 1873, German-born brewer Adolph Coors converted an old tannery east of Golden into a brewery. That same year, Colorado School of Mines opened its doors.
Their education also set them up nicely for the craft brewing industry, which emerged in Colorado in the late 1970s. In 1978, the national Brewers Association was founded in Boulder. In 1982 the first Great American Beer Festival was held in Colorado (the event now hosts 50,000). While some large brewers vowed to crush the fledgling craft, Coors took a rising-tide-floats-all-boats approach, loaning barley, hops, and expertise to upstarts many of them from Mines working to evolve beer as we know it. Back when I first started at Coors in 1975, everybody in the industry was applying science to try to essentially make the same beer: a pale, bright, crisp lager, recalls Thomas. Today, brewers are applying science to brew beers that have never been brewed before with ingredients that have never been used before.
While many view brewing as an art, chemical engineering alumnus Mike Blandford ’11 sees the process as more of a science. We are using biological materials to turn sugar into alcohol, he says. After 18 months in the oil and gas industry, Blandford teamed up with Mines associate professor Paul Ogg and Mines alumnus Greg Schlichting ’09 to found Declaration Brewing in November 2014. With a 2,000-square-foot tap room, a beer garden double that size, 18 beers, and taps for 32 more, the Denver brewery has already garnered a loyal following. But Blandford is most proud of what goes on in the lab. Unlike many breweries, which use one or two yeast strains bought off-site to convert sugars from grain into alcohol, Declaration propagates its own yeast. By growing its own, Blandford says, the brewery can boost production and save money, create a wider palette of flavors, and have more control over purity.
Coming from an engineering background can also help a newcomer entering the brewing industry save money and time, alumni say. Josh Robbins earned his first degree in chemical engineering from Mines in 1995 and went to work for Texas Instruments developing semi-conductors. He finished his PhD in 2003 and then founded two companies that developed novel thin-film technologies. After visiting 108 of Colorado’s breweries with his wife Kaylee Robbins MS ’09, PhD ’13, the long-time home brewers opted for a drastic career change. In 2013, they opened Mountain Toad Brewing in a former machine shop just blocks from where Coors developed the first aluminum beer can in 1959. Josh drew on his mechanical skills to save roughly $100,000 by installing his own pumps and control boxes, and Kaylee developed the business plan. Today, for the first time in his entrepreneurial career, Robbins is enjoying positive cash flow. And the conferences I get to go to now are a little more fun, he jokes.
Mines alumnae and siblings Rachel Rabun ’08 and Sara Heinle ’13 work at petroleum engineering jobs by day, but at night they put their skills to work on the business side of things at Mockery Brewing, a new craft brewery they co-own in Denver’s River North District. Just today, we were trying to determine whether we wanted to change our hours, says Rabun. So, in true Mines fashion, I downloaded all of our sales data by hour and wrote a code to organize it. When something breaks, she adds, We know how to fix stuff, because we went to Mines.
Mines alumni working as craft brewers say they get together often to share advice, and many are now paying it forward, serving as guest lecturers for the new Intro to Brewing Class and volunteering as taste testers for the recent course final. With the help of lab coordinator Mike Stadick, students were assigned to brew two 1-gallon kegs, using specialized equipment to malt their own barley (germinating and roasting it), mash and boil it to convert its starches into sugars, add hops for flavor, and add yeast to convert those sugars to alcohol. Decisions they made along the way influenced the color, aroma, flavor, mouth feel and alcohol content, which they then assessed using various analytical tools.
Not everything went smoothly, however. We had to throw our first batch of barley out because it turned to sludge, says Martella. And our first batch of beer had to go, too we put too much yeast in and it tasted like dough.
In the end, his team of three served up a tasty, mildly bitter American Pale Ale with five percent alcohol that seemed to please the judges. Martella also walked away with a new career choice in mind. I can definitely see myself opening a brewery someday.