David_Ryder_CALS_News

Rising to the top: Brewing up a fermentation science program

Imagine, as a young biology student, trying to explain stem cells to Jamie Thomson, the UW scientist who first isolated them in a lab. Or, as a budding computer scientist, pitching an iPhone software upgrade—in person—to Steve Jobs. That will give you some idea of how students in “Microbiology 375: Introduction to Brewing” felt about their final project.

After delving into the science of brewing, the class broke into small groups to concoct their own beers from scratch using state-of-the-art microbrewery equipment—a capstone project that made them the envy of their peers. And as a final exam, the students presented the suds of their labors—a Scotch ale, an Irish red ale, an American lager and a bock—to an expert panel of brewing heavyweights. The panel included experienced homebrewers, brewmasters from Wisconsin’s Capital Brewery, Lake Louie Brewing and New Glarus Brewing Company, and perhaps most intimidatingly—here’s where the Jamie Thomson/Steve Jobs thing comes in—David Ryder, vice president of brewing and research at MillerCoors and a world authority on fermentation and yeast physiology.

Drawing on all they’d learned about microbiology, biochemistry and engineering, the students described the ingredients they chose, the time and temperatures they used for each step and how they treated the brewing yeast. “Although they were nervous about it, that experience was a highlight for them,” says Jon Roll, a CALS faculty associate in bacteriology who led the brewing lab. “Having that audience in that situation was an incredible opportunity.”

Of the experts on the panel, no one was more engaged than Ryder. For him, it was a shining moment in the course of a strategic partnership in which the Milwaukee-based brewing giant is helping the college ramp up its offerings in fermentation science. That field underlies the production of not only beer but also other products critical to the state’s economy—including cheese, sausage, sauerkraut, soy sauce and bioethanol, to name a few. As an overture to the budding alliance, in 2007 Ryder arranged MillerCoors’ donation of more than $100,000 worth of pilot-scale brewing equipment to the college—the guts of Roll’s brewing lab. Now, with a lecture-style fermentation course available, CALS is gearing up to offer an undergraduate certificate in fermentation science.

“This will give UW students an opportunity to see what’s out there in the fermentation industries,” says Ryder. “They don’t have to come to Miller-Coors, but what helps the industry helps us, by implication. The program will help MillerCoors find great people for the future.”

The certificate is just the first step. Down the line, Ryder and leaders in the food science department hope to establish a Food and Beverage Fermentations Center to help focus and expand the university’s teaching, research and outreach in this field. While the spark came from the brewing business, the center will serve all of Wisconsin’s many fermentation-based industries and help prepare students for careers in the state’s cheese plants, food processing facilities, breweries and biorefineries alike. It’s an ambitious plan, but there’s no doubt that Ryder, known affectionately as “Dr. Bubbles” in the brewing world, will see that it happens.

“David is the champion of getting brewing on campus,” says food science department chair Scott Rankin. “He’s a man of action, and it’s his personal mission to see this through.”

The nickname “Dr. Bubbles” reflects not just the products that David Ryder creates, but also his manner. With his charming British accent—Ryder was born and raised in London—and easy enthusiasm, Ryder can be effervescent, particularly when he’s bantering about his favorite topic: happy yeast. “Our yeast has to be happy. Under no circumstances can it be sad,” he explains. “Happy yeast is good yeast because it enables us to create superior beers, so we always look to the yeast.”

Ryder got into the brewing industry by chance when he took a job at Associated British Maltsters during college. Throughout graduate school he worked and traveled, troubleshooting and conducting research for South African Breweries in South Africa and Zimbabwe and Artois Breweries in Belgium. By the time he completed his doctorate in biochemistry in 1985, he was already a sought-after commodity. In 1986 he took a position at Chicago’s J.E. Siebel Sons’ Company Inc., a brewing research, analysis and education outfit, where he served as vice president of technical services and education director of the company’s brewing school, the Siebel Institute of Technology.

Ryder joined Miller Brewing Company in 1992, which in 2008 merged with Molson Coors Brewing Company to form MillerCoors, the nation’s second largest brewing company. In labs in Milwaukee and Golden, Colorado, he leads a crew of brewers, microbiologists, chemists, biochemists and engineers who spend their days examining the brewing process in excruciating detail. The tiniest thing that affects beer’s 3,000 chemical compounds and 97 detectable flavors is fair game for study. Among the endless list of research targets, Ryder’s team has figured out why beer turns “skunky” in sunlight, developed a colorless beer, and come to understand a head of beer so well that they can now dial the foam up—or down—with pinpoint precision. In 19 years, Ryder has published more than 32 scientific articles and racked up 19 U.S. patents, all centered on improving or diversifying the company’s products.

“Brewing is one of these things that can keep a curious mind very interested and very active,” Ryder says.

When Ryder moved to Wisconsin, he was bothered by the lack of ties between one of the state’s signature industries and UW–Madison. MillerCoors needs scientists, he says, if not for Milwaukee’s research division or brewing plant, then for the company’s seven other breweries around the nation. “I was surprised to learn that brewers in the state hadn’t taken more interest in UW–Madison in the past, to have a brewing school in Madison or a school of fermentation science there,” he says. “It makes a lot of sense to take advantage of it, because it’s just down the road and it’s such a great university.”

So when Anjali Sridharan, a university-business liaison at the UW–Madison Office for Corporate Relations, reached out to Ryder to explore opportunities, it didn’t take the brewing expert long to lay out an ambitious plan. “My big dream is to have UW–Madison be the preeminent brewing university in the world,” he says.

Ryder’s idea sparked the food science department’s plan to create a broader Food and Beverage Fermentations Center, which will house the brewing program. The center will capitalize on the department’s strong ties to industry, plus the extensive scientific expertise available across campus—in food science, the Center for Dairy Research, the bacteriology department, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and the College of Engineering—to help prepare students for jobs throughout the state’s vibrant fermentation sector.

About one-third of what the world eats consists of fermented foods. And in Wisconsin, thanks to the state’s cultural history, the proportion is much higher, says Jim Steele, professor of food science, who studies the microbes that grow in cheese. “Cheese, beer, sausage, sauerkraut—any of those ring a bell?” Steele asks. “Fermented foods are a significant portion of a typical Wisconsinite’s diet.”

People have been fermenting food and drink for thousands of years, often to help preserve foods with a short shelf life, such as milk and juice. It wasn’t until 1854, however, that French chemist Louis Pasteur discovered that tiny microbes are what drive the process. Yeast cells, he found, control the most important step in beer making: converting the sugars in malted barley into ethanol and carbon dioxide. Cheesemakers, in much the same way, rely on bacteria to turn milk sugars into lactic acid, which helps milk curdle.

Fermentation’s primary value today is in creating complex, palette-pleasing flavors. In addition to beer, wine and cheese, fermentation brings us whiskey, vodka and bread (from grains); vinegar, cider and brandy (from fruit); mead (from honey); miso and tempeh (from beans); pepperoni and salami (from meat); and crème fraiche and yogurt (from milk). Thank you, microbial metabolism!

But Wisconsin doesn’t just eat and drink fermented products. The Badger State makes them, in a big way. The state’s dairy industry, where 90 percent of milk goes into cheese, contributes about $20 billion to the state’s economy. The beer industry adds another $6 billion. In the southern Wisconsin village of Walworth, a Kikkoman soy sauce fermentation plant—one of the largest in the world—produces more than 33 million gallons of the salty condiment each year. In Waupaca County, one of the world’s largest sauerkraut producers, the Great Lakes Kraut Company, goes through a lot of cabbage.

“This is a fermented foods-rich state,” says Steele. “Incredibly rich.”

But fermentation isn’t just about food. It turns corn waste into silage, an important feed for Wisconsin’s dairy cows. Fermentation also drives Wisconsin’s corn ethanol industry, which generates more than $1 billion annually by using yeast to turn corn sugar into fuel. It will be equally important for creating cellulosic ethanol, a next-generation biofuel made from stalks, wood chips and other non-edibles, which is now under development at the UW-based Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. And a number of Wisconsin’s biotech companies, including Promega Corporation, Cardinal Health and Bio-Technical Resources, use microbial fermentation to produce drugs and other valuable compounds.

If all goes according to plan, a new undergraduate certificate in fermentation science—followed by a master’s program—will soon help open up new and better jobs for UW–Madison students in a variety of departments. “In food science, we currently place 100 percent of our undergraduate majors already, but I think that we can place them at higher-level positions and at places that have even stronger career tracks,” Steele says. “And for students in microbiology and other fields, going through the certificate program will provide much broader exposure to the basic food chemistry and food engineering principles that people need to work in industry.”

The shiny, stainless steel microbrewery equipment donated by MillerCoors currently sits in the bacteriology department’s Kikkoman Fermentations Laboratory, where it’s clearly visible to diners in the Microbial Sciences Building’s atrium cafe. This is where Roll ran his brewing lab in spring 2009 and spring 2010, with about 10 enthusiastic students each time.

“Brewing is such a great hook to get students into deeper science,” he says. “When they taste something surprising in a beer they made, they ask, ‘What is that? Oh, it’s this chemical compound. Well, where does it come from? It comes from this biochemical pathway in yeast.’ It makes what they learned in biochemistry tangible and gives them a genuine interest in why various chemicals appear.”

To give more students a taste, this past spring Jim Steele offered a lecture-style course on fermentation science while the brewing lab took a hiatus. “Food Science 375: Beer and Food Fermentations” quickly filled to 95 seats. “The interest has been overwhelming,” says Steele, who is leading the college’s push into fermentation science.

Starting next spring, the food science department will offer Steele’s course alongside an expanded lab course with both brewing and cheese-making units. By then, MillerCoors’ microbrew equipment will likely be installed in a larger, food-grade-certified classroom in Babcock Hall and the department should have a new associate faculty member on board, selected with an eye toward building the department’s fermentation science program. “This hire will have a big impact on the direction that our department goes,” says Steele.

This past fall, the food science department also hired David Ryder as an adjunct professor, enlisting his help right away in Steele’s fermentation course. During the brewing section, which spanned five weeks, Ryder drove out to Madison to give a lecture on hops and another on the future of the brewing industry. He clearly enjoyed sharing his knowledge with the students and stayed late both times to answer a long string of questions, even sending home two bags of pungent MillerCoors hops with an inquisitive homebrewer.

The pleasure Ryder gets from teaching mirrors his enthusiasm for the whole effort to bolster fermentation education on campus. He’s excited about creating new opportunities for UW–Madison students to follow a path that he’s found to be challenging, fun and fulfilling. “If those students want to come to MillerCoors, great,” he says. “But if they want to do something else in the fermentation industries, that’s fine, too. They will have this really great grounding that will help them along—whatever they choose.

“It’s fantastic to think that we’ll have graduates from UW–Madison going into the brewing industry worldwide,” says Ryder. “That’s great. That’s what it’s all about.”