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Brewing a new learning partnership

When most people look at a tall, frosty pint of beer, they don’t immediately think of science, but perhaps they should. Every keg is the product of some pretty sophisticated microbiology.

Beer depends on the mastery of fermentation, a process whereby microscopic organisms convert raw materials into more valuable products. In the case of beer, fungi known as yeast naturally turn sugars into alcohol.

To help advance that science – and train the next generation of fermentation experts – MillerCoors has donated a complete set of pilot-scale brewing equipment to the University of Wisconsin-Madison bacteriology department. The gift, worth more than $100,000, marks the beginning of an ongoing relationship between members of the university’s microbiology community and experts at the MillerCoors Milwaukee brewery, and will be used to launch a new UW-Madison course on fermentation science.

Jon Roll, a faculty associate in the bacteriology department, and Brandy Day, a senior majoring in microbiology, spent the summer learning how to use the equipment in Milwaukee, under the tutelage of Troy Rysewyk, MillerCoors pilot plant master brewer. Roll and Day are in the process of developing and testing the new course, which will draw on their interactions with Rysewyk and other MillerCoors employees to teach the industry”s most advanced brewing techniques using the university”s new stainless-steel, 10-gallon microbrew system. The course will be offered starting this spring.

But students won”t just be learning about beer, says Jo Handelsman, chair of the bacteriology department. “Fermentation is important because so many of our foods, drugs and industrial products come from microbial fermentation processes,” she says. Without it, key pharmaceuticals – including antibiotics and human insulin – would not be available, and there would be no bread, cheese, wine and yogurt as we know them today.

Among a wide range of biotechnology and food companies, explains Handelsman, there is high demand for graduates well versed in this fundamental technology. The department”s new course will help educate the next generation of experts that will grow and study the microbes that are so valuable to these industries.

“This is a unique collaboration and partnership that will incorporate best practices from our breweries into a program that will develop future brewing and fermentation experts and potential employees,” says David Ryder, MillerCoors vice president of brewing and research. “Our company is committed to the state of Wisconsin and enhancing the great brewing tradition that exists here. This was a great way for us to give back, share our time-honored brewing techniques and fermentation science, and perhaps play a part in developing the next great brewers of MillerCoors beer.”