It was barely past noon on a Tuesday, but the team from Appalachian State was already filling beer cups.
“There’s a tremendous amount of chemistry that happens with aroma,” said Dr. Seth Cohen, standing between the beer table and a PowerPoint screen. “There are a lot of background factors you need to control to make sure you’re getting good data.”
Around the room, about 60 men and women from craft breweries across North Carolina took careful notes. They had gathered at Foothills Brewing in Winston-Salem for a workshop on the sensory evaluation of beer, and Cohen was getting deep into the details.
Aroma compounds, volatility, mouth enzymes, cellar-blindness, even the consistency of adjectives used to describe taste — Cohen covered it all in his step-by-step tutorial on how a professional tasting should be run. Quality control is a serious science, and the professors in Appalachian’s Enology and Viticulture program take it seriously.
“We want to be known not just for a lot of craft breweries, but for high-quality craft beer,” Cohen said. “We want people choosing North Carolina as a beer destination. And we want to get North Carolina beers on grocery store shelves all over the country.”
It is a vision shared by the state’s policymakers. Though craft brewing is still a relatively small corner of the nation’s beer market, sales have been growing briskly. Craft beer sales in 2012 were up 15% from 2011, compared with less than 1% growth in overall beer sales.
“There is clearly a thirst in the marketplace for craft brewed beer, as indicated by the continued growth year after year,” said Paul Gatza, director of the national Brewer’s Association, a craft beer trade group. “These small breweries are doing great things for their local communities, the greater community of craft brewers, our food arts culture and the overall economy.”
With an eye toward the economic impact of breweries, which are direct employers and drivers of local tourism, the North Carolina General Assembly has been embracing the craft industry. News & Observer political correspondent John Frank, a craft beer enthusiast who writes reviews of North Carolina brews, noted the legislative enthusiasm at last year’s “Rush the Growler” party, a soiree for lawmakers sponsored by the N.C. Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association.
“I think we are seeing a greater appreciation for craft beer than ever before,” Rep. Susan Fisher, a Democrat who represents downtown Asheville, told Frank. “And I think it’s something that goes across partisan lines.”
In 2005, the legislature upped the cap on alcohol by volume in beer from 6 to 15%, paving the way for the craft industry and making the state a mecca for small brewers. The North Carolina Department of Commerce promotes a list of brewery tours on its VisitNC.com website, and it dedicated April as North Carolina Beer Month.
Appalachian State’s Program, which also provides laboratory services and research support for the state’s wine growers, is designed to build on the momentum of the state’s brew-friendly policies. Since 2012, the school has offered a Bachelor of Science in Fermentation Sciences, offering students the chance to learn both the chemistry of brewing and the art of building and marketing a business.
There’s even an on-site test brewery where students get hands-on experience creating a marketable product. It is dubbed, appropriately enough, the Ivory Tower Brewery.
A glowing write-up in The Atlantic magazine touted the program’s focus on career training, noting that many of the faculty come from industry backgrounds. “The academics and professors within the program—for now a small group comprised of former industry professionals turned educators who designed and wrote the curriculum—see that students are imparted with not just knowledge of fermentation sciences, but of business, too,” The Atlantic reported.
That focus also drives Appalachian’s outreach and education to the state’s active brewers. Back in Winston-Salem, as Dr. Cohen outlined his goal of seeing North Carolina beers on shelves across the country, dozens of bearded entrepreneurs nodded in assent. “It’s definitely about living the dream,” Cohen continued. “But it’s also about hard work.”