Students tap into craft brewing industry

Head Brewer Micheal Coons
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Morrisville State College is tapping into the renaissance of the craft brewing industry in New York State, with a new curriculum and four-year degree program that includes hands-on brewing experience at the Copper Turret restaurant and a line of Morrisville-branded beers that will be available to the public.

Taps at the Copper Turret Restaurant and Brewhouse will begin pouring craft beers made on-site later this summer.  

Head Brewer Micheal Coons plans to have a flagship series of beers prepared for the grand opening of the tasting room, including an IPA made entirely from hops grown locally in Madison County. Other beers will pay tribute to local landmarks and Morrisville’s signature academic programs, like the Belgian Draft Horse, a Belgian-Style Stout.

“We expect our students and graduates will produce some of the finest brew in New York State,” said Morrisville State College President David E. Rogers of the project. 

“The craft brewing industry in New York State is growing at an explosive rate,” he continued. “The addition of a brewing program and an excellent brewery here at Morrisville is part of our responsibility to prepare the next generation of leaders and innovators for the agriculture industry.”

The tasting room at the Copper Turret Restaurant and Brewhouse on Route 20 in the heart of the village will be open on weekends and for special events. Visitors will be able to watch the brewing process through floor-to-ceiling windows, offering a glimpse at the gleaming copper-clad brewing kettles.

Future plans call for a tasting room at the Nelson Farms Country Store that will sell Morrisville-branded beer in growlers and feature other beers, ciders and wines from farm breweries and wineries across New York State. Homebrewing classes for the public are also in the works, and Coons hopes to expand into barrel-aged brews and sour beers, which are among the industry’s newest trends.

An industry with historical roots

The creation of the Morrisville State College Brewing Institute will be a new chapter for the hop industry's local history.

The state’s first recorded hop crop was planted just east of Morrisville in a Bouckville field in 1808 by James Coolidge, a Massachusetts native who saw economic potential in the plant used to bitter beer and flavor other products. By 1880, Madison County was one of three counties in the state producing 80 percent of the country’s hops.

Local large-scale production died in the early 1900s due to disease, competition and Prohibition.  

But craft beer advocates have been seeing results from promoting the area’s hop houses, farms and breweries much like the concentration of wineries in the Finger Lakes.

The craft beer industry has seen rapid growth in the past five years and now accounts for $3.5 billion of the New York State economy. 

“The growth right now is outpacing the number of experienced workers in the workplace,” said Paul Leone, executive director of the New York State Brewers Association. “With the growth of the industry, finding experienced workers - people who can start off in a new brewery and have experience behind them - is a real advantage to most breweries.”

The majority of jobs are also centered in the craft brewing sector. Of the 4,269 total breweries in the United States, only 44 are mass manufacturers. The remainder are craft breweries, brewpubs and microbreweries.

“Craft brewing is a real jobs creator,” Leone said. “Whether it is people working in the tasting room, brewing beer or packaging, there’s a lot to do in a brewery. And that means a lot of jobs.”

A laboratory for brewing

The Morrisville State College Brewing Institute will serve as a laboratory for students in the new food technology four-year degree program, which will have three concentrations - brewing science and technology, agricultural marketing and food science.

The curriculum will include 10 brewing courses, including four practicum classes and many other courses that directly relate to brewing science, and culminates with a full semester internship at a local brewery.

“It is part of our ethos here at Morrisville to give students real-world, firsthand experiences in their fields,” Rogers said. “We know that learning by doing is the most effective approach, and we have a proud tradition of this kind of hands-on, applied learning.”

Students will first focus on learning how to run and clean the brewing equipment, a massive system of valves, pipes and kettles that can churn out 106 gallons of beer per batch.

“Making beer is an art, but it is also a science,” said Coons, who came on in January 2016 to oversee the construction of the brew facility and the development of the curriculum. “Just like with a technical education in art, you need that core understanding of how all elements work together.

“If you don’t understand what you’re doing, you can still make beer,” Coons said with a laugh. “But if you really want to make the beer you intend to make, you need the more technical and scientific education.”

The coursework will range from the scientific components of brewing, such as yeast propagation and quality control, to the business side, including filing permits and paperwork with the state and federal government and developing programs for workplace safety.

“In many brewing programs, students are in a lab measuring the friability of a malt (the hardness of the grains) or the amylase activity (the power to breakdown some starches),” Coons said.

“That’s great, but those laboratory exercises aren’t the same as operating a brewery.

“We wanted a degree program that was focused on a hands-on approach—a practical education that will prepare students of the things they will be doing in the real world,” he continued.  

Students will also coordinate with their restaurant counterparts at the Copper Turret, run by the Auxiliary Corporation of Morrisville State College.

“We want to make sure that the beers we are making work with the foods they are serving, that the menus align and servers can give recommendations to patrons,” Coons said.

The program is designed to set itself apart from existing certificate and master’s degree programs.

“Very few small breweries can afford to hire someone with a master’s degree to be a shift brewer,” said Coons. “And many of the great brewing programs that exist are about the technical aspect of manufacturing beer, not necessarily what you need to know to be a successful craft brewer.”

Cheers to networking

To design the curriculum, Coons met with area brewers to understand the needs of the regional industry. Students will spend time as apprentices at Good Nature Brewing in Hamilton and Empire Farm Brewery in Cazenovia. 

Hops will be sourced locally from Mosher Farms in Bouckville - which also supplies produce to the Copper Turret - and the Bineyard in Cazenovia, as part of the brewery’s requirement to source at least 20 percent of its ingredients from New York farms.

Good Nature Brewing co-founder Carrie Blackmore has firsthand experience with starting a brewery from the ground up.

Blackmore and her partner, Matt Whalen, opened a small tasting room in the village of Hamilton in early 2012. They sold out of beer within their first two weeks and have now expanded to include a new tasting room and beer garden just south of Hamilton.

The couple had been homebrewing before taking the leap into entrepreneurship.

“It’s not uncommon for people like us to be self-taught,” Blackmore said. “There is just a small pool of people that have actual experience and education in the field.”

Blackmore said she is excited to work with students from the brewing institute.

“Most of our staff we’ve had to train from the ground up,” she said. “It would be great to have qualified people to come in and help run the brewery. Morrisville will be preparing people for jobs that are available in a fast-growing industry.”