Beer has made a global comeback with the explosion of craft brewing. What better place to study the art of brewing than the land of Oktoberfest and Hefeweizen?
The craft beer movement continues to grow, but the road to a coveted German brewing degree is particularly rocky for foreigners.
One balmy spring evening at the Uferlos Festival, a beer-and-music shindig in the Bavarian city of Freising, young foreigners gather to revel and drink. Weissbier flows. This is a happy hour as much as a study session for these students, who have come to the TUM School of Life Sciences Weihenstephan to learn beer brewing.
"Germany is a beer country," says Nina Anika Klotz, founder and editor of Hopfenhelden, an online craft beer magazine. "We have a profound knowledge of brewing technology." And a precious few rigorous academic programs underline this.
The country has a strong tradition in the drink: It’s home to almost 1,500 breweries and more than 5,000 brands of domestic beer, according to the 150-year-old German Brewer’s Association. And of course, it is world-renowned for its annual Oktoberfest, the largest beer festival in the world. But just a few academic institutions offer Brauwesen, or beer brewing, as a course of study.
Weihenstephan, once home to the oldest brewery in the world, is also home to one of these schools. Rodrigo Wong, 28, is one of the few foreigners aiming for the well-reputed title of brewmaster – the supervisor of the entire brewing process.
The Chinese-Peruvian student sits with other members of the Club Ausländischer Weihenstephaner around the Weissbierkarussell that spring evening. The old merry-go-round, converted to a bar, is a popular hangout at festival time.
Wong earned a food engineering degree from the National Agrarian University in La Molina, Peru. He taught himself brewing with the help of internet forums, books, and "a lot of trial and error," he says. He started Santos Demonios, a brewery in Lima, before applying to TUM’s Brewing and Beverage Technology program.
"Brewing is a mixture of science and art," says Wong, who is in his first year of the master’s program. But the science aspect is more important, he stresses. "You first have to gain the knowledge and the capacity to apply it, and then have the imagination to make it."
In the global beer market, TUM Weihenstephan’s brewing program is considered the best. Among its students, however, it’s known for grueling math and science classes, all taught in German. Two-thirds of the students enrolled in the bachelor’s program drop out within the first year of study.
Bachelor’s students take physics, inorganic chemistry, math, and molecular biology in the first of their six semesters. Elective courses include food technology and patent law. Those who make it to the two-year Master of Science track or more selective Ph.D. positions are considered the crème de la crème and are often hired by big breweries and industry suppliers.
The Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin) offers a similar trajectory and sponsors apprenticeships for both brewers and maltsters. The latter profession supervises grains being turned into malt – an essential component of beer making.
On a chilly day, winds whip through TUM’s Weihenstephan campus. It’s situated amid rolling fields near Munich’s main airport. The brewing facility, with its steel-tank-packed lab, is housed near a former abbey where Benedictine monks began to brew beer back in the year 1040.
Industrial equipment may have made the workflow more efficient since then, but the actual brewing process hasn’t changed much. The reason is that German brewers still maintain many aspects of the ancient Reinheitsgebot – a purity law that has prohibited ingredients other than barley, hops, and water in beer for more than 500 years.
Such regulations aren’t so surprising in Germany, where many food industries are strictly governed. Paths of study vary, but generally, tradespeople must meet stringent qualifications to slaughter pigs, stuff sausages, or even bake bread for commercial sale. The Thüringer Meisterschule des Fleischerhandwerks (Thuringian Master School of Butchery) in Rohr is an example of a Berufsfachschule. This trade school teaches the essentials of butchery. In brewing, institutions such as the Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences offer a more practical, hands-on approach than the TUM Weihenstephan that lies just down the road.