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Virginia Tech hops into the farm-to-glass craft beer movement with new brewhouse on campus

February 18, 2016

Faculty member works with students to stir a batch of beer
Pilot Plant Manager Bruce Herbert stirs a batch of suds with students in the brewhouse at Virginia Tech’s Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building 1.


Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has long been a steward of the commonwealth’s wine industry through oenology and viticulture research and outreach efforts.

Now, the advent of a state-of-the-art shiny, new brewhouse and malting system will allow the university to shepherd along beer research as well. The newly installed system allows students to learn the latest in malting, brewing, and fermenation techniques, while faculty further the university’s land-grant mission by supporting industry research in fermentation and brewing.

The recently installed 2.5 hectoliter, professional-grade Esau & Hueber system was designed for research on brewing ingredients, process parameters, outcomes, and innovations. Regional breweries may also develop new varieties of ales and lagers while researching new, locally sourced ingredients without having to take their own facilities off-line. The facility, which can produce 66 gallons of beer per batch, is very similar to the ones used in commercial craft brewing operations around the U.S. The brewhouse is optimized for teaching and research, so some of the processes are not as automated as commercial breweries may be.

It is the latest addition to Department of Food Science and Technology’s “Innovation Collaboratory,” a space where industry meets research. Researchers have worked with household names such as Dupont Teijin Films and Tyson Foods on food safety, packaging, and product development in the pilot plant. 

“Our department is big on hands-on learning,” said Brian Wiersema, the plant manager at the Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building 1 where the brewhouse is located. “We had the company pull out some of the automation, yet the system mimics a craft brewing system.” 

The brewhouse is just one way that Virginia Tech is helping the commonwealth’s beer industry, which has a more than $8 billion annual economic impact and contributes $2.9 billion in annual total tax contributions, according to the Beer Institute.

In keeping with the popularity of the local food movement, the brewhouse will be a truly farm-to-glass brewing experience by utilizing the expertise of faculty such as Carl Griffey, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences. 

“We’re excited this about the brewhouse because this gives us the potential to evaluate regional barley for suitability for malting,” said Griffey, the W.G. Wysor Professor of Crop Genetics and Breeding. 

Griffey has been perfecting a type of winter barley that could be grown in the colder months, a previously difficult proposition. Now regional breweries can benefit from having a readily available ingredient for a consistent product all year along. Virginia Cooperative Extension agents can work with producers to grow these strains right here in the state. Research is conducted through the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station

“Essentially it’s like having a quality control lab and Department of Food Science and Technology can tell us whether our barley varieties are satisfactory for brewing,” Griffey said. “The other reason we are excited is that barley has been struggling to keep production in the state, so malting can be a way for farmers to find new markets for their product.” 

The brewhouse will help make the brewing industry more environmentally friendly by developing methods to turn spent barley into plastic and fuel — which is what university researchers are doing in the lab across from the brewhouse. The brewhouse is also making it possible for the university to pursue global education opportunities with the Technical University of Munich where students could put their classroom experience to use in the heart of Bavaria, the a mecca for beer production. 

“We’ve got all the pieces of the brewing puzzle here and ready to go,” Wiersema said. 

Now, who wants a Land-Grant Lager?