When the Wildcat met the Harbor Seal (or how UNH got into the beer-brewing business)

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Ever get the feeling you were born in the wrong time? No? OK, let’s come back to that. 

Ever seen a beer can bearing BOTH the wildcat logo of UNH AND the harbor seal logo of Smuttynose Brewing, and then wondered if UNH is now in the beer business?

In a way they are, because that beer, called Wildcat Tracks, arose out of a collaboration between Smuttynose and the UNH brewing program.

Cue the sound of screeching brakes…. Yes, that’s right, UNH has a brewing program, and you can now study beer brewing in college. 

Now: Ever feel you were born too early? Me too!


The Program

Lab Sign 2

I was quite surprised to learn that, in another example of the growing beer-ification of America (not that that’s a bad thing), UNH now offers a minor in beer brewing.

But after a little thought, it makes complete sense.

  • It provides the growing number of local breweries with a needed population of employees who are not only enthusiastic but also demonstrably trained, knowledgeable, skilled & capable.
  • It elevates beer knowledge and craft from passed-down word-of-mouth to a level of validated expertise. 
  • It offers one more option for young people to find & learn a craft and be appreciated for it. 
  • It provides a streamlined path to avoiding many of the mistakes other brewers have already made. 
  • It lets people see and experience firsthand the delight of this ancient alchemical combination of agriculture, biology and chemistry. 

UNH produced a great 2-minute explanatory video, available below:

Go ahead and have a watch, I’ll wait.


The Person Behind the Program

Cheryl Sprite
Brewery Manager Cheryl Parker and honorary brewmaster Sprite, at home with equipment.

UNH’s brewing minor is the creation of Brewery Manager and course instructor Cheryl Parker.

On a recent Friday, Parker greeted me at the door of the brewery, along with her honorary brewmaster Sprite, a cheerful border collie who loves people. A native of Chicago, Parker became aware at an early age of a desire to be near the ocean. As she grew up, this feeling intensified such that she would eventually describe it as a sense of “being in the wrong place.” She  also had a love of science & nature, so it made sense that she would pursue Marine & Freshwater Biology as an undergraduate. She chose to study at UNH, where she also minored in Environmental Science, and did some study abroad in New Zealand.

After graduating, Parker was hired by UNH’s Complex Systems Research Center as a technician working on deep seawater samples. Later she moved to UNH’s Climate Change Research Center as a laboratory manager & field technician on air chemistry projects.

A decade after graduating, Parker decided to leave the balmy shores of NH for exotic adventure at McMurdo Station in Antarctica where she spent 3 years as Supervisor of Laboratory Operations. Asked if she ever misses Antarctica, she replied “Sometimes,” then described how dietary options were so limited there that visions of food came to linger in the thoughts, even dreams, of almost all the staff. As she related this, she reached into a climber’s chalk bag at her belt and retrieved a treat for Sprite, who took it happily.

Parker returned from Antarctica to life with her husband in Chicago. As a present he gave her “The Joy of Home Brewing” along with some basic equipment. For her it came at the right moment and she dove in. Before long she was interning at Chicago breweries and studying at the Siebel Institute of Technology.

parker at throwback
Parker at Throwback Brewery

Returning to New England gave her the opportunity to work at Throwback Brewery in North Hampton starting in 2014. The founders describe her impact as “profound” and credit her with “well-documented brewing and packaging standard operating procedures, a robust safety plan, happy farmers’ market customers,” and sprinkling darkly humorous signs around the brewery. Today their website still lists her in the team section as “Brewer Emeritus.” She also discovered the long hours that can come with craft brewing, and the physical labor of lifting heavy bags of grain over your head to dump into a large mill.


More On The Program

While Parker was at Throwback, UNH was fermenting an idea for a brewing program. An internal university group called UNHInnovation is charged with developing “new opportunities for university and industry collaboration.” Around 2016 they recognized that the growing number of breweries in the state would need qualified employees, as well as the services and analytical capabilities of a university laboratory. 

UNH then approached Parker about returning to the university to create and run this program. For Cheryl this was a rare opportunity; in the words of the Throwback founders: “It’s not often one is presented with an opportunity like this – to define a new program, to still be involved in beer, to be able to teach our next generation of brewers how make beer the right way, to work for a great University with solid benefits, and more.”

So how could she say no? She started in March of 2017, and began the work of finding space, acquiring equipment, and designing curricula for a minor within the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA). All while pursuing a graduate degree in College Teaching (finished in 2020).

Stoneface tour pix 2
A former student gives a tour.

Parker wanted the program to address more than just the technical aspects of brewing beer; she also wanted very much to let students appreciate the business of selling beer, and to experience firsthand the feedback when someone standing across a table from you reacts to tasting a beer that you have personally brewed with your own hands and labor. So she had to ensure that UNH was legally licensed by the state of NH to serve and sell beer. This license costs the university $1,200 per year. Proceeds from sales of beer help to offset that cost.

Another complication is that, as a publicly funded university, they are not allowed to undercut local businesses. So they have to insure that their beer sales do not negatively impact any local bars nor restaurants. There are a lot of rules to this work!

Today they have a five-course (20-credit) minor that is available to all students. The introductory course typically has around 20 students. The next courses’ enrollment typically drops to around 10, partly because they involve significant lab work and greater time commitment. Finally, of those who complete the program, typically about 3-5 students each year go on to work in brewing.

In another positive development, the Pink Boots Society offers a scholarship for women in the brewing industry. For more information, please visit the Pink Boots website.

The university also occasionally offers continuing education programs through UNH Professional Development and Training (PD&T).


Placed grads
A list of brew lab student placements

As of today, UNH Brewing grads are working at Anheuser Busch in Merrimack, Stoneface Brewing in Newington, Czar’s Brewery in Exeter, among many other breweries. Parker told me about one graduate who, early in her employment at Anheuser Busch, demonstrated such production acumen that her managers put her on track to join the management team herself.

In one area of future growth for the Brewing Lab, Parker would like to provide more analytical services to regional brewers. The brewery start-up funds afforded them equipment that would be beyond the reach of most breweries, such as analytical chemistry tools costing upwards of $50K. 

Parker explains some techniques

The future probably also holds further collaborations, like the one with Smuttynose, and including work with UNH’s own Agricultural Experiment Station. In 2018 that led to a beer made with Kiwiberries, which are native to this area and were a good match for the Berliner-Weisse then being brewed from barley and wheat. In 2019 they produced a beer made with strawberries from the station’s organic strawberry breeding program. UNH is one of very few institutions worldwide working at the forefront of strawberry genomics.

Other future possibilities include international travel. What could be a better fit than time spent at breweries in Belgium and Germany?

Later this year Parker plans to attend the CBC, or Craft Brewers Conference, held this year in Nashville, to rekindle connections with other brewers and instructors around the region and country. She says that probably about 50 other universities have programs similar to UNH’s.

Two milk stouts
Tasting Udder Madness in the lab

Tasting UNH Beers

They typically have two offerings per month, but during my visit they had three. They’d planned a cream ale and a milk stout. Then one student expressed interest in making something like Gunner’s Daughter from Mast Landing Brewing Company in Maine. As their planned milk stout would make a perfect base for that, they turned it into two recipes, one with peanut butter and one without. As I write, all three are available.

Summer Cricket” — 6.3% ABV — a golden ale brewed with organic chamomile, tulsi (an especially aromatic  type of basil), myrtle, rosehips, lemon & orange peel.

Udder Madness” — 5.1% ABV — a sweet milk stout with notes of chocolate and vanilla.

growler


Peanut Butter Udder Madness” — 5.1% ABV — Udder Madness + peanut butter.

 My first tasting was of Summer Cricket. This was a delicious ale with very subtle flavorings from the chamomile, tulsi, et al.

The Udder Madness was a very good milk stout, and the peanut butter version was quite good — I brought home a growler. Many people are challenged to distinguish it from Gunner’s Daughter. So, mission accomplished!

Beer will be available for tasting and sale at the lab every Thursday from 4-6 until the end of classes (final sale on May the 4th, Star Wars T-shirt not required). I encourage you to pay them a visit. Beware, I have heard that some days are dead, but some are a madhouse!

Beer from the lab is often also available at some area bars & restaurants, such as:

WHYM Craft Pub & Brewery
853 Lafayette Rd
Hampton, NH

Hop+Grind
17 Madbury Rd (Madbury Commons)
Durham NH

Stone Church
5 Granite Street
Newmarket NH


Data

The UNH Brewing Science Laboratory is located at…

Barton Hall, Room 111
34 Sage Way
Durham, NH 03824

Contact:

Cheryl Parker
Brewery Manager
cheryl.parker@unh.edu
(603) 862-5417

Websites:

Hours:  Beer tasting and sales are typically held every Thursday that classes are open, from 4-6 p.m. They’re held at the Brewing Lab at 34 Sage Way in Durham. Any schedule changes are announced via social media.


 

About this Author

Jeff Rogers

Jeff Rogers is a native Hoosier who’s lived in the Granite State for 30+ years. He’s worked on airborne radar systems and written a lot of software. Today he lives in Manchester where he seeks to answer the age-old question: saison, lager, ale or stout?