Photo and story by Eric Goodwin / Contributing Writer
Beginning Fall 2017, MTSU undergraduate students will be able to obtain a degree in Fermentation Science through the College of Basic and Applied Sciences.
Agriscience Professor Tony Johnston, the director of the program, said the idea for fermentation science at the university began 10 years ago when the former university Provost Brad Bartel told Johnston he wanted a brewing program at the school. However, the idea didn’t take shape until two years ago.
It was then that Bartel “challenged the deans to come up with programs that would increase enrollment or be of interest to the state,” Johnston said. The Board of Regents then decided on a brewing program at MTSU.
Johnston, who recently became the faculty representative on MTSU’s new Board of Trustees, proposed that instead of limiting their sights to brewing, the program should address many different areas of fermentation.
“If we expand the focus of the program beyond brewing, then a student who graduates with this degree has an incredible array of possibilities of employment after they graduate,” Johnston said.
Like MTSU’s recording industry program, the school’s fermentation science degree will be the first of its kind in Tennessee and one of the few that exist in the country.
With the explosion of craft breweries around Tennessee -the program comes at an appropriate time. According to brewersassociation.org, Tennessee’s number of craft breweries rose to 52 from 24 between 2011 and 2015.
Johnston expressed optimism about the demand for fermented foods and drinks.
“We’ve gone beyond the Budweiser phase of wanting to eat. We don’t want a plain old hamburger; we don’t want a plain old beer. We want something unique,” he said.
Fermentation encompasses a variety of products, such as beer, wine, yogurt, sauerkraut and types of sausage, among many others.
Johnston said students in the program will have the chance to work alongside local and international companies that specialize in fermented products.
Some of these companies may include Fat Bottom Brewery, Hap & Harry’s Tennessee Beer, Jack Daniel’s Distillery, George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey, Mayday Brewery, the General Mills Yoplait Plant, Kroger Dairy and the new Steel Barrel Brewing Co.
Johnston said he is excited about Steel Barrel Brewing Co., which was founded by MTSU alumni Mark Jones and should be operating this fall, right as the fermentation science program begins.
Focusing on an international experience as well, Johnston said he “just talked last week to a winery in Italy,” and he talked to “several places in Argentina.”
“I’m trying to create several opportunities internationally for our students to intern and do research. There’s opportunities here in Tennessee, obviously, but I want our students to understand this is a global industry,” Johnston said.
In addition to opportunities for fermentation research and practice at different locations, MTSU will also build a “sensory lab,” designed to collect scientific data about the qualities of the foods and drinks students shall produce.
Johnston said the sensory lab will allow students to “quantify on a population basis” and identify “what we’re smelling or what we’re tasting or what we’re feeling.”
Finding faculty to lead courses in the program, Johnston said, was not difficult. In addition to the fact that all the required foundational courses in the major already exist on campus, “the perceived value to faculty on campus is that fermentation will provide a means through which to teach their courses,” he said.
Despite the excitement, Johnston did say he had a concern regarding the introduction of the new major.
“I don’t want the program to be solely focused on alcohol,” he said. Fermentation, Johnston said, is essential in the production of alcohol, and while alcohol will be a part of the program, “the focus is on all of the food products that we consume.”
Regarding the legalities of alcoholic consumption for underaged students, legislation has been passed to allow underaged students in the degree program to consume alcohol in controlled settings, according to Johnston.
Since “so much of fermentation is a function of flavor and aroma, if a student is not allowed to even taste this product before they graduate, they’re (going to) get through the whole program without tasting anything,” he said.
The ability to taste the product a student is working on is crucial in the program, so the legislation will render an underaged student enrolled in the program and with 60 hours of credit eligible to consume alcohol in program courses.
But Johnston made sure to note that the tasting “is about flavor detection- it’s not about consumption. You can consume on your own, but this is class.”
The science behind fermentation essentially involves “farming microorganisms,” according to Johnston.
“We create an environment that the microorganisms that we want to use for the fermentation like, and we provide them with a food they like to eat… and then they create the flavors and the aromas and the characteristics of the food that we want,” Johnston said.
Despite the fact that the courses will be science oriented, Johnston said he wants all students regardless of their interests to think about the program.
“I encourage students to consider (fermentation science). I sincerely hope that students who may think science is just not for them … to look at this and realize there are some really fun opportunities,” he said.
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