Beer is Big Business, and a Big STEM Gift Aims to Keep the Pipeline Flowing

If your kid told you they decided to study the science of beer at UC Davis, you might reach for a bottle or two yourself at first, considering in-state tuition tops eleven grand. 

But your concern would be quite misguided, because not only does the school have one of the country’s most prestigious programs in brewing science, it’s also tight with some titans of an explosive industry. 

The program just got a little more prestigious, and tighter with the industry, thanks to a $2 million gift from the founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

A running theme in our coverage of STEM higher ed gifts concerns business leaders keeping the pipeline of skilled workers flush, while creating relationships with sources of those workers—outsourcing employee training and recruitment in a way. And while beer science might sound like fun and games, it’s really no different. 

Consider that in 2015, the total U.S. beer market was nearly $106 billion, and the craft beer industry more than $22 billion. While growth appears to be leveling off, the craft beer scene in particular has exploded in recent years, becoming extremely competitive. And multinational companies are buying out smaller players with the gusto you’d expect from Facebook and Google. The popular Ballast Point Brewing Company was snatched up in late 2015 for $1 billion.

Beer is a pretty good major, after all. 

One of the top programs for showing young brewers the way is at Davis, led by Charlie Bamforth within the university’s food science program, offering a bachelor’s and a master’s focus. The school landed the latest gift from Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada, the third biggest American craft brewer. Grossman’s a textbook example of the wealth that can emerge from hops and barley, as he’s worth about a billion himself. 

Cultivated in part thanks to a close friendship between Bamforth and Grossman, the donation will establish a Sierra Nevada Brewing Company Endowed Brewer, who will mentor and manage students and teaching assistants, and maintain the campus brewery lab. 

The brewing science program is no stranger to philanthropy, as Grossman has made multiple donations over the years. Bamforth is an Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences. The campus facilities are the August A. Busch III Brewing and Food Science Laboratory and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Research Laboratory, named for earlier donations. The founder of craft brewing outfit the Gambrinus Company donated $1 million in 2015.

Not too long ago, in another state known for its craft beer scene, New Belgium Brewing Company (ranking just below Sierra Nevada) and its CEO pumped $1 million into Colorado State University for its Fermentation Science and Technology undergraduate degree program. 

We’ve seen the rise of the tech industry and key players giving to computer science education, and even the surge of natural gas development leading to a bunch of petroleum-related STEM programs. So it’s no surprise that a booming industry like beer, in one of its most bustling states, would follow similar philanthropic patterns. Note that the new endowed chair at Davis will also serve as a liaison to the beer industry. 

Sure, as in much philanthropy, there’s a personal connection, and a lot of passion involved on the part of the students, the donor, and the department head. It is beer, after all. But it’s also part of a trend of an industry and its leaders developing very close relationships to the schools they depend on for talent.