Two white counters lined a narrow room located in the basement of the Health and Human Services building. To the left, darkroom supplies were scattered across a white surface. To the right, three 14-gallon metal kettles sat in a row, reflecting the fluorescent ceiling lights. A loud clank resounded through the small space as Professor Steven Harper lifted the lid off each kettle and leaned over to peek inside. 

“We share the space with the darkroom,” Harper said. “It created our initial tongue-in-cheek name for our first brew, which was Darkroom Experimental Ale.”

The brewery engineering program is a section of ENGR 498, an advanced topics engineering course. It began as a project-based class in the fall of 2014 when Harper partnered with Brothers Craft Brewing. The local brewery gave students the opportunity to design and propose a more efficient cooling system for Brothers’ small-scale facility. 

After the success of the project, Harper worked with students to create a functioning brewery so that the class could learn what happens at each stage of the brewing process in a hands-on learning environment. This semester, the program functions as two separate three-credit courses starting with a general lecture class and ending with a practicum.

During one class session earlier this semester, professor Sam Morton walked into room 301 in HHS. The four students enrolled in the lecture class sat around the six-sided table placed in the center of the small space. Morton dove straight into his lesson for the day: Humulus Lupulus, otherwise known as hops. 

He picked up a small plastic bag filled with wet, dark green buds, which he called whole hops. He stuck his nose inside the bag and took in a deep inhale before passing it on to the student beside him.

“Ah, that smells good,” Morton said as he released his breath.

As he explained the different types of hops, Morton’s dry erase marker glided across the whiteboard, leaving behind equations and bulleted lists for the students to copy into their notebooks.

According to Harper, the lecture class allows students to learn about the brewing process from the grain all the way to the tap.

After students complete the semester-long lecture course, they can move on to the practicum portion of the program, led by Harper. This section incorporates the practical application of the information learned in the lecture class. Students are required to observe and work with a local brewery, brew a practice batch of beer, which is thrown out before fermentation, and finally put their original beer recipe through the entire brewing and fermentation process.

Harper hopes that the beer engineering program will continue to grow throughout the engineering department as well as across other disciplines such as biology and marketing. The brewery will be relocated next semester, which Harper expects will benefit the program in terms of lab space and expansion.

“We give them the book smarts of what’s going on and then we give them the hands-on experience,” Harper said.

Felipe Melivilu, a senior engineering and media arts and design double major, brewed his original recipe for the class earlier this semester. He bought ingredients from the Downtown Wine and Gourmet store and spent over five hours malting, mashing and boiling in the basement brewery before taking his product to the fermenter. He decided to go with a stout beer and named it Sepia Stout, holding on to the darkroom theme.

Because the brewery in HHS is not considered a food-safe lab, Melivilu wasn’t able to taste his final product. However, he was pleased with the strong coffee aroma of the brew.

“It’s a lot of work to get something that’s good,” Melivilu said. “It felt more real world than just doing a project in a classroom.”

Contact Holly Warfield at warfieha@dukes.jmu.edu.