Seventeen years ago, there were no distilleries in Michigan.
That changed when state laws allowed for small distiller licenses. When the laws passed, Kris Berglund, chemical engineering professor at Michigan State University, met with the Department of Agriculture and several other state organizations about the possibility of starting a beverage program at Michigan State.
One thing led to another, and the program now has grown substantially in East Lansing.
"We're meeting with the university this week," Berglund said last Tuesday. "If all goes through, we could have a specialization in beverage technology in fall 2013."
That’s an industrial training program with a twist. The program currently has three classes: Fermented Beverages, Wine Making and Brewing, and Distilled Beverage Technology. Those classes have been taught as special topics courses until recently, when the registrar came to Berglund and suggested adding permanent course numbers. The program works with four colleges: natural sciences, hospitality business, agriculture and engineering.
"The classes are always full," he said. "(Prior to the course numbers), a lot of people didn't know they existed. Now we might see a waiting list."
But just because the classes focus on alcoholic beverages doesn't mean they're an easy A.
"Our end isn't wine appreciation," Berglund said. "It's the nuts and bolts. It shows how different things affect the process and quality control."
Classes are taught off campus at the old East Lansing Public Works building. Berglund said it's the largest distillery in Michigan and the school's program is the only commercially affiliated program in the United States. The site soon could distribute through Uncle John's Cider, doing business as Red Cedar Spirits.
Berglund also said the site is helping startups and established companies.
"It's a really diverse program, a lot of different projects," he said.
Under law, a person cannot make spirits until a license is secured, but only people with distilleries can get licenses. Berglund said he helps a lot of startups figure out logistics and recipes to help the process. He also helps established companies with smaller research and development projects.
"We try to stay ahead of the curve and be a resource for the industry," he said.
Berglund isn't the only Spartan working in the fermented beverage field.
Mark Sellers of Barfly Ventures, which owns HopCat and Grand Rapids Brewing Co., Bill White of White Flame Brewing Co., and Scott Newman-Bale, a partner in Short's Brewing Co., among others, all are Michigan State graduates.
One current student is making waves in the brewing world as Short's head of quality control. Sam DeCamp graduates in spring 2014, but until then he works at the brewery's Elk Rapids production facility making sure the beer headed to market is up to par.
Although he's a food science major, DeCamp said he never really thought of the brewing industry as a potential employer.
"I decided I needed an internship and started contacting breweries," DeCamp said. "Short's offered me a quality control internship and apparently I did an OK job."
DeCamp said when he was in his early years at Michigan State he didn't know about Berglund's program, and if he had, he would have enrolled. He did say it's a good thing the school has decided to jump into the growing economic sector in Michigan.
"It's great they offer those classes," he said. "Had I known they were offered, I definitely would have taken them."
But he doesn't think it will reach the level that UC-Davis' Master Brewers Program has reached.
"I just don't see the university investing that much into it," he said. "But it'd be cool if they did."