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Student in Germany
Exchange student Risa Dickermann surveys the Marienplatz main square in the heart of Munich while on a class tour of the city.

Mastering one of Germany's most ancient crafts: Beer

The Practical and Theoretical Brewing Exchange program immerses students in Bavarian culture and gives them a taste of a timeless art form that predates the rise of agriculture.

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By Alex Hood

Ethan Ball raised the small tasting glass — glowing yellow-amber from the hazy liquid it contained — to his nose. The malted aroma of fresh bread, cloves, and banana filled his nostrils, and after a moment, he took a contemplative sip and considered the unmistakable taste of the Bavarian wheat beer in his hand. 

Flanked on either side by several other Virginia Tech students, Ball was seated at a short bar in a room with walls adorned by placards advertising various German beers. Sunlight streamed in through open windows behind him, warming the morning air and giving his hefeweizen a refreshing crispness. A row of assorted beer bottles lined the polished bar top in front of him, and on the other side of those bottles, a bearded man with “TUM” embroidered on his shirt explained the difference between top-fermenting yeast and bottom-fermenting yeast. 

In the United States, such a scene might seem recreational, but for the students in that taproom on the edge of the Technical University of Munich’s hilltop Weihenstephan campus, it was another day in class — “Beverage Dispensing Systems and Sensory of Wheat Beer,” to be precise. 

When Ball and the three other students with him sat in that taproom receiving a crash course in German wheat beer, it was only the first week of the Department of Food Science and Technology’s Practical and Theoretical Brewing Exchange. This bilateral study abroad program sends a handful of Hokies to Freising, Germany each summer to learn about Bavarian brewing and culture, and in exchange welcomes a cohort of Technical University of Munich students to Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus to learn about American and Virginian beer and culture.

“Like a lot of people, I got into brewing by homebrewing with my dad, and then of course I wanted to study brewing in Germany because there's no better place to study it,” said Ball, a food science major from Richlands, Virginia, a small town about two hours from Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus. 

The Practical and Theoretical Brewing cohort was a varied one that included food science, biological systems engineering, and chemical engineering students. The group would soon find themselves on a four-week adventure of classes, lab and brewery exercises, and excursions with the goal of not only teaching them about beer quality control standards, ingredients, filling, packaging, brewhouse design, and draught dispensing technology, but also immersing them in a new culture of the Old World.

“We think it’s imperative that students have global experiences,” said Renee Boyer, head of the Department of Food Science and Technology and one of the exchange’s faculty leaders. “This program allows our students the opportunity to get a global perspective on brewing in a place where a lot of modern styles were traditionally developed.”

Journey to the center of the brewing world

Student in a brewery
Chemical engineering student Nancy Tuguldur gazes up at the unfamiliar system she’s working on during a brewing exercise.

But why Freising specifically? Why send students to Europe just to learn about beer in a small town of less than 50,000 in southern Bavaria — one that feels oddly similar to Blacksburg with its small college-town atmosphere and rolling hills?

The reason sits atop an enormous hill in Freising’s center where the university’s campus is crowned by the oldest continuously operating brewery on Earth. What began as Weihenstephan Abbey — a Benedictine monastery where monks brewed the location’s first beer in 1040 A.D. — is now the Bavarian State Brewery of Weihenstephan, a government-owned brewery that produces globally renowned beer and serves as an educational facility for the Technical University of Munich’s brewing and beverage manufacturing graduate studies program.

“The technology of brewing in Germany is really at the highest level in the world, and the Technical University of Munich has one of the best-known brewing science programs in the world,” said Sean O’Keefe, a food science professor and faculty leader on the trip.

Following a tour of the university’s verdant campus on their first day in Freising, the Virginia Tech students were led behind the brewing and beverage technology building that housed most of their classes to a covered grill area for their first taste of the local culture — a warm welcome from their German counterparts in the form of a Bavarian cookout. Over polka music, the sizzle of cooking bratwurst, and the patter of gentle rain, they mingled with students clad in traditional German lederhosen and dirndls and spoke about the places they wanted to visit. 

Looking right at home behind the patio’s mini-bar in his classic Bavarian waistcoat, Technical University of Munich student Kilian Lupp instructed the Hokies without brewing experience in the proper technique for pouring a beer from the tap when the aroma of grilled chicken and pork signaled that it was dinner time. After the spread of sausages, chicken, potato salad, and pasta salad — all bearing surprisingly little in common with their American equivalents — was devoured, the faculty returned to their rooms for the night. Both groups of exchange students spent the night joyfully swapping stories over tiramisu until well past midnight. 

The next morning, with a contact list full of new friends, the students set off on a whirlwind of new experiences. They attended lectures and learned how the 1516 beer purity law — or Reinheitsgebot — limits the ingredients in German beer to only water, barley, hops, and yeast. They went on a guided historical tour of Munich and learned how the production of beer in the Middle Ages influenced city planning. They learned to operate the university’s brewing systems mere yards from those that produce the millions of gallons of Weihenstephan beer that people all over the world enjoy. All of these activities culminated in a final project requiring them to devise a recipe for a new beer that could be brewed on the equipment they’d just learned to use, illustrating the reason for the exchange’s creation in the first place.

What brewing teaches us about everything else

Student showing hops
Sarah Taylor joined the exchange because she saw brewing as a fusion of all of the individual skills she was learning in her biological systems engineering courses.

Born out of the Department of Food Science and Technology’s internationally-renowned fermentation degree option — one of only a handful of such four-year programs to be recognized by the Master Brewers Association of the Americas — the exchange originated when food science faculty members Brian Wiersema and Sean O’Keefe were given a just-for-fun tour of the Weihenstephan campus while in Germany evaluating new equipment for the department’s brewhouse in 2015. During their meeting with the Weihenstephan faculty, the idea of a mutual exchange was proposed, and by 2018 the first Practical and Theoretical Brewing class was headed to Freising.

In another serendipitous twist, the exchange inspired what is certainly the most famous thing to come out of the department’s fermentation program — Fightin’ Hokies Lager. The idea to make Virginia Tech’s first licensed beer a Munich-style Helles lager came to Wiersema and O’Keefe while sipping that very same style at the Weihenstephan beer garden after class. Those who’ve sampled Fightin’ Hokies Lager might be surprised to find that they’ve already directly supported the exchange, with a portion of the beer’s sales funding a scholarship that pays for a student’s trip expenses each year.

The program is an extension of the department’s educational thesis — that experiential learning is just as important as classroom learning.

“Up to this point in their brewing education, our students have only been in the Blacksburg labs, brewing on our system, or going to craft brewers in our region,” said Wiersema, the exchange’s main faculty coordinator. “Going to Germany opens up their world to how people have done this for hundreds of years. It’s an opportunity for them to see actual processes and techniques from the premiere institution on this, but also to get some cultural aspects that we can’t find here in the U.S.”

Though they embarked upon the same journey, each student had a different reason for doing so. The exchange is open to all majors, so each class comprises a variety of academic backgrounds. This cohort was no exception.

“Brewing mashes together everything I’ve learned in my classes in biological systems engineering,” said Sarah Taylor, a senior in the department from Chesapeake, Virginia. “You get such a cool product at the end that everybody loves.”

Nancy Tuguldur, a chemical engineering sophomore from Arlington, Virginia, knew that brewing was an increasingly common career choice for those in her field and saw the program both as a chance to expand her repertoire of skills and to see a new part of the world.

“Working at breweries is a very popular option for chemical engineers, and I wanted to explore what that side was like because I’ve got some chemical plant experience and wanted to see how different it was,” she said. “I’ve also never been to Europe before, so every single moment is a new learning experience, whether it’s in the classroom or just out and about.”


Going to Germany opens up their world to how people have done this for hundreds of years.

Brian Wiersema

Theoretical brewing becomes practical brewing

In the program’s second week, the students would finally find themselves face-to-face with actual brewing. On a sunny Wednesday, the students gathered in the brewing and technology building’s two-story pilot plant. Before them was the brewing system they’d be working on that day, an organized tangle of silver pipes, reservoirs, and computer displays that extended up to the second floor, towering 10 feet above the cohort. Steam emanating from it heated the room and fogged the windows. Two enormous vintage copper brew kettles shaped like inverted funnels reached all the way up to the ceiling. They were no longer in use, but their presence served as a reminder of beermaking’s long history there. 

As the class instructor showed the students how to measure and add hop pellets to the brew, monitor its temperature, and check its gravity with a cylindrical floating hydrometer, a common difference between German and American brewing quickly became apparent. The German focus on perfection and refinement meant that this system included far more automation than the students were accustomed to, further emphasizing the importance of learning while embedded in another culture.

Ball was the only student in the exchange with a brewing background. His interest in making beer was ignited by his father, who joined him on the trip. It was this passion that led Ball to the Department of Food Science and Technology’s fermentation program, and by the time he was headed to Bavaria, he’d recently graduated and had landed a job as process manager for fermentation at the largest brewery in the U.S. — Anheuser-Busch. 

Despite his years of experience making beer in the U.S. Ball was immediately struck by how different German brewing culture was. 

“In Germany, brewing seems to be more like a hard science, and the goal is to learn how to make the highest quality brew with simple ingredients,” Ball explained. “Whereas in America, brewing is a lot more creative with its ingredients, which doesn't always seem to result in high-quality beer.”

Little more than three weeks after Ball, Tuguldur, Taylor, and Risa Dickermann, who also went on the trip, sampled wheat beers in class that first Friday, the program had come to an end. Though their time there was short, they left with a wealth of new knowledge, friends, and stories to tell. For Dickermann, who had just graduated from Virginia Tech’s biological systems engineering program a few weeks before embarking, the experience gave her not only a window into a different culture than she’d experienced growing up in New Mexico but also practical skills in a new area just in time to begin her career. 

“Part of the reason I came here was I’ve always been interested in fermentation and the microbiome, so it gives me a certain appreciation and a little bit of background so that I could potentially apply to breweries that have hired other members of my engineering program,” she said. 

For Taylor, the trip allowed her to walk in her grandmother’s footsteps. 

“My maternal grandmother is from Germany and actually owned and worked in a brewery years ago that no longer exists,” she said. “When I told her I was going to Germany to study brewing, she was like, ‘Oh, I have so many pictures I can show you!’ That was pretty cool to hear about.”

At the end of the program, Taylor returned with countless new pictures of her own.