Beer Scout: Ohio’s Miami University business class visits Asheville breweries

LEARNING THE PROCESS: Upslope Brewery owner, entrepreneur and Miami University alumnus Matt Cutter discusses his experiences with the craft brewing industry with business students in Boulder, Colo.
LEARNING THE PROCESS: Upslope Brewery owner, entrepreneur and Miami University alumnus Matt Cutter discusses his experiences with the craft brewing industry with business students in Boulder, Colo. Photo by William Newman

Asheville’s brewing industry continues to attract more and more visitors each year. Now it’s garnering attention from academia as well.

During the week of Jan. 16, the 25 students of Miami University’s Farmer School of Business’ Supply Chain Craft Brewery Field Study class and professors Rhett Brymer and Rocky Newman were in town for the third leg of their winter program. The course is designed for students at the Ohio college interested in the supply-chain processes (sourcing, economies of scale, sustainability, environmental responsibility and distribution) associated with the U.S. brewing industry.

Having already visited breweries and met with various industry figures in the greater Denver, Colo., and Portland, Ore., areas, the group went to Oskar Blues Brewery in Brevard, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Mills River and Asheville’s New Belgium Brewing and Highland Brewing Co. Students were also given free time to explore other breweries in downtown Asheville and speak with employees, incorporating the independently acquired information into their final projects.

Newman, who teaches supply-chain management, got the idea for the course after connecting with a Deschutes Brewery brewer at an event during the company’s expansion into Ohio. Upon learning what Newman did for a living, the Deschutes representative said if Newman was ever out in Portland, he’d be happy to take his students on a tour. The next week, Newman starting working on making that visit and a corresponding course a reality. The first iteration was a hit and, now in its third year, the course has expanded to loop in Brymer’s specialty as well.

“I teach strategy, and it’s all about what kind of decisions are the top management team making,” Brymer says. “How do you organize your company so it beats other companies in the marketplace? The problem with strategy is so many students really don’t get it quite yet because they haven’t been in many organizations, so they’re not familiar with various industries.”

One way to make concepts understandable for students, Brymer continues, is to zero in on one industry and examine its various facets. “What we can figure out in the beer industry applies to every other industry,” he says. “It’s principles, and when you get done, you understand competition, how firms differentiate from each other, who’s winning in the marketplace, why they’re winning. They can see it up close and personal with the beer industry more so than any other industry we can think of.”

Students have to be at least 21 years old and have 15 prior hours of business classes to take the field study. Brymer and Newman hold information sessions for the course and advertise 11 months in advance. Students pay the regular rate for six hours of tuition, plus fees for air travel, hotels and other necessities, putting down a $500 deposit in March.

Since it’s not a brewing class, however, certain introductory knowledge is required before heading out for tours and tastings. At the end of the fall semester, two of the six two-plus-hour sessions cover the history of beer, the brewing process, the economics of beer and scale, industry-specific terminology (e.g., ABV, IBU) and beer styles.

In addition to brewery visits throughout their three regional stops, students toured the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colo., an Oregon hops farm and a yeast supplier, and had executives from large and small distributors as guest speakers. In response to their instructors’ request that they find two industries to compare to brewing in order to generalize the concepts learned, they took a self-guided tour of Portland’s Tillamook Cheese Factory — whose packaging floor resembles that of a brewery — and checked out the bakery at Asheville’s Rhubarb restaurant to learn how liquid bread’s more straightforward cousin is made.

Assignment-wise, the students have to write a short paper most days and five groups of five people will give presentations when they return to the Oxford, Ohio, campus at the end of the month. Two group papers are also required, one of which is a strategic analysis of a brewery from the tour. The other centers on Oxford’s Quarter Barrel Brewery, which the class visited multiple times before flying out west.

Mindful that Quarter Barrel is about to significantly expand its production to 500 barrels, Brymer and Newman asked their students to keep an eye out for patterns during their brewery tours. They are then expected to offer one piece of business advice to Quarter Barrel, including specific problems and solutions.

While the established brewing history of the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest areas make them obvious class destinations, the professors say Asheville is just as notable for its own reasons. Newman had been to New Belgium many times before creating the course, was familiar with Sierra Nevada in Chico, Calif., and soon made a point of visiting the original Oskar Blues facility in Colorado. When all three businesses chose to open second locations in Western North Carolina within a matter of months, he and Brymer couldn’t help but take notice.

“We thought, ‘That’s remarkable. There’s something there,’ and we had that confirmed when we started looking at the confluence of your highways — [interstate highways] 26, 40 and you’re not far from 75 and 95. From a distribution standpoint, you’re right in the middle of it. The laws in North Carolina make it much are more feasible to do than they would in South Carolina. The water table is on par with any place in country — your factors are kind of coming together in a perfect storm,” Newman says.

Meanwhile, Brymer sees parallels between Asheville and the class’s other stops in that people who love brewing are also drawn to the culture of the area. “You see it with how many craft breweries were there before Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues chose to come there. Culturally, it’s a cool place,” he says. “People from Denver or Boulder, when they go out east, if they were to choose a spot to hang out in, it would be Asheville. We were at Oskar Blues, and they were saying a big reason they chose Asheville was because they’re big mountain bikers.”

Brymer’s also impressed by the camaraderie among local breweries and residents’ commitment to local products: “The fact that there’s more Highland drunk in Asheville than Budweiser also sort of speaks to the emphasis of that segment of the industry.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin is a freelance writer and a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). He also contributes to the Asheville Citizen-Times.

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