These college students are serious about their beer, but not in the way you might be thinking.
For members of the Northern Arizona University Craft Beer Association, a friendly “How’s it going?” quickly yields to an ardent discussion of the art form that is their passion.
“At first I thought, ‘Students and drinking beer, oh boy,’ ” said Mark Molinaro, executive chef in the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management at NAU. “But what I appreciate about the club is how they are so mature and engaged in the business aspect.”
Business, as well as also chemistry, engineering and organic gardening—the complexity of producing craft beer comes as a surprise to the uninitiated and invites students from a variety of disciplines to immerse themselves in a distinct, welcoming culture.
Molinaro arrived in Flagstaff from Vermont with a sincere appreciation for that culture and a “nerdy science” enthusiasm for home brewing. Early in 2015, he launched the NAU club, which has quickly attracted enthusiasts, aficionados and casual followers. Some are merely curious, while others envision a life’s pursuit, but all of them share a singular belief: a beer is not just a beer.
“We’re trying to change the attitude of how people approach beer,” Molinaro said. “It’s not a thing you consume—it’s a thing you enjoy and appreciate.”
And craft beer is not simply a passing fad. According to a study produced in 2012 by NAU’s Arizona Hospitality Research and Resource Center, the total impact of craft brewing in Arizona was $278 million, with the volume of craft-brewed beers showing double-digit growth nationally at a time of overall decline in beer sales. Those numbers signal opportunity as craft beer captures a larger share of the market.
Such trends aren’t lost on club members, some of whom have already launched their careers at local breweries. Matt Julien, vice president of the club, works at Grand Canyon Brewing Company.
“I’m very into gardening, and I’m passionate about the organic farm-to-table movement,” Julien said. “When I open my own brewery in the future, I want to grow my own hops and grow my own food for the restaurant.”
Julien and the other club members are gaining first-hand experience from the rhizomes up. Their hop garden on campus, with vines of seven varieties climbing a trellis designed and built by club members, will produce its first cones in the fall. Chiles and herbs have sprouted alongside. In the plans are a hot pepper ale, herbed saison, and a peppermint/cinnamon basil spiced winter ale.
The club does not brew on campus. Instead, they crush, mash, sparge, boil and cool the wort that is then combined with yeast at a local brewery. One such collaboration with Mother Road Brewing Company produced a fast-selling IPA.
But behind the success lies a long, difficult process rife with variables that requires intense focus. From battling aphids in the hop garden, to gathering the right ingredients, to controlling temperature and pH, brewing is not a casual exercise.
According to Molinaro, “Sourcing quality ingredients, sanitation, knowing the warning signs and key marks to hit along the process—it’s kind of like a black box process. You’ll read a lot that brewers don’t make the beer, they make the conditions that are really good for yeast to make the beer. With all the variables, it’s very difficult to repeat ideal conditions.”
Even students who aren’t interested in tackling the tricky brewing process—or perhaps aren’t even old enough to drink—can play a role in the club.
“People bring their gifts and talents,” Molinaro said. “They find they can tap into the brewing business and find a fit.”
The club hopes to expand, in part through the Cicerone program, which offers numerous levels of certification. Julien said club meetings may focus discussion on a particular variety of beer or involve a site visit to a brewery, and everyone gets excited about producing the wort that could result in a few kegs of the next craft beer sensation.
“The craft beer culture is the biggest draw to me,” Julien said. “It’s friendly and open, and everyone has a smile on their face. There’s a beer for everybody.”