Faculty Innovators: Aaron Setterdahl and Lisa Russell

3rd September 2019
Dr. Aaron Setterdahl and Dr. Lisa Russell.

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–Donum Dei Brewery in New Albany seems like a strange place to hold a chemistry class. But for students of Dr. Aaron Setterdahl, associate professor of chemistry at IU Southeast, it’s the logical setting for a course in beer science.

On an afternoon in the first summer session, a half-dozen students followed Richard Otey, founder, brewer and certified beer sommelier, into the main brewing area at Donum Dei, a space in the back of the building crammed with repurposed boilers, vats and other shiny steel equipment. Here they took part in a rapid-fire Q&A about the basics of brewing: volume, temperature, pressure, time, depreciation, taxes, laws, inspections, labor.

For a course whose title hinted at debauchery, it was all rather sobering.

And that’s the point.

With Dr. Lisa Russell, associate professor of strategic management and entrepreneurship, injecting insights into the conversation, it became clear that this is both a science that involves business and a business that involves science.

“The two are completely intermingled,” Russell said.

This blending is at the heart of a new collaboration between Setterdahl and Russell that, while still in its infancy, demonstrates the willingness to innovate across IU Southeast’s academic community.

“They didn’t spit it out.”

Just five years ago, Setterdahl proposed a beer science course as a way of increasing enrollment in chemistry.

He had begun brewing his own beer at home a couple of years prior, and the feedback from friends had been positive. He felt sufficiently fortified to enter one of his beers in the Kentucky State Fair. He didn’t win, but the judges were supportive.

“They didn’t spit it out,” Setterdahl said.

In his summer beer science course, students apply biochemical concepts and lab procedures to brewing.

They learn about flavor molecules and how they relate to beer, using the iconic molecule in hops called the alpha acid.

They also learn about the biochemical process that takes the glucose molecule from barley and goes through glycolysis, then fermentation, to make ethanol, the basis of all alcohol.

Setterdahl uses a textbook on Canvas, and there are daily discussions and online quizzes, in addition to a visit to Setterdahl’s home to help make a batch of home brew. As a final project, the students develop their own recipe using the knowledge they have amassed.

For Setterdahl, the beer science course has long since become more than an enrollment booster. It might just be the first step toward a full-fledged degree program.

Once confined to trade schools, fermentation science undergraduate degree programs are popping up around the country, with Bachelors of Science awarded at institutions including Appalachian State, Oregon State, UC Davis, Western Michigan, Auburn and others.

What’s behind the growth?

According to Setterdahl, the success of small-batch brewers in the decades since 1980, when President Jimmy Carter legalized home brewing, has demonstrated the viability of brewing as an art–and as a business. This is a point not lost on Setterdahl.

In trying to generate connections for internships, Setterdahl has spoken with numerous local microbrewers, most of whom are retired professionals with backgrounds in science. Whenever possible, he queried them about internship possibilities, and generally received enthusiastic responses. A common refrain emerged from all of these conversations.

“They have the science, but wish they had taken more courses in business,” Setterdahl said.

Streaking the Quad

While Setterdahl was honing the scientific aspects of his course, microbrews were becoming ever larger blips on Russell’s radar.

 “I used the beer industry in my strategy course, because of the way it has waxed and waned over the years,” Russell said.

She traces the development of beer from the mainstay of hefty men in “This Body By Beer” T-shirts in the 1970s to a “Less Filling, Tastes Great” beverage targeting fitness-savvy women in the 1980s, to the emergence of microbrews with irreverent names like “Tactical Nuclear Penguin” and “Streaking the Quad” in the 2000s, fueling hipsters with a taste for offbeat creativity.

Russell favors an ice-cold raspberry beer from a certain local brewer, but doesn’t consider herself an expert. For her, beer is about supply chains, labor and equipment costs, profits, long term market trends and disruptive innovation.

It’s also about telling a story through branding, an important part of her entrepreneurship curriculum.

“Craft beer makes up only about 12 percent of the overall beer sold, but it’s the focal point for the millennial generation that wants a broader experience of the flavor and the chemistry,” Russell said. “They’re into the authenticity of craft.”

With its ability to create enduring brand loyalty among its target market, the craft niche punches far above its weight class. Major labels understand this and have been eager to buy up successful craft brands or develop their own “craft” divisions to hold onto or expand market share.

Russell happened to attend the meeting of the Faculty Senate that considered and approved Setterdahl’s course. His presentation captured Russell’s imagination, and the idea of a collaboration began to take shape. That idea became reality when Setterdahl and Russell entered the joint project for a coveted FACET Innovate Award this past summer.

They won handily, solidifying their partnership.

A laboratory of innovation

For Setterdahl and Russell, microbrewing is as much about innovation as it is about beer.

A micro-brewery is a laboratory of innovation.

That has to do with the scientific bent of brewers, the need to adapt equipment in order to cut costs, and the value proposition of the business, which places a premium on novelty.

For micro-brewers, innovation is a way of life, which is something new.

Established breweries and conglomerates, such as Anheuser Busch–whose 69 brands account for nearly half of all beer consumed—settle on a few classic brews, then do everything they can to maintain that easily identifiable flavor profile.

Micro-brewers, on the other hand, eschew the classics, since their entire business model depends on their ability to develop unusual flavors. To do this requires using all their expertise in chemistry, biology and sourcing, as well as marketing. If a certain variety of hops is in short supply or is too expensive due to high demand, for example, brewers must identify and source substitutes in order to approximate the desired flavor.

Master brewer Richard Otey guides IU Southeast beer science students through the Donum Dei Brewery.

“Innovation comes in with the micro-brews,” Setterdahl said. “They want to find the next greatest flavor, or aroma, so they innovate in many ways to tweak equipment, recipes or artwork to create something truly unique.”

Taking concepts from the specialty coffee industry, which riffed on concepts from the specialty tea industry, which adapted concepts from the wine industry—concepts such as terroir, origin, and appellation, as well as irony and wit—the craft beer sector relies on strong narratives to help consumers fall in love with the uniqueness of a single product.

The result is a market that is small but has incredible loyalty and growth.

Russell sees the success of micro-brews as an indicator of a paradigm shift driven by millennials.

“We are embracing things like environmental conscientiousness, elimination of waste in the production of goods, and adoption of wholesome, natural, pure ingredients,” Russell said. “In the midst of virtual relationships, we find value in rekindling our physical connections to others and an authentic connection with a local businesses tends to draw customers who value such relationships.”

These points resonate among the students at Donum Dei. Beer is a good way to study chemistry, but it might also be a good way to apply that chemical knowledge in a lucrative way.

Capitalizing on the demand

For Setterdahl and Russell, the future is cloudy but lots of ideas are bubbling to the surface.

They are still in the lab, as it were, perfecting the profile of a possible curriculum that would help students succeed in the crafting of a product that is in perpetual demand, with the business acumen to successfully bring it to market and capitalize on that demand.

Setterdahl would like to broaden course offerings beyond beer to include all manner of fermented comestibles, including wine, cheese, yogurt and even tea and chocolate, along with Russell’s courses in entrepreneurship and marketing, as well as internships that would help students develop both general and specialized skills to help them make a living without leaving Kentuckiana, all the while participating in a global industry.

“The importance of small local businesses to the community and the local economy cannot be overstated.,” Russell said. “With respect to a brewery, establishing a local or regional character helps to create an identity and carve out a niche which can be marketed world-wide.” 

For the moment, like a batch of an experimental micro-brew, the ideas for this collaboration continue to ferment.

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