For the past five winter terms, Miami University’s Supply Chain Craft Brewery Field Study has brought students to breweries in the greater Portland, Ore. area and the Front Range of Colorado, and in 2016 began adding a visit to the East Coast beer mecca of Asheville, N.C.
“In its early years, the program was much more focused on the big brewers and the better-known craft breweries that have sprung up to compete with them,” says Dr. Michael Conger, assistant professor of management and the field study’s coordinator. “Today, we cast a much wider net. We not only work with a greater variety of breweries, but we also survey the entire industry including the Brewer’s Association, yeast labs, hop farms, equipment manufacturers, and distributors.”
The program has also grown from its initial hyper-focus on supply chain issues in the brewing industry to incorporate such topics as Conger’s specialties of entrepreneurship and strategy. He credits program founder, colleague, and “beer buddy” Rocky Newman with seeing its widespread potential and taking the steps to realize those goals.
“By adding different subfields, and along with them different faculty like me and a more diverse set of students, we can give students a much richer perspective and deeper understanding of the industry,” Conger says.
In turn, those enrolled in the course have stepped up their curiosity and gotten the most out of their inter-semester weeks.
“They asked so many questions — relentlessly at times,” Conger says. “I think the people we’ve been able to talk with year after year have really become partners with us and help push the students deeper in their understanding of what’s going on in the brewing industry today.”
Helping spur those queries for Conger and his class in 2019 was a general lack of first-hand experience with Asheville’s brewing industry. The avid homebrewer had tasted what he calls “a lot of great beer from Asheville,” namely as a judged board member for the US Open Beer Championship. While that familiarity led to Conger seeking out Burial Beer Co., Bhramari Brewing Co., Wedge Brewing Co., Up Country Brewing Co., Thirsty Monk, and Wicked Weed Brewing’s sour-focused Funkatorium during his free time in Asheville, students like Madison Cain experienced something close to an epiphany in Western North Carolina.
“I had heard of Hi-Wire Brewing since it is sold locally, but I did not even realize that New Belgium [Brewing Co.] and Sierra Nevada [Brewing Co.] had brewing facilities there,” Cain says. “I had associated brewing with the Western U.S. before going on this trip, and had just assumed that the Eastern U.S. did not have as much to offer.”
Full-class visits to Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, the East Coast operations of Oskar Blues Brewery and White Labs, as well as Highland Brewing Co. — Asheville’s oldest brewery — and Riverbend Malt House provided a crash course in the city’s diverse industry, which Cain views as “a lot less saturated” and with “a lot of growing potential” compared with those in Oregon and Colorado. Benefits of a still relatively new local scene likewise caught Conger’s attention.
“The biggest things that stood out to me were the connectedness you can see among folks in the brewing industry in Asheville. Of course, you see close relationships and collaboration among brewers everywhere craft beer is being made, but that culture is so pervasive in Asheville,” he says. “During our stop at White Labs’ taproom, we found ourselves in the middle of a celebration tapping the first pint of a Baltic Porter collaboration between White Labs, Hi-Wire, and Riverbend. It’s not something you see so prevalently outside of places like Bend or Ft. Collins. Asheville’s got that same kind of beer culture.”
As the field study heads into its sixth year, Conger is excited to return to Asheville and hopes to incorporate more adventures overall though an increasing network of new partners and to stay “on the bleeding edge of what’s happening in the industry in terms of products, strategies, business models, [and] collaborations.” He sees the brewing industry as arguably the most dynamic and multifaceted business arena of them all, and strives to utilize its varied nature to make the program accessible to more students from Miami’s different disciplines.
“I’m an entrepreneurship professor, so bringing a big cross-section of the student population together to learn about this unique and exciting industry is something I’m really committed to,” Conger says. “Miami has been at the forefront of the multi-disciplinary, liberal-arts approach to education for a very long time. Experiences like the ones we have in this program are exactly why students come to Miami and we aim to deliver on that.”