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FORT COLLINS is a college town known every bit as much for having the highest-quality breweries in the United States. Within its borders sit the fourth-largest craft brewery in America (New Belgium Brewing), the second in a long line of downtown-revitalizing brewpubs launched by John Hickenlooper (Coopersmith’s), and the 2012 Small Brewery of the Year (Funkwerks).
But no beer maker in town has formed as close a connection with Colorado State University and its expeditions into brewing science as Odell Brewing, the 26-year-old beer-making icon nationally lauded for its IPA and for its experiments in barrel aging. Co-founder Doug Odell has guest-lectured at CSU fermentation classes for as long as they’ve been given, and for nine years now he has invited students in one particular course to test-brew a batch on one of his pilot systems.
As Odell entered a major growth phase over the past year, it would have been reasonable to assume its owners scaled back their generosity of time with the University. Odell Brewing, after all, is no longer Fort Collins’ little secret; it’s the 34th-largest craft brewery in America.
But even as owners Doug and Wynne Odell ramp up their national profile, they also are doubling down on their commitment to CSU and its developing Fermentation Science and Technology program. In addition to donating $100,000 toward outfitting a laboratory and developing an on-campus brewing system, Doug sits on the advisory board developing the program’s classes and continues to host students each semester to celebrate the fruits of their brewing labors.
“It’s kind of a natural fit in that we value our community involvement here at Odell Brewing Company, and this all seems to be a natural way to further that,” Doug said.
Added Wynne, “We have both financial and service-oriented philanthropy involvements, and contributing to the education of the area is a goal.”
The Odells are not CSU products, although their son, Riley, graduated from the University in December. Instead, they moved to Fort Collins from Seattle in the late 1980s, viewing it then as a more fertile area to stake a claim in the emerging microbrewery niche at a time when many viewed Washington state as becoming saturated with the industry.
Fast-forward to 2005. Odell had made a name with its 90 Shilling Scottish-style ale and its Easy Street Wheat. At the same time, food science professor Jack Avens launched the school’s first brewing science class and asked Doug Odell to come and give students an overview of the process. The brewer donated his time and never looked back.
One year later, Doug offered the use of Odell’s pilot brewing system to the class, allowing them to produce a recipe that they’d designed and come back three weeks later to tap it. The tradition continues today, to the point where Doug often gets a band to play at the party and lauds the efforts of the students himself.
In 2008, the Odells donated a small brewing system to the school for use by students in the classes. And they haven’t hesitated to hire students who have come through Avens’ class, including two who went on to work in the brewery’s laboratory and one who became a brewer.
Despite the fact that CSU was offering just one class centered on brewing, it was having a profound effect at the time on producing industry members, Doug remembered.
University of California-Davis used to send resumes of the graduates of its brewing program to major breweries, and the Odells once noticed that three people in one year had gone through Avens’ class and then into the nationally known program.
Seeing the success that lone course was having, University officials began to have bigger ideas, said Jeff Callaway, a former graduate student and lab instructor for Avens’ class who is now director of industry outreach for the Fermentation Science and Technology program. They began working on the new program in 2010, got approval, and launched it officially in 2013.
The program aims to educate students from fields to foam, as Callaway said – to teach the wide range of science, engineering, packaging, and business management in relation to fermentation fields. While brewing is a major component of it, the program also looks at fermented foods and other fermented beverages, offering students a vast opportunity to learn about the science.
Even as the advisory board continues to develop classes, interest is increasing rapidly, Callaway said. There are roughly 75 students in the program now – many of them coming back for second degrees – and he gets email weekly from CSU students wanting to change majors to enroll or students at other schools wanting to transfer into the program.
Callaway acknowledged that even as a graduate student in 2007, he felt the University was late to the game in providing brewing education. But Doug Odell recalled that before he got into the business, there was little need for educating brewers for the limited number of operating breweries. And even in the early days of the craft-beer boom, those pioneers weren’t as sophisticated in terms of their training levels.
Now, however, CSU could provide a pipeline to the rapidly escalating number of breweries in the state, the Odells said. And anyone needing to understand just how dramatic that growth is need look only at Odell Brewing in 2014.
The company began distribution into its 11th state, but it was no minor add-on to its portfolio. That new state, Texas, is home to 26 million people; the previous 10 states in Odell’s portfolio house a combined 33 million.
Odell Brewing’s production levels grew 28 percent in 2014, in part because of the Texas addition, Doug said. “That was a big move for us,” he added. “That’s been a little bit of a challenge to keep up with that.”
Keeping up with the newest trends in the craft-brewing industry, Odell continues to offer a wider variety of brews, from new limited-release offerings like its Lugene Chocolate Milk Stout to seasonals like its Runoff Red IPA to rarer cellar-aged products like its Fernet-Aged Porter. (Fernet is a dark European liqueur with a heavy licorice taste.) In 2014, it packaged 25 different beers alone, Wynne noted.
The brewery also bought the building east of it for a facility dedicated solely to Odell’s barrel-aging program, producing more limited-distribution beers that could sit in barrels anywhere from a couple of months to years. That will open early this year. “We devote an awful lot of energy to staying relevant,” Wynne said.
But even with all that activity, the brewery offered up $100,000 to help launch the new fermentation science program. Doug also took part in helping to design the laboratory and advising what kind of education he hopes industry workers can have.
“I think the success of it will grow hand in hand with the craft- brewing industry, because as we continue to grow we need talented people,” Doug said.
Wynne also emphasized that she hopes the new program can generate original science on the art of brewing fermentation. And on that desire, she is not alone.
Callaway said the 10-year plan for the program involves the creation of a fermentation institute that works with other departments and with labs on campus to do high-level research. Breweries that can’t afford to staff their own quality-control laboratories – and typically, only the largest craft breweries do that right now – could hire CSU to undertake those services for them, he said.
“That is huge. The Achilles’ heel of the craft industry right now is largely acknowledged to be quality,” Wynne said.
So, the industry changes. Colorado State University’s commitment to the industry continues to change and increase. And Odell Brewing grows along with all of that.
Somehow, though, one thing hasn’t changed. Despite the addition of dozens of new beers, many of them in the ultra- hopped or sour styles that are so popular right now, Odell’s top seller remains the beer it introduced at its 1989 opening party – 90 Shilling.
Asked how a medium-bodied, lower-alcohol amber ale can still rule the day in era of exorbitant experimentation, Doug Odell pointed to a quality of beer that he believes the next generation of brewers can learn through CSU’s program – balance.
“I think it’s just a great everyday drinking beer. We’re kind of surprised at its staying power,” he admitted. “90 Shilling is kind of unique in that sense that not everyone is trying to make that beer because it’s not an exciting beer.”