With the popularity and proliferation of locally-produced beer, wine and spirits in Southern Illinois, you may be inclined to think that Southern Illinois University’s Fermentation Science Institute (FSI) is wholly dedicated to the study of fermented beverages. While the Institute, formally established in 2014 in the McLafferty Annex building on Carbondale’s campus, does offer important research and product testing services for regional brewers, distillers and vintners, the scope of the FSI is actually much broader – offering multi-disciplinary programs and research integrating SIU’s College of Science, College of Agricultural Sciences, College of Engineering and even the School of Medicine.
“We deal with beer and other alcoholic beverages, of course, but we do a lot more than that – whether it is fermented foods such as cheese, kimchi or even chocolate and coffee to various pharmaceutical applications, the Institute is interested in the full scope of fermentation sciences,” says Matt McCarroll, Director of the FSI. Although, the FSI is concerned with more than fermented beverages in the big picture, it is significant to note that the Institute has already made its mark on the beverage industry by becoming one of only a handful of programs in the country to offer a full four-year degree program in Fermentation Sciences and one of only six programs in North America to be officially recognized by the Master Brewers Association of the Americas – a distinction earned in 2017.
Where fermentation as education is concerned, the FSI is a growing program that has broad-based appeal for potential students to be attracted to Carbondale from nearly anywhere, geographically, due to the scarcity of a fully developed program like the one Southern Illinois University offers. “Our target is about 14 to 15 students enrolled in the degree program per year and we’re already poised to graduate our first students in 2018,” McCarroll noted.
To put the potential impact of this program in perspective, once word spread that the FSI existed in Carbondale, numerous industry suppliers and partners emerged, providing support and even donating equipment and materials to further the program’s evolution. McCarroll points out, “we have received a state-of-the-art flooring system for our pilot brewery and, most recently, a 75 gallon distillery.” In addition to these improvements, the program is set to implement a grain malting program, thanks to a recent USDA grant, as well as a fully-functional commercial teaching kitchen and sensory lab in collaboration with SIU’s Hospitality and Tourism Administration.
If you’re not a part of an industry working with fermentation, or a student at Southern Illinois University enrolled in the program, you might not have occasion to interact with the FSI directly, but the program is involved in the community on several levels, including co-organizational support of the popular Carbondale Brew Fest and various educational tasting opportunities throughout the year. McCarroll also noted that group tours of the facility can be arranged for interested organizations, along with various on-site workshop opportunities throughout the year.
The goal of the FSI, as McCarroll puts it, is to offer “a balance of serving the needs of the academic programs involved and the growing production industries regionally and nationally.” Even if the FSI itself isn’t always in the public eye, it is already an integral part of a burgeoning culture and industry that will continue to put Southern Illinois on the map, both academically and in terms of improving the quality of products we all enjoy and use.