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Alex Hupke collects samples at the brewery.

Hinterland Brewery Partnership Offers Internship, Lab Support and More

It all began with some over-carbonated and off-flavor beer that had to be dumped. The employees at Hinterland Brewery in Green Bay, creator of fine, craft suds, were looking for the source of the contamination likely behind the problem, but were stumped.

Luckily, Hinterland brewer Scott Kissman’s wife, Carrie, is a member of the biology faculty at St. Norbert. Kissman mentioned the problem to Carrie, who suggested he discuss the issue with David Hunnicutt, one of her colleagues and a microbiologist. Their ensuing discussion back in 2013 was the start of today’s partnership between St. Norbert and Hinterland, a union that’s proving quite fruitful for the brewery, St. Norbert and its students.

After the two men spoke, Hunnicutt tapped two students to develop a research project that delved into the effectiveness of Hinterland’s tank-washing process to see if this could help pinpoint the problem. The brewery also began sending Hunnicutt samples of its beer whenever there was a taste issue so Hunnicutt and his students could test it in their well-equipped lab and try to identify problematic organisms.

At some point, Hinterland owner Bill Tressler realized St. Norbert was the answer to a niggling problem he was having with his wish for top-notch quality control. As a small brewery producing about 5,000 barrels of beer annually, Hinterland didn’t have its own microbiology lab. Any time the brewery needed to test its beer for yeast or bacterial growth, which can affect a beer’s flavor and carbonation, it had to outsource the work to a Kentucky facility. The Kentucky lab only offered pricey package testing that covered numerous potential problems, not individual testing as Hinterland desired, and test results weren’t available for upwards of three weeks, which was far too long for the brewery’s needs.

Tressler had tried tapping local labs to perform the testing. But the ones he contacted were set up for cheese and dairy products, and feared the possibility of cross-contamination if they brought beer into their labs. He hadn’t thought about contacting a local college until now.

By the fall of 2015, a formal internship program was in place. The program requires the St. Norbert intern to perform quality control work for Hinterland under Hunnicutt’s supervision, testing the brewery’s beer at various stages of the brewing process. Last year’s intern, Nelson Milbach, also tested a centrifuge the brewery purchased to ensure it was eliminating excess microbes as promised. (It was.)

Tressler, Hunnicutt and the interns – this year’s is Alex Hupke – are all thrilled with the arrangement.

“We’ve cut our lab testing costs by a ton working through St. Norbert,” says Tressler. “And they’ve saved us tons of time because they turn around the testing results much faster. They also listen to us and come back with lots of solutions about different ways to do things. It’s been pretty awesome.”

Hunnicutt and the interns appreciate being able to take their learning out of the lab and apply it in a real-world setting. And everyone hopes the internship will produce at least a few Hinterland employees in the future. Tressler would have hired Milbach upon his graduation last May, he says, but Milbach is entering pharmacy school this fall.

With St. Norbert now home to the Gehl-Mulva Science Center, which contains state-of-the-art lab equipment that many smaller businesses can’t afford, Hunnicutt says the possibility of similar partnerships with other companies certainly exists. “We have a lot of expertise among our faculty and students that could be of use to a lot of businesses in this area.”

Tressler is glad Hinterland is already on board. “St. Norbert’s willingness to work with us is awesome,” he says. “They’re teaching us a ton, and hopefully we’re teaching them some things, too. The partnership is a good thing all around.”

Aug. 26, 2016