Two Western Carolina Professors Aim For Microbrewery

When students want a beer, they rarely think of their professors, but that may soon change. Two professors from Western Carolina University, and a “silent partner”, are currently hard at work to make a new microbrewery for Sylva.

Dr. Sean O’Connell and Dr. Chris Cooper are not who you would call for a wild time. Each has a Ph.D. in their respective field (microbiology for Dr. O’Connell, political science for Dr. Cooper). Nevertheless, both have been brewing beer for some time now-in Dr. O’Connell’s case, 15 years.

“Fifteen years ago I was spending my second summer in Idaho. I had a roommate, and she showed me how to brew my first batch,” said Dr. O’Connell. “Then she moved away, and I kept brewing.”

O’ Connell developed a passion for brewing through strong associations with other brewers in Idaho. “The great thing,” says O’Connell, “was that there was a brewer’s club, the High Desert Brewers Association.”

He says that the association provided him with a great deal of moral support.

“My first few batches weren’t much, but they never told me that. They encouraged me, and gave me advice on what to improve.”

O’Connell continued to brew, and when he came to teach at Western Carolina University, he found that his skills were in some demand. He and another professor, Cooper, found themselves brewing small batches of beer for faculty club meetings.

While they worked together, the two talked about brewing, and the possibilities that it could hold for them.

“We were talking about how there are ten breweries in Asheville,” says O’Connell, “and how great it would be if there was one right here in Cullowhee. And we thought it was something we could do.” But opening a brewery is not something that happens overnight. O’Connell says that he, Cooper and another partner, who wishes to remain anonymous, and whom the professors refer to as the “silent partner”, don’t expect to open their microbrewery until 2010.

There are a few reasons for this. First, the trio needs to acquire resources. According to O’Connell, there are four ingredients in any good beer: water, hops, yeast, and malted barley. O’Connell and Cooper use well-water to brew their beer, and they can order hops. Since O’Connell is a microbiologist, he says growing yeast “isn’t a big deal.” However, the partners have determined that it would be cheaper to grow barley and malt it themselves than to order it. So gathering resources will take time. Second, they need money. O’Connell says that the partners have agreed that it would be best if they started small-in fact, they jokingly call their project a “nanobrewery.” Because the brewery will be small, it does not need a lot of money to run-but it will need some.

O’Connell says that the working title for the future brewery is the Tuckaseegee Brewing Cooperative. He, Cooper, and the silent partner have a lot of plans for the brewery-turning it into a brew pub and using to teach a microbiology class are only a few-but for the moment, the partners are content to lay the groundwork and look to the future.