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A Geochemist Finds Her Element with Craft Beer

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Penny Higgins is a vertebrate paleontologist and geochemist who loves to brew beer. Penny, who lives outside of Rochester, New York, hopes to eventually open a craft brewery with her husband. She recently enrolled in the UVM Business of Craft Beer Program to figure out how to make her dream career a reality.

We talked to Penny about why she loves brewing beer, what she is learning from the UVM program, and her 10-year plan to open a brewery in rural upstate New York.

When and why did you start brewing?

Penny Higgins

I started brewing maybe three years ago. It was on a whim. I enjoy beer, and I thought I might try brewing some. It was good, so I kept on brewing. One of my favorite things is to brew beers to honor the host cities of the big geoscience meetings each year. I’ve brewed a chili lager for a meeting in Houston, Texas, that wound up being too hot for me to drink. My favorite beer that I ever brewed was a Baltimorphic Complex, honoring the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting that was in Baltimore last year.

Are you thinking about changing careers and opening a microbrewery?

I’m not sure if a career change is coming soon, because I really enjoy my work. I’m a vertebrate paleontologist and geochemist with research focus on ancient climate. However, the paycheck that comes with my job as a research associate at the University of Rochester is dependent upon the whims of major funding organizations, like the National Science Foundation, and the administrators of the university. I’ve held this job for almost 12 years now, but there’s no guarantee that I’ll continue to be employed even for another year. Should I lose my current job, opening a microbrewery may be my next career move. Starting a microbrewery is part my husband’s and my ten-year plan. In ten years, we want to be in a position where we could lose our jobs and still be able to support ourselves financially without having to move. Operating a brewery might be the way to go.

Why did you enroll in the UVM Business of Craft Beer Program?

I started in this program to explore the realities of operating a craft brewery. Would it be possible to start a brewery and continue my job at the University of Rochester? Or would I have to leave academia and do a complete career shift? When I began the UVM course, I had planned on keeping my job and running a brewery on the side, but since taking Fundamentals of Craft Beer course, I’ve realized that probably isn’t realistic. If you ask me now whether I will definitely start a brewery, the best answer I can give right now is a hefty “I don’t know.”

How did you learn about the UVM Business of Craft Beer Program?

I learned about this from Brew Your Own magazine. There was a story on opportunities to learn more about brewing. The UVM program caught my eye because it was about how to run a brewery, not just how to brew beer. As a geochemist, brewing beer is just another kind of chemistry. But the business end of things…that might as well be explained in hieroglyphics. I had talked to a few people about the art of running a brewery, but I knew what I needed was formal coursework. This program was perfect.

What has been your experience taking an online course at UVM?

I’m completed the Fundamentals of Craft Beer course and plan on enrolling in the Business Operations course this fall. This is my first online course experience. It has been a little strange to me because it’s been many years since I was last a student and now I teach at the university level myself. In general, I’ve enjoyed the experience. I particularly liked that each module was arranged to go each week from Wednesday to Tuesday, giving us already-have-a-full-time-job participants the weekend to get our homework done and still have time to review other students’ posts.

Are you finding the coursework challenging?

The work itself was interesting and challenging. Were I not so darn interested in the material, I might have considered it difficult, based upon the time and energy I had to put into it. In the end, I wish I had more time to work on the exercises and respond to my peers’ posts. I really enjoyed the interaction and got a lot out of it. The estimate of 6-10 hours a week of coursework was spot on, but you could easily spend a lot more time.

Why would you recommend the program?

The UVM craft beer program is perfect for anyone who is considering starting a brewery but lacks business experience. Sure, there are books out there. But at least for me, formal coursework with instructors on-hand to answer questions helps accelerate the learning and allows you to avoid big mistakes. Plus, it also puts you in contact with some important names in the craft beer industry, which can potentially give you a boost when getting started.

What is the craft beer scene like in Rochester?

Craft is going crazy in Rochester. There are currently more than 10 craft breweries in Monroe County, which includes Rochester and the greater metropolitan area. I live about 30 miles east of Rochester in Wayne County. Though it is about the same size as Monroe County, there is not a single brewery of any kind in Wayne County, although there is a cidery and a winery. Because Wayne County is less populated and largely agricultural and industrial, that may explain why there are no breweries. My hope is that I can open a brewery that taps into the rural culture of where I live. We’ll see if I still want to do that after finishing the UVM course.

Learn more about the UVM Business of Craft Beer Program.