At least a half-dozen colleges, both public and private, have announced officially-licensed university-branded beers this year.
Credit: Bloomberg

Colleges have long had to walk a delicate line with drinking. The majority of American undergraduate students will spend over half their education not being allowed to drink legally, a distinction that became standardized in 1984 when the National Minimum Drinking Age Act effectively made 21 the legal age for consumption of alcohol nationwide. And yet, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 58 percent of full-time college students ages 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the past month, 10 percent more than other persons of the same age. As a result of this incongruity, for decades, universities have shied away from associations with alcohol—closing campus bars and removing sales from sporting events.

But recently, a number of colleges have been reevaluating their relationship with booze. Since at least 2011, a number of major universities have been bringing alcohol sales back into stadiums. And this year, a step further: At least a half-dozen colleges, both public and private, have announced their own officially-licensed university-branded beers. In the past month alone, the University of New Mexico (Lobo Red Ale), New Mexico State University, (Pistol Pete's 1888 Ale), the University of Montana (Griz Montana Lager) and Purdue University (Boiler Gold-American Golden Ale) have all announced school-branded beer collaborations—almost doubling the number of such brews on the market.

The trend apparently began in 2015 when the University of Louisiana at Lafayette bragged that its Ragin' Cajuns Genuine Louisiana Ale was the first officially-licensed college beer in the country. (Though UC Davis, home to one of the most prestigious brewing programs in the country, may disagree with that claim: They temporarily licensed their name back in 2011.) Louisiana State University decided to overshadow its in-state neighbor the following year with its own Bayou Bengal Lager—a project that was a half-decade in the making. And another Louisiana school, Tulane University, announced its Green Wave Beer earlier this year—as did Colorado State University, which teamed up with none other than New Belgium Brewing for its Old Aggie Superior Lager.

Granted, less than a dozen officially-licensed beers is only a proverbial drop in the keg: The US has thousands of four-year universities. Still, these are noteworthy institutions, and their decision to attach their names to a beer certainly hints at an overall shift in attitudes towards alcohol. So what's behind the change of heart? A number of factors are at play, and different colleges have offered up different reasoning.

From an educational perspective, the boom in craft brewing has created a renewed interest in beer as career. More brewing programs have popped up at colleges across the country, and teaming up with a brewery is a natural extension of that. "The Boiler Gold-American Golden Ale was not the end goal for us, but rather a manifestation of the work we have done with the craft brewing industry and our larger vision of where we can grow that effort by developing our fermentation sciences and horticultural research," explained Brian Farkas, Head of the Department of Food Science at Purdue University.

Next fall, his department will add a fermentation sciences minor with the long-term goal of offering the discipline as a major. In the meantime, the Department of Food Science already has a hops and brewing analysis lab that works with the industry, and the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture has been working with local hop growers to help identify which varieties can best thrive in the state. "People's Brewing Co. owner Chris Johnson [who collaborated on the Boiler Gold] has been an active supporter of our educational and research initiatives," Farkas explained. "So for us, the willingness to have a university-branded ale was a culmination of that relationship and our broader vision to celebrate the industry and Purdue. University proceeds from sales will also help further our work by supporting agricultural research, including in key areas that support the craft brewing industry."

In the University of Montana's case, however, the choice to license a beer has a somewhat simpler explanation: honoring the school and the accomplishments of its alumni. Griz Montana Lager was brewed to celebrate the school's 125th anniversary by Big Sky Brewing Company, the state's largest craft brewer, which was co-founded by Bjorn Nabozney who wrote the business plan for the brewery in a UM finance class. But that's not to say that licensing the university's name was a simple decision. "There certainly is a reputation risk to this, which we went back and forth about," explained Mario Schulzke, the school's Associate Vice President of Integrated Communications/Chief Marketing Officer. "Our primary audience for this beer is our alumni and the local community and not students…. We ultimately thought there was a significant difference between serving beer on campus and allowing a local craft brewery (started in our business school) to become a licensee."

Schulzke also emphasized that the lager is a "lighter beer" that is only being licensed for a limited time to coincide with the anniversary. Plus, the proceeds will benefit the school. "Maybe most importantly, royalty dollars generated by beer sales will go to support alcohol awareness and late night transportation programs," he concluded. "So hopefully, this can truly be a win/win/win situation."