MSc Brewing and Distilling at Heriot Watt University: a review

Earlier this month I submitted my dissertation and completed my Master’s degree in Brewing & Distilling at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling (ICBD) at Heriot Watt University. Now seemed like an apt time to reflect upon the past 12+ months of study and share some thoughts. I hope that this information could be relevant to those considering enrolling in the course or to those who are just curious.

Let’s start with some key information:

Length of course: full-time (12 months), part-time (24 months) or distance learning (flexible).

Tuition fees: £7,522 – £20,200 (cost of entire programme, dependent upon residency status).

Number of modules: 8 (including dissertation and two elective modules, total 180 credits).

Number of on-campus students: approximately 70.

Contact hours (full-time, weekly): approximately 12, including practical classes. Studying outside of the classroom took me up to approximately 40 hours weekly.

ICBD pilot brewery

My motivation to study Brewing & Distilling was to improve my technical and scientific understanding of the brewing process. Prior to my studies, I had already completed an apprenticeship as a Brewer & Maltster. Therefore, I already had a firm grasp of the brewing and malting processes. However, my academic background was not science or engineering related (BA French & German studies). This meant that during the first semester I was doing extra reading in order to catch up with the learning material. Overall, my non-technical background did not cause too many problems.

The lectures (online and face-to-face format) were generally informative and enjoyable. The courses are taught by highly knowledgeable industry professionals and academics. Lecture content is largely up to date with modern trends in the brewing industry and could be interesting for craft brewers. The guest lectures were particularly fascinating. For example, Sir Geoff Palmer (Professor Emeritus at Heriot Watt University) discussed malt modification and Dr Tom Shellhammer (Oregon State University) presented his results from a recent study on dry hopping.

Technical talk and tasting from Matt Brynildson, Hop Growers of America

Practical courses are taught in the ICBD laboratories (both chemical-technical and microbiological analysis) as well as in the pilot brewery and distillery. This brings me to an important point: do not study MSc Brewing & Distilling if you are seeking to gain extensive practical experience. Based upon my impression, ICBD graduates are not particularly renowned in industry for their practical expertise. If your goal is to gain practical brewing experience, I would recommend a brewing apprenticeship or completing an IBD qualification alongside employment in a brewery. The practical sessions at Heriot Watt are infrequent, introductory level at best and I did not believe that they were particularly valuable to my professional development. Personally, I believe that prospective students should have at least one year of existing brewing/distilling experience in order to benefit most from the course.

The module I enjoyed the most was “An introduction to process technology”. Whilst I initially struggled with some applied mathematics, some essential physical principles relevant to brewing and malting were presented in an approachable manner. These included mass balance, thermal dynamics, fluid dynamics and psychrometry. Courses are generally assessed by essays, lab reports, practical demonstration and final exams.

Class trip to Simpsons Maltings, Berwick-upon-Tweed

The highlight of my degree was my industrial placement at the Versuchs- und Lehranstalt für Brauerei in (VLB) Berlin, Germany. The VLB Berlin is an internationally recognised research and educational institute for brewing technology. I spent the final six months of my degree studying at the VLB Berlin funded by the Erasmus+ scheme. Here, I worked in an analytical laboratory and performed the data collection for my dissertation entitled “Application and validation of (OFD-)HS-SPME-GC-MS/MS for malt aroma analysis”. Heriot Watt actively encourages students to seek industry placements for the final research project. For example, the Natural Selection Brewing project group in partnership with local Stewart Brewing allows students to develop a recipe, brew the beer on a commercial scale and sell this nationally. On the whole, the connection between the ICBD and the UK brewing industry is strong.

During my placement at the VLB Berlin, I realised the depth of content taught at Heriot Watt University is fairly shallow. I discovered this when I spoke to colleagues who graduated from brewing courses at highly presitgious universities, including TU Berlin and TUM Weihenstephan. The academic standard and breadth of courses offered at these institutions is significantly higher than at Heriot Watt University. And frankly, it shows. Some of the most knowledgeable and talented brewing professionals that I know graduated from these universities. At Heriot Watt, some crucial subjects were covered very briefly during lectures, or not at all.  For example, brewery cleaning and hygienic design were covered in a single lecture. Whilst these subjects are perhaps not so glamorous, I believe they require significantly more attention than this.

Overall, I enjoyed my experience at Heriot Watt University. Despite the insufficient practical courses and lacking depth of content, I vastly improved my knowledge of the brewing and malting processes. Additionally, I built an international network of brewing industry professionals, I went on exchange at the VLB Berlin and finally, I am lucky enough to have found a graduate job starting in January 2021.

For more information, visit the Heriot Watt course page:

2 thoughts on “MSc Brewing and Distilling at Heriot Watt University: a review

  1. I went to Heriot-Watt 13 years ago years ago so things might have changed a bit since then. I totally agree that you don’t get much practical experience, but that part if quite easy to learn at work once you have a job, unlike say chemical engineering! You’re right it would have been better to have some practical brewing experience before doing the course though.

    I found some of the areas quite in depth, like the engineering, malting and yeast, and being able to study full time is a lot easier than trying to gain an IBD qualification whilst working full time.


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