Change is a-brewin’
From dentistry to first-place individual and team finishes in prestigious beer competitions, this grad’s tapping into transformation.
By Doug McPherson
You could say Connor Cottrill’s career shift took him from teeth to tongues.
A couple of years ago, he was finishing up his pre-dentistry studies at Western Washington University when he started thinking more about his hobbies than a profession. He says there were three epiphanies. One, a psychology class got him thinking about happiness. Second, he enjoyed a home beer-brewing kit his mom had bought him.
“The beer turned out good. My mom liked it, and I thought that was pretty cool,” Cottrill says. “I thought, ‘Wow, if I can make beer that tastes this good, I should see how good I could make it.’”
And the third one came during a second hobby – glass blowing.
“I was standing on the hot shop floor after blowing glass for the better part of the day, and the shop owner brought in a growler of beer from the brewery down the road,” he says. “I pulled out a hand-blown glass and poured myself a glass.”
As he sat there drinking and watching others finish up their glass-blowing projects, he realized it was one of those perfect moments.
“The feel of the hand-blown glass, the cold beer and the smell of wood and wax in the air,” he says. “I decided right then and there that I wanted other people to experience this kind of moment. I thought if money wasn’t a thing, what is it I’m most passionate about, and I came up with, ‘If I could blow glass and brew beer, I’d be a happy guy.’”
Cottrill says he has a sticker that reads: “art + science = beer.”
“That’s the reason I love it,” he says. “I love the artistic side and the passion. But passion alone wouldn’t make good beer; you have to be a bit of a nerd.”
He finished his degree at WWU and started researching where to continue his education in brewing to get his full nerd on.
“When I got into brewing and decided to make it my career, I wanted the best education I could buy,” he says.
After he considered all the options, he says, the final decision was easy.
“MSU Denver had it all,” he says. “It included a focus on business, promotion and marketing on top of the actual brewing. Plus it included a degree – not just a certificate – and it had a lot of hands-on internship options.”
One of those options was an internship at the Tivoli Brewing Co. on the campus where he got hundreds of hours of experience.
“I was able to apply what I had learned in class to a full-scale brewery,” he says. “I learned how to clean, package and brew. It was hard work but a great experience.”
He’s now working part-time at Diebolt Brewing Co. in Denver as a beertender.
“I pick the head brewer’s mind every chance I get,” he says.
Looking back, it sure looks like he made the right choice – for two reasons. First, he’s happy.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s going to be a job,” he says. “It’s just a lot of fun.”
But second, he’s good at it. So good, he just won a regional gold medal from the National Homebrewers Association, beating out 25 other brews to advance to national competition in Portland in June. Judges liked his sour strawberry cream ale, saying it was light, refreshing and very enjoyable with nice strawberry aroma and flavor that balanced well with the light sourness.
It’s not just an individual accomplishment, either. Ethan Tsai, Ph.D., an assistant professor who teaches in the MSU Denver beer program, will also advance to the national competition after taking third in the fruit-beer category.
Additionally, Tsai and Cottrill are part of the team that took home a first-place finish in the recent U.S. Open College Beer Championship for its Milky Way Stout (brewed with a candy bar of the same name), along with MSU Denver being named third overall for best brewing schools in North America.
Cottrill credits his early success in suds to his time at MSU Denver.
“The program has been amazing,” he says. “I’ve had many opportunities that exceeded my expectations.”
After Cottrill graduates with a bachelor’s degree in brewery operations this month, his next step will be to open a small brewery in his home state of Washington. He’s looking for investors and says his education and experiences at MSU Denver will help him get the cash he needs.
“It’s a risky business, and investors will want to see that I know what I’m talking about and that I have the right education and experience to make it all work,” he says. “MSU Denver gave me that; it made me a professional and credible to investors.”
And that’s something to raise a glass to – cheers to a new career.
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