Dr. Stephan Sommer is interim director of Appalachian’s fermentation sciences program. He has industry experience in various fields of beverage production, including wineries, sparkling wine companies, breweries, table water production, and related fields like laboratories and industrial flavor production. He managed a commercial beverage laboratory and was involved in research and education for the German wine industry.
What excites you, motivates you or otherwise inspires you about this degree field?
I always felt that plain chemistry and biology are hard to study if you do not have an example that you can relate them to. Fermentation sciences is the applied mixture of both core sciences. Microorganisms change the chemical nature of food and beverages making it safe for human consumption, healthier in most cases, and a lot more aromatic. We would not be where we are as a society if it was not for the discovery of fermentation many thousand years ago.
Why did you choose to come to Appalachian to teach?
I was teaching enology in Germany for a few years when I decided to return to my roots and work with more than just wine. The fermentation sciences program here at Appalachian State University is unique and offers the whole spectrum of research and teaching related to bioprocessing, foods and beverages. I met the former director, Dr. Cohen, a few years earlier and decided to take the step when the major was still fairly new. It was a great opportunity for me to develop my academic career and a program at the same time.
What is your research specialty and how does it fit into and/or strengthen your teaching?
My research focus is on product stability and shelf life, mainly for wine and cider. I am interested in ways to combine modern winemaking techniques with traditional approaches to help improve perceived product quality. Analytical techniques in combination with sensory evaluation are key components in understanding this rather abstract quality idea. I try to use these research results in my lectures as examples, also to encourage critical thinking and an open mind in this globalized wine world.
What do you hope students take away from the classes you teach?
I try to teach students that it is much more important to understand concepts rather than to memorize specific details. That goes back to fermentation sciences as an applied science. I also try to inspire students by using a lot of hands-on exercises. If they like the food they are making, they are more likely to be interested in the science behind it.
Why should a student interested in this degree choose Appalachian?
The program at Appalachian is fairly unique on the East Coast. Very few universities in the country offer four-year degrees in the field, often split between multiple departments and with a focus on beer or wine. If a student is also interested in the multiple uses of fermentation, like foods, bioprocessing, biofuels, bioremediation or biotechnology, Appalachian might not only be their best but also their only choice.