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Miami administrator’s familial ties to bourbon become his life passion

<p>Michael Crowder</p>

Michael Crowder

As a child, Michael Crowder remembers celebrating holidays in southern Virginia fondly.

His entire family would gather at his grandparents’ house. The men would wear stuffy suit coats and ties, while the women wore beautifully patterned dresses. They would bond over a potluck of food and enjoy each others’ company. Then the men would retreat in the front room to smoke cigars and drink bourbon.

“I was fascinated and terrified,” Crowder said. “They would be sitting there debating politics, doing exactly the things you should not be discussing as a family.”

When he became a teenager, he was invited to be a part of the discussion.

“They poured us a little bourbon in a cup, and we could sit there and feel like we were men in the discussion,” Crowder said. “None of us said a word for years. We just listened, but what I came to realize was that this was a huge bonding experience for the men in our family.”

For Crowder, bourbon would continue to be a bonding experience throughout his adulthood. When his father was diagnosed with lung cancer, Crowder would drive 10 1/2 hours from Oxford to Virginia every weekend to be with him.

“We would sit with bourbon and just talk,” he remembered. “Reminisce about when I was a kid, when he was a kid and some of his stories.”

Crowder came to Miami in 1995 as an assistant professor in the chemistry and biochemistry departments. In 2013, he moved up to chair the chemistry department, the same year his dad died.

Although his favorite drinking buddy was gone, Crowder remained fascinated with bourbon.

A few years later, he, along with the chairs of the microbiology and biology department, were called to the office of Chris Makaroff, dean of the College of Arts and Science. There, they were asked to develop a course on fermentation. After much deliberation, they finalized their 400-level course surrounding the making of beer.

CHM 436, Principles in Fermentation, currently taught by Danielson Neil, covers every aspect of the craft from the engineering of beer, to the biochemical makeup of fermentation, to the analytics of the drink and the psychology of addiction.

“Every week we would taste bourbon and then take the bourbon upstairs to the chemistry lab and analyze whether it was for bittering, compounds, color, the metals that are in them,” Crowder said of when he used to teach the class. “All those things influence the way that we interact with beer.”

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Although he has primarily moved out of his teaching role, now serving as an associate provost and dean of the graduate school at Miami, his favorite memories of teaching the class were during the winter term when David Dafoe, a Miami alumnus from ’84, would invite the class to Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky.

Dafoe would invite the class down for a week, waiving the tuition, and teach students about the distilling industry. Andrew Jones, a professor in chemical paper and environmental engineering, co-taught the fermentation course with Crowder one year and visited Moonshine University.

“It was a really good experience,” Jones said. “I think it gave students a perspective that they can’t get here at Miami. I think it got a lot them excited about the manufacturing side of spirits.” 

Crowder said at last count, 25 of those students are in the distilling or brewing industry now.

One year, after returning home from Moonshine University, one of Crowder’s students asked him to help him analyze some bourbon. Crowder agreed, and they took samples to the Ohio State University and discovered that bourbon has more than 10,000 chemicals that contribute to the taste of it. Since then, Crowder has been researching the science behind each of these chemicals and how bourbon gets its unique taste and color.

“I think that’s a cool way that he has connected his professional research with his personal passions,” Jones said. “I think that when you talk to him, that obviously comes through.”

In February, Crowder teamed up with Phil Kollin, a Miami alumnus and owner of a bourbon adventure company, to virtually present the craft of the bourbon world. Crowder discussed the science behind it, while Kollin described working in the industry.

Kollin, who graduated from Miami in 2000 with a degree in mass communication, never took a class from Crowder during his time in Oxford but hopes to collaborate with him again in the future.

“What he’s doing is very unique and special,” Kollin said. “Most people who have his knowledge and his capacity to speak in science terms are usually working in the lab or distillery, and they’re henceforth less able to share in the way he is because they are bound to a specific organization … He’s a diamond in the rough when it comes to showcasing the science side of bourbon.”

Approaching his 20th year at Miami, Crowder has performed in a variety of roles, but he said his favorite thing about the university is helping students with research.

“A lot of the time it’s a student's first publication, and that’s a big deal in the science field,” Crowder said. “That’s our currency, and to watch them get excited it’s a great achievement. I think that’s probably my favorite part of being at Miami.”

Since his promotion in 2020, his office has moved out of Hughes Hall and now resides in Roudebush Hall. Instead of classes, office hours and lab times, his days are filled with meetings from administration to graduate students, squeezing in time for his research when he can.

“I feel like this is what Miami needs me to be doing right now to help, and I take a lot of comfort in that,” Crowder said. “I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time. Who knows, tomorrow might be a different day, but I do feel like I owe a ton to Miami, and while I would love to be working in the research lab and teaching more, I feel like this is a way that I can help.”