When John Blichmann was a student at Iowa State University in the late 1980s, there was no formal course on how to brew beer. More than three decades later such a course does exist, and it was made possible because of Blichmann’s generosity.
Blichmann was on campus on April 12, 2022 to present to students in FS HN 273X/ME 273X: Science and Practice of Brewing, a course about the art and science of brewing beer which is in its inaugural semester. He shared his story of going from a struggling student to becoming an engineer in industry to eventually establishing his own company, Blichmann Engineering, a manufacturer of both home and industrial beer brewing and wine making equipment.
His campus visit came about after his father-in-law shared an article about a mechanical engineering (ME) professor who also brews beer in his free time. One thing led to another, and Blichmann eventually donated some of the equipment that allowed Iowa State to establish its own brew lab on campus and to offer a course on the subject. Blichmann’s gift included six complete pilot brewing systems as well as components toward a two-barrel production brewing system including fermenters, chillers and accessories.
How he got here
Blichmann grew up in Dubuque, Iowa and attended Loras College in his hometown for his first two years of college. This allowed him to complete many of his general education requirements while also living at home to save money. He always had an interest in “taking mechanical things apart” so he transferred to Iowa State University his junior year to pursue his B.S. in ME.
His time at Iowa State wasn’t without struggles. He said some of those junior level classes, like Fluids were “pretty brutal.” Fortunately, his now wife of 32 years, Mary Ellen Thomsen, was instrumental in keeping his grades up. They met in their M E 101: Introduction to Mechanical Engineering course. Though this course is mostly aimed at underclassmen, Blichmann was required to take it as a transfer student.
“She received all of the honors as a student, I just did above average,” Blichmann said with a laugh.
John completed his B.S. in ME in 1988 and Mary Ellen followed suit the next year. The couple wed in 1989. They both went on to work for Caterpillar (Cat) after graduation bouncing from Peoria, Ill. to Houston, Texas to Lafayette, Ind. During this time much of John’s work was with large diesel engines in the petroleum industry while Mary Ellen worked in Cat’s gas turbine division designing offshore production systems, then later large natural gas engine applications.
John spent about 15 years working for Cat before he decided to leave to pursue an entrepreneurial dream of his: establishing a company that manufactures brewing equipment. What started off as a hobby of brewing beer in his garage (Mary Ellen kicked him out of the kitchen after a couple messy incidents) morphed into a legitimate business operating out of a 3,000-square-foot facility. As the business grew so did his need for space so they moved to an 8,000-square-foot facility before quickly outgrowing that and then moving to their current 30,000-square-foot facility. Today, the company has two facilities, employs roughly 30 people and over 500 retailers worldwide sell his products.
Applying what he learned at ISU and on the job
Blichmann said he regularly utilizes the knowledge and skills he developed through the ME curriculum at Iowa State in his business. For example, he applied his knowledge of fluid flow, heat transfer, mechanics of materials, and just general statics and dynamics when designing products for Blichmann Engineering, and also at Cat. He appreciated that his professors at Iowa State were “down to earth” and he always got the sense they truly cared about their students.
Outside of the engineering curriculum, Blichmann said he is also glad he took business courses such as accounting and economics as tech electives, because he regularly applies skills and knowledge from those courses to operating his business. He said it also gave him an edge when competing for jobs after graduation. While having this general knowledge it helpful, Blichmann also stresses that a good manager should know how to bring on employees and outside help who are skilled in a particular area.
“Know what you don’t know, and know when to get help,” he said.
Though not something he necessarily learned in a college course, Blichmann said he has learned a lot about risk management just in his day-to-day operations. As part of his company philosophy, he prefers to operate debt-free, and is deliberate about managing growth so things do not get out of hand. He considers Blichmann Engineering to be one big family and treats his employees as such, knowing that their wellbeing is largely dependent upon the business doing well. Blichmann also emphasizes other values such as a focus on integrity, buying local and giving back. On a personal level, managing his own company has allowed Blichmann to continue to be a family man with his immediate family
“As a business owner I had some flexibility with my work schedule which allowed me to be Mister Mom and spend a lot of time with my daughters as they were growing up,” he said, adding that today two of his daughters are in med school while the third works for Abercrombie & Fitch’s headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.
Mary Ellen has also been supportive and when he started the business, she went back to Cat full-time (she was working part-time prior to that). Today she serves as a technical manager at the Lafayette office.
For John Blichmann, what started off as a hobby turned into a successful business. His advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is simple.
“Do something you are truly passionate about. If you just try to follow the latest fad for the money you probably won’t be as innovative and successful as something you are truly passionate about it,” he said.