Schooled in spirits: Are brewing and distilling degrees worthwhile?

by Courtney Llewellyn

According to the Brewers Association, as of 2017 there were 2,252 brewpubs, 3,812 microbreweries and 202 regional breweries operating in the nation. There was a net gain of 200 brewpubs opening last year, and 630 microbreweries. The trend of growth has remained solid for the past five years and looks to continue in that direction for a while. The question is, will there be enough qualified staff to run these businesses.

The answer may be in schools.

The concept of winemaking, distilling and brewing classes at college and universities in the U.S. may seem a little strange, considering the majority of undergraduates aren’t of legal age to consume the very products they are studying, but more and more institutions of higher learning are offering classes, if not full programs, in these fields.

Gabe Slagle, technical chair at Richmond Breweries United and head brewer at Fine Creek Brewing Company in Powhatan, VA, stated, “Though it’s not a guarantee of a quality candidate, a degree in a quality brewing program at least says this is someone who is serious about the brewing industry as a profession and can help them stand out from homebrewers who are interested but don’t really know what working in an actual brewery means.”

Studying at school

The program at the University of New Hampshire is fairly new, with the first students still enrolled, according to Cheryl Parker, the brewery manager at the college. “I teach the brewing courses to cover all aspects of the industry in regards to craft level to macro scale brewing. I want the students to be prepared for any type of situation,” Parker said.

At UNH, the program operates as a “minor” so students in any major can take part. Parker has business students as well as engineering and science students enrolled – one who was already brought on by the Anheuser-Busch training program so he can be ready to work full-time upon graduation this spring. Other students do short internships at local craft breweries.

The work at the school already has real world effects: Parker believes UNH may be one of the only universities – if not the only – federally and state licensed to produce and sell alcohol just like any other brewery.

“I have had many requests from local businesses in the wine, beer and spirits fields looking for grads, but of course they are looking for weekday hours so they will have to wait until the students start to graduate,” she said, “but I anticipate some great partnerships as the program gets into its second year.”

The Siebel Institute of Technology, based in Chicago, IL, offers everything from the “Concise Course in Brewing Technology” to an “International Diploma in Brewing Technology” in certificate studies, as well as continuing education courses in brewing microbiology, sensory analysis for flavor production and control, craft distilling operations and technology and more. According to Siebel’s academic catalog, its alumni span more than 60 countries and its graduates are found in nearly every major brewery around the world. The Siebel Institute continues to focus on one basic theme, as was published by Dr. J.E. Siebel in a “Western Brewer” ad from 1893: “The object of the institute is to promote the progress of the industries based on fermentation, which is done by instruction, investigation, analysis and otherwise.”

Out of all the students who completed certificate programs from July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018, about 20 percent were placed in their field or a related field of study (per graduate response to surveys), with an annual salary of approximately $30,000.

The Brewers Association stated the craft brewing industry contributed $76.2 billion to the U.S. economy in 2017, through more than 500,000 jobs – 135,000 of which were directly at breweries and brewpubs.

“With a strong presence across the 50 states and the District of Columbia, craft breweries are a vibrant and flourishing economic force at the local, state and national level,” Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, said. “As consumers continue to demand a wide range of high quality, full-flavored beers, small and independent craft brewers are meeting this growing demand with innovative offerings, creating high levels of economic value in the process.”

Starting a program

“I majored in business and started out on the sales side of brewing. I found out I wasn’t half bad at brewing myself and switched over to the brew side,” said Bobby Faithful, program specialist and instructor of the beer certificate program at the University of Richmond.

Faithful started in brewing 12 years ago. “When I got into the beer scene it was very small and options were limited. My first beer gig was at Dogfish Head and I was working the bar. I moved from the bar to events, then went to sales at Lost Rhino Brewing Company,” he said. Next was front of house management at the Answer Brewpub, followed by brewing at Alewerks Brewing Company. “I’ve always been passionate about brewing education and was able to build the [beer certificate] program … full-time position at the University of Richmond,” he explained.

His Beer Brewer Professional Certificate program guides students through the entire craft brewing business, from procuring high quality ingredients and raw materials through the proper handling, processing, packaging and distribution of the final product. Students who complete the certificate program are well prepared to enter the craft brewing industry in a variety of roles. By collaborating with local partners, earning the certificate positions graduates to start or advance their career in the industry.

Since its start in the autumn of 2016, about 60 students have graduated from the program. About 25 brewery partners support the program’s curriculum development, excursions and internships.

“Not all of our students’ goals are to become brewers. Some just want more information on brewing to develop applications or businesses that help support the growing economy,” Faithful explained. “With that being said, of our students that want to become brewers we have 22 students that have joined the brewing industry in our first three cohorts,” and have five out of 25 students who are active brewers and have signed up for more training.

“Our program has focused on hands-on training as well as an internship program where students get to go into brewhouses and practice their brewing skills in a professional setting, so we’re preparing them for what it’s like in the real world,” Faithful said. “The program has grown by leaps and bounds with the brewing industry.”

Russell Carpenter is the head brewer for Rocket Frog Brewing Company in Sterling, VA, with a doctorate degree in biochemistry. “I took a biochem class during my final semester in undergrad … [My professor] challenged us to think for ourselves to solve particular problems or figure out the next step in a lab experiment,” Carpenter said. As for the beer… “My dad bought me a homebrew kit about 11 years ago and I have been hooked on brewing ever since,” he said.

Carpenter finished his Ph.D. in 2008 and accepted a post-doctoral research position at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, before moving to Corvallis, OR, to compete the project at Oregon State University. Then his girlfriend (now wife) was offered a position in Australia for three years and he decided to move there with her. “I continued working at a university in Townsville but also became more enamored with brewing,” he said. “I won the Queensland State Amateur Brewing Championships in 2013 and was able to brew one of my beers on a commercial system.” When he moved back to the U.S. in 2015 he started volunteering at a local brewery in Dover, NH, and went on to become the head brewer at a brewpub in Acton, MA, called True West. After two years there he moved to northern Virginia to help build Rocket Frog Brewing Company.

At first, having a Ph.D. hindered Carpenter’s job search. “Everyone I talked to or interviewed with told me I was overqualified for a brewing position. In actuality, I wasn’t qualified at all to be a brewer since I had zero experience in the industry,” he explained. “After becoming a head brewer I felt like my education taught me how to think and troubleshoot problems better than most. Does this make me a better brewer than someone that doesn’t have a degree? Absolutely not. However, it doesn’t hurt. I feel like I think a little bit differently than most people and I also mull over things for a long time before I make decisions on what to do.”

He added he doesn’t think it’s necessary to have a degree to become a great brewer, but it does help. “It would let the employer know that the person with a degree could possibly pick up things a little faster than someone who didn’t,” Carpenter said. “That being said, there is no substitute for real work experience.”

At the distillery

“Our distillery has not yet hired any staff that hold certifications or degrees in beverage alcohol production, but that’s not to say that we wouldn’t in the future,” said Distillery Director and Head Distiller Ian Thomas of Virginia Distillery Company (who has a degree in biology). “As positions open up and candidates apply, I look for both specific degrees or certifications that apply to the position and/or previous experience within the industry. For example, our distillery staff (in no particular order) have backgrounds as an ex-cider maker, ex-wine makers (2), ex-brewers (2) and an ex-home distiller.

“I’ve mostly focused on looking at candidate backgrounds and how their experience can apply to the processes and operations we have in place, and the likelihood of how those applications would translate into their day to day work,” he continued. “With our current staff (especially the brewers) it seemed like they hadn’t missed a step – especially on the mashing and fermentation side of the production process – and for others there was a bit more of an education and training process involved, but not as intensive as if we were starting with an individual that had no experience in beverage alcohol production.

“My opinion is that there is a lot of ‘upside’ to workers with degrees. Completing a degree or certification program requires an individual that has passion and shows a true interest in their study and pursuit,” Thomas said. “A hands-on or lab-style portion of the program should be incorporated so that the folks within the program have the ability to perform tasks and ‘get their feet wet.’ By no means am I discrediting the importance of a textbook, but there is no substitute for learning how different pumps operate (diaphragm vs. peristaltic vs. rotary-gear vs. cavity) by actually operating them!”

Virginia Distillery Company was involved in getting support for a nearly $250,000 state grant for Piedmont Valley and Germanna community colleges, which will create a certificate program to train individuals in wine and cider making, craft brewing and distilling, providing job opportunities in the industries. The distillery has offered its facility as a location for off-campus labs or activities.

Current job market

“With so many breweries opening up there is just not enough people to staff them. Before, where you might have needed a degree program accreditation to snag some of these production jobs, you can get away with now just going through a certificate program if it has all the checkmarks breweries want,” Faithful said.

He added that like cooking, a person doesn’t need formal training to become a great chef – but it doesn’t hurt. “What these programs are providing is the network to figure out where to start and how to make the best beer possible with years of cost saving from the trial and error [experience] of the instructors,” he said.

Breweries aren’t the only ones lacking skilled employees either. Labor shortages in the wine industry were correctly predicted for 2017, as stated in the State of the Wine Industry report from the Silicon Valley Bank. The trend appears to continue through the end of 2018.

With a low unemployment rate forecasted for the start of the new year, continued education in brewing, winemaking or distilling may not be necessary for those entering the industry – but qualified, educated candidates can help make producing craft beverages a little more professional.

2018-12-13T11:35:43-05:00December 13, 2018|Wine and Craft Beverage News Articles|0 Comments

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