By Tara Nurin
This article was previously published in Forbes 2016
Reprinted with the permission of Tara Nurin
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Kurt Lown didn’t know what to do with his life. After high school, he floated between jobs in construction and window cleaning. In 2014, the Michigan man signed up to earn an associate’s degree in English. Then he saw an article about a new program at another Michigan institution, and had the “aha” moment that could drastically alter his future.
This summer, the 25-year-old enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) to join its first class of Craft Brewing, Packaging and Service Operations students.
“I’d looked at educational programs in brewing in Munich and at (University of California, Davis) but I never thought I would be able to go to one of those colleges,” says Lown, who’d discovered a passion for craft beer and homebrewing four years earlier. “To find out, ‘Oh, they’re starting something right here where I’m at,’ I had to jump on board.”
Friday, GRCC is officially opening the nation’s first commercial on-campus brewpub owned by a school and run by students. Though it serves housemade beer and food to the public on Thursday and Friday nights, the brewpub is very much considered a lab for students, who’ll reinforce their newly acquired brewery and front-of-house skills by working there under the supervision of a commercial brewmaster-turned instructor.
It’s the capstone of an eight-month, $6400 (in-state) certificate program targeted primarily toward adults that GRCC launched five months ago. As part of their graduation requirements, students complete short internships in production, quality control, packaging or serving at reputable local breweries whose owners and employees serve on the program’s advisory board.
“We never want to just assume what the industry needs, and those are going to be the folks who are going to end up hiring our students,” says Bill Pink, vice-president and dean for workforce development, who meets regularly with this board.
GRCC’s program may be the newest higher-ed brewing program out there but it’s far from the only one. Around a decade ago, students interested in studying professional brewing in the United States had just five options, all prestigious and hard to get into: UC Davis, Chicago’s Seibel Institute of Technology, the American Brewers Guild, the American Society of Brewing Chemists and the Master Brewer’s Association of the Americas (MBAA). But as the craft beer industry started generating fanaticism among its fans, breweries started opening at a rate of two per day, and waiting lists for these programs grew from months to years, institutions of higher learning saw opportunity and seized it.
Now, the Brewer’s Association craft beer lobbying group lists around three dozen beer and brewing programs, though many more exist. A few are run by independent entities like the Cicerone Certification Program, the Beer Judge Certification Program, Philly Beer School, and Better Beer Society University in Minnesota, though the majority form part of an accredited college or university curriculum. They vary in length, focus, student body, and award granted, meaning that some last a few months, focus on the basics of beer and brewing or business-of-brewing and may or may not send undergraduate, graduate or auditing students out the door with a certificate that doesn’t represent any external professional review. Others incorporate their beer program into their two- and four-year curricula and prepare students for highly technical head brewer, quality assurance and management jobs by awarding them full associate’s or bachelor degrees in fermentation science and the like.
A Few Examples
Aspiring and current industry professionals can earn an online Business of Craft Brewing Certificate from Oregon’s Portland State University by taking four five-week classes in subjects like Strategic Craft Beverage Marketing, Finance and Accounting for Craft Beverages and Craft Beverage Distribution. The program includes lessons on cidermaking and distilling and costs $3495. Started in 2005, the program was partially developed by Willamette Industries Professor of Supply Chain Management Mellie Pullman, a PhD. who not only authored several books on food operations and has extensive industry and teaching experience from Cornell University, London School of Economics and others, she became America’s first modern female head brewer and brewery co-owner when she opened Wasatch Brewery in Utah in 1986.
University of the Sciences in Philadelphia has just started its second year offering a seven-course nighttime Brewing Science certificate program that participants can spread over one to two years. With a focus on training for quality and consistency, more than 20 instructors come in from the field to teach topics like yeast propagation, microbial contamination and grist analysis. Students learn how to manipulate ion content in water to ensure that the flavor of a beer produced by a brewery in one city will match that of the same beer coming out of company facilities in another city. One student project looked at the best ways to extract flavor and color from fresh strawberries and another compared the flavor of wort (pre-alcoholic beer) that had been chilled quickly versus wort that chilled gradually overnight.
Though it might seem students in this program would want to beeline straight to a quality control lab, program director Matt Farber says, “The idea is to train the most well-rounded brewers. I have folks who just want to work production and I think there’s a big, big value in brewers who understand quality.”
Graduation requirements include two courses in the school’s pilot brewery and a semester interning at a commercial brewery. Students pay $1,100 per credit for 18 credits.
Virginia Tech wants to be the next UC Davis or Seibel. Less than a year ago, it added a new, partially automated brewhouse to augment the Fermentation track of its four-year B.S. degree in Food Science and Technology so that students can learn in-depth about brewing beer in addition to fermenting wine, spirits, vegetables and dairy products. These students spend two years taking core classes in calculus, physics, microbiology, etc… then move into two years of applied coursework like brewing and malting science and fermentation microbiology.
By working at a land-grant university, instructors can enhance their students’ education by trading resources with colleagues. Think the professor of crop and soil environmental sciences, along with researchers in the graduate departments and the Virginia Cooperative Extension who’re working to cultivate potentially valuable state crops in hops, winter wheat and malting barley and convert spent grain into plastics and fuel.
The program has already sent graduates to work in key scientific positions at Stone Brewing’s Richmond, VA, outpost and has attracted significant attention from executives at Deschutes Brewery, who professors say visited the 66 gallon pilot brewery within a week of announcing their expansion into Roanoke from Bend, Oregon. As if that’s not enough, starting next year, the school will regularly exchange a student and professor with the Technical University of Munich.
“Five-hundred years of making beer in Germany ought to be worth something,” jokes Joe Marcy, head of the Food Science and Technology department.
The worth of German beer is obvious. What isn’t is the worth of these myriad academic offerings. It’s clear the above examples are serious-minded and at least somewhat rigorous. But what if others aren’t?
Though anyone can open a brewing school, earlier this month the venerable MBAA issued a set of recommended guidelines and learning outcomes as well as voluntary standards for certificates and degrees. It’s just started accepting applications from institutions that seek to obtain Master Brewers Program Recognition. Virginia Tech has already applied.
“Earning Master Brewers recognition is a great opportunity for your program to stand out in a competitive and growing education market. Master Brewers wants to ensure the future of the brewing industry by establishing the requirements for the most robust and effective training available to students in the world today,” said Susan Welch, co-chair of the association’s Higher Education Advisory Board.
In 2014, the MBAA conducted a survey of its macro and micro members to determine the importance of schooling in hiring. Notably, the survey found (verbatim):
- Applicants with four-year degrees in brewing and fermentation science were highly valued by the majority of brewer members (60%). When considering candidates from a four-year program, an internship or practical experience was deemed very attractive but not essential by most (55%), although 29% indicated that they found practical experience essential.
- When asked what jobs required a two-year degree, about half (55%) named brewery positions, including the position of head brewer. Other positions requiring a two-year degree included cellar (15%), quality (11%), packaging (11%), lab (11%), and leadership positions (26%). Leadership positions requiring a two-year degree were generally of lower level than those requiring a four-year degree.
- Applicants who have certificates from recognized institutions were moderately valued, assuming they had no further training. Respondents indicated that new hires with a brewing certificate should have the following qualifications: laboratory skills (67%), engineering skills (50%), business skills (16%), and 46% other. “Other” included brewing process knowledge (24%), practical experience (8%), and a good work ethic and attitude (5%), with an emphasis on willingness to learn.
Interest from brewery owners is apparent. Ninety-five percent of respondents said they would or might be willing to form or encourage partnerships with universities to conduct research, just as Deschutes has reportedly expressed interest in brewing experimental batches on Virginia Tech’s equipment so it doesn’t have to take its own machinery off-line to do it. One-third of respondents feel education is lacking when it comes to trained mechanics and engineers, automation, gluten-free products and hop and malt sensory analysis.
“I’ve been taking as many notes as possible,” reports GRCC’s Kurt Lown, who says he might like to one day open his own brewery or brewpub. “The amount I’ve learned is overwhelming.”
Now more than halfway through his program, he has answers for his friends and cousins who think Lown sits around school drinking beer all day. When they taunt, “When are you going to get a real job?” he answers, “’Brewing is a legitimate business and like anything else it’s got companies, marketing and products.’” Then the aspiring brewer considers the probability that his buddies make fun of his educational path out of “more jealousy than anything else.”
(ProBrewer update: The main subject of this article, Kurt Lown, was employed as a brewer at Perrin Brewing Company in Michigan until recently. As of this date (3/2/21) we were informed he is no longer with Perrin. If you’re reading this Kurt, or someone in the brewing community knows where Kurt Lown has landed, drop us an email at Probrewer@probrewer.com. We’d like to find out how his career is coming along and possibly share it with the community.)
I’m the beer and spirits contributor to Forbes — a freelancer who primarily covers lifestyle trends with a focus on craft beer, alcohol and culinary tourism and their impact on economic development. My writing has been published in Food Wine, Wine Enthusiast, USA Today and many additional media outlets, which has won me 1st place awards in business writing and commentary from the North American Guild of Beer Writers; a 1st place business writing award from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists and the Food Writer of the Year designation in a competition hosted by the Wine School of Philadelphia. I co-founded Ferment Your Event to lead craft beer pairings and seminars (specialty is beer chocolate), and I co-host a weekly radio show called “What’s on Tap” in addition to teaching the Craft of Beer course at Wilmington University. I volunteer as the archivist for the international Pink Boots Society for the advancement of women in beer and founded NJ’s original beer-education group for females. I’m an official beer judge, a Cicerone Certified Beer Server and an urban pioneer on the scenic Camden, NJ, waterfront. Please visit my website, www.taranurin.com.
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