As summer burns bright and begins its descent into fall, students across the country are returning to classrooms. Among those most eager to learn are students enrolled in North Carolina community colleges that offer degree-based brewing programs, two of which are in the Asheville area.
A-B Tech Community College’s Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast was the first brewing, distillation and fermentation program in the state and the first such two-year degree program in the nation. Limited space and equipment cap each year’s incoming class at 24 full-time students, and since A-B Tech is an open-enrollment school, the first two dozen applicants who meet the prerequisite standards are accepted. Even with the first come, first served approach that may not necessarily favor the most qualified parties, program director Jeff “Puff” Irvin has been pleased with the composition of each class thus far.
“We get a great diverse group of students coming in with all sorts of backgrounds. We’re lucky that a lot of the students that come back through this program, a majority of them tend to have a degree already. They’re looking to get into this industry,” he says. “Our program is based 60-percent hands-on, so I certainly could take more, but I’d rather have the student get the actual hands-on training that they’re going to need to do the job on a daily basis.”
The CBI curriculum uses a cohort design in which students who began in the same year take all of their classes together. While that method largely prevents learners from different years from directly intermingling, Irvin is developing a mentor program so students can seek advice from those who’ve gone before them on balancing studies with work and life, as well as network and meet others with similar interests within the industry.
Enhancing the program for 2016 is an added wine capacity and a distillation kit to train students for work in cideries and microdistilleries. The CBI recently received a donation of another 2-barrel brewhouse to complement its 10-hectoliter brewhouse and four pilot systems, and has a canner on line to help provide packaging experience. The new equipment directly supports the program’s Beverage Logistics Academy, which focuses on safe work in distributorships and warehouses and offers a craft beverage laboratory certificate for growing breweries that want a full-time quality control person on staff. A distillation diploma is also being developed, as are other programs, many of which have been suggested by the supervisors of students during summer internships between their first and second years.
Another new addition this fall is Highland Brewing Co. co-founder John Lyda, who takes the role of the program’s full-time brewmaster and lead instructor, a coup of epic proportions that Irvin is still wrapping his head around. “I couldn’t believe it,” Irvin says. “It adds such a great dimension with his years of experience. It’s a huge feather in A-B Tech’s cap to have him here.”
Apple country brews
Blue Ridge Community College’s Brewing, Distillation and Fermentation program offers a wide selection of educational tracks depending on each student’s time, finances and level of interest. Opportunities range from a comprehensive two-year Associate in Applied Science degree to a one-year diploma program with a focus on brewing to certificate programs on brewing basics, winemaking and distillation, and one on equipment, packaging and maintenance.
Students can start the program in either the fall or spring semester, and most classes are capped at 16-20 people. Since the courses build on each other, program director and lead instructor Gabe Mixon advises students who begin in the spring that many of their classmates have already taken the introductory courses. But if the learner is up to the challenge, Mixon trusts that the work will be done.
“One of the neat things about having it kind of staggered like that as opposed to having discrete cohorts is that we do sometimes have first-year and second-year students in the same class — depending on what they have and haven’t taken — and we can have some of that transfer of knowledge and experience from the more senior students to the more junior students,” Mixon says.
Starting this fall, a new student-run brewing club aims to further foster relationships. Through the club, students and alumni will be able to make additional batches of beer together in the brewing lab, which consists of nine half-barrel systems, a 3-barrel commercial system, a pair of 3-barrel fermenters and one 3-barrel brite tank.
Mixon annually consults a faculty advisory council made up of local brewers, and owners and managers of local breweries, wineries and cideries on what they’d like to see in BRCC’s program. By gauging the desirable characteristics they seek in recruits and learning about the latest equipment being used, he’s able to offer the training these businesses prefer and better prepare the industry’s incoming workforce.
Though Mixon notes that the curriculum changes on a daily basis to keep pace with developments in the industry, one of BRCC’s recent shifts is to place a greater emphasis on cider, given the ever-growing number of local cideries and Henderson County’s reputation as Apple Country. The program grows apple trees on its Flat Rock campus and has a press in the lab.
For those unable to take classes during the day, BRCC offers continuing education courses at night through its Craft Beer Academy. These a la carte classes vary from preparing students to take the exam for the General Certificate in Brewing to the BRCC Brew School at Oskar Blues Brewery, in which students combine on-site experience with classroom learning. “In the brewing industry, there is no substitute for actually setting foot in a brewery and getting that experience hands-on,” Mixon says.
CBI spots filled up shortly after admissions opened on April 1, but opportunities remain available through A-B Tech’s continuing education classes. Applications are still being accepted for Sensory Analysis of Beer and a two-part Business of Beer course, and more classes will be offered in the spring. For details, visit abtech.edu/craft-beverage-institute-southeast/overview. Enrollment for the associate degree program at BRCC closes Thursday, Aug. 11. Registration for continuing education classes is ongoing. For details, visit blueridge.edu/brewing.