In an ordinary-looking building in Enka, some extraordinary beverages are being produced. Selections include apple brandy aged on French oak and cherry wood, plus mead, beer and more — none of which will ever be sold or even tasted by the general public.
The liquids are all the educational property of the state of North Carolina, made at the Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast at A-B Tech, where students are taught the ins and outs of brewing, distilling and fermentation, and business practices.
Over in Flat Rock is a similar program on brewing, distillation and fermentation at Blue Ridge Community College. While jobs are continuing to increase locally at breweries, wineries and distilleries, education has become very important to landing positions that require skilled training. Together, the two schools are providing much-needed training to prepare students for working in these fast-growing industries.
The Craft Beverage Institute has become incredibly popular since its start in August 2013, says director Jeff Irvin. For two years, he’s been joined by John Lyda, the former head brewer at Highland Brewing Co. The two-year program is already full for classes this fall. According to Irvin, the cohort is limited to 24 students at any one time so they can all get plenty of hands-on experience.
“We look at everything from soda pop production to fermented goods, wine, beer, cider and sake,” Irvin says.
The program is well-stocked with equipment, including a 100-gallon hybrid pot still, and this fall the school will be ramping up its wine production.
“The wine program has blossomed and grown,” Irvin says. “The [alcohol] industry is a giant right now. We were heavily beer-focused at first, but we knew that our students needed to diversify some of their training. There are people making bitters and mixers to support the craft beverage industry. That’s been an interesting thing.”
All students must be at least 21 years old, and Irvin says many of them already have a four-year degree in some field. They also need math and English basics and high school chemistry or its equivalent, plus must be strong enough to lift a sack of grain.
“We are lucky to get students from all over the country,” Irvin says. “Our oldest student was 71. He graduated and got a job at a brewery in Bristol [Tennessee-Virginia].”
Lyda, who in 1994 was one of Highland’s first three employees, along with founder Oscar Wong and original head brewer John McDermott, says he’s greatly enjoyed working with students and teaching them all the things he’s learned over the years. “It’s been a good experience for me,” he says.
Fruits of labor
Blue Ridge offers one- and two-year degrees and certificates in specialized topics. The school began offering continuing education classes in January 2013.
“I had been tossing around the idea of starting a brewing school,” says program director Gabe Mixon. “I knew there was a great need for it. The choices [for education] were very limited. There’s the Siebel Institute in Chicago and the University of California-Davis. Both are very respected programs, but they would have a two- or three-year waiting list.”
Limits on enrollment depend on the class, though most are capped at 16-20 students. Everyone must be at least 21 years old, have a high school diploma and good math skills. For those who need them, the college offers preparatory classes.
“We get a wide range of students,” Mixon says. “We have folks who are retired and just want to learn more about beer. And we have some that this will be their first degree after high school. I [also] have students who are interested in starting their own brewery.”
The school’s equipment includes a 3-barrel brewing system and a canning machine. “Wine and ciders are a big deal for us,” Mixon says. “We have 30 heirloom apple trees on campus and harvest some of the cider varieties to make cider. We are planning to add a distillation course, and we do visit the local distilleries.”
Both schools use the alcohol produced at their programs for educational purposes, and many students at both programs have found work locally. They include Graham McCormick, who graduated from the Craft Beverage Institute and currently works at Noble Cider. His numerous duties include making cider and traveling to help with sales and marketing — all of which he feels amply prepared for thanks to his A-B Tech training, as do his fellow alumni.
“A few days ago, I ran into a number of classmates, and they are all working at local breweries,” McCormick says. “I didn’t go into it thinking that I wanted to be a brewer or wanted to be in the wine industry or do cider. I wanted a solid education that covered all aspects of the industry. I wanted to understand the art of brewing or making cider.”