Beer is in Session:Getting a Brewing Education

For many beer enthusiasts and homebrewers, the idea to turn their passion into a profession has crept up while sipping a finely made brew. And why not? Across the beer industry, there are more than two million jobs according to a report by the Beer Institute and National Beer Wholesalers Association. (This includes roles in agriculture, manufacturing, brewing, importing, distribution, and retail jobs in bars, restaurants, and supermarkets.)

In the past few decades, options for pursuing a formal education in brewing have become more widely available. While enrolling in a beer course can seem like a dream come true, it’s certainly not an easy path — there is often a plethora of information to learn and a rigorous hands-on trial of what physically goes into being a brewer.

There are schools entirely devoted to teaching how to brew and beer education, such as The Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago, Illinois, and the American Brewers Guild in Vermont. In addition, colleges and universities across the country (and world) offer brewing-related certificates or professional development courses and workshops.

To get a better understanding of some of the options available to prospective students, the work that goes into a formal brewing education, and the benefits of completing a program, I sought out a diverse group of industry and educational professionals to shed some light on the subject. Of course, I couldn’t speak with representatives from every program, but anybody interested in taking their brewing knowledge to the next level via academia will find through research on the internet that there are many great options available to them. Determining the best fit is up to you based on your goals, budget, desire for online or in-person schooling, etc.

What to Expect

Chris McCombs, Head Brewer at Coopersmith’s Pub and Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado, decided to enroll in a course at The Siebel Institute of Technology after eight years of working in the industry. McCombs fell in love with craft beer in college and started his brewing career in Montana. But with an English Literature degree in his pocket, he started to realize there were gaps in the science aspect that inspired him to pursue education. 

“I was coming across problems in the process that I knew had a scientific explanation but I needed to learn that to troubleshoot and improve,” he recalls.

McCombs was already working full-time in the engineering department at New Belgium Brewing in Colorado, so he decided to pursue a two-week course at Siebel with his boss’s support. He chose the Chicago institute because of the high reputation of academic excellence along with a course option that fit his work schedule.

He describes the course as intensive with excellent instructors. As someone who already had industry experience, the course really reinforced certain things and provided him with a good understanding of the science of brewing. It had a huge impact on him as a brewer, he says, immediately helping him better understand yeast metabolism, clean-in-place, and water chemistry, for example. The passionate brewer even built a calculator in Excel for recipe development based on a formula he learned at Siebel that has resulted in medal-winning beers.

McCombs not only has completed a program himself, but is now teaching at Colorado State University’s Fermentation Sciences program. Pursuing a formal education in beer may not be right for everybody, he cautions — it depends on the person and their goals, and how their education manifests as a useful tool. It’s great to have that educational insight for troubleshooting and innovating, and certainly not discounting education, but he says it’s essential to have follow-through, be responsible, and be reliable to make it in this career, not just an understanding of how beer is made. “I think it takes years of cleaning tanks, cleaning kegs . . . that work ethic is so important.”

He points out there is a lot to factor in. It’s important to consider a likely low starting salary for production brewing, the possibility for limited time off, and being aware of what is happening in the brewing industry and challenges it faces, he says. There’s also the issue of job outlook with increased competition and a changing brewing industry with closures being a common thing and still feeling the impacts of the pandemic.

As homebrewers are aware, brewing is a labor-intensive endeavor. And so is an education in brewing.

Before getting started, McCombs recommends consulting a school or career counselor. “They can help in many ways, not the least of which would be to chart the path towards graduation, or even find learning alternatives if career goals lean towards a certain area of fermentation production or another,” he says. “For instance, a seasoned homebrewer might find it more useful to take an MBA course to prepare them to open their own brewery vs. brewing science.” Other pre-requisites he adds would be starting to homebrew, taking good notes, and joining a homebrew club for networking. Once in the program, his advice is: Go to your classes, ask a lot of questions, keep a notebook of questions that come up, communicate with your instructors, and, once the homework is done, have a beer with your fellow students.

Another suggestion McCombs offers for those who have made the decision to pursue an education in beer is to broaden their knowledge base. “Whatever program you go into you want a diversity of knowledge,” he says. Consider a program that doesn’t just focus on brewing beer but also offers experience in cider, hard tea, and kombucha, for example. He also suggests considering augmenting beer education with a trade such as sanitary welding. “You immediately become more employable,” he says. When it comes to the post-education job search, be open to working in other areas of brewing, such as a lab or packaging brewery, he says. 

Improving employment was a part of the motivation that led Alyson Hartwig to enrolling at Siebel, along with the desire to continue education. Hartwig completed the Master of Beer Styles and Evaluation Course in 2013, then completed the Concise Course in Brewing Technology. In 2017, Hartwig did the International Diploma in Brewing Technology, half taking place in Chicago and half in Munich, Germany. She is currently the Fermenting Senior Specialist at Molson Coors Beverage Company and has interned at Goose Island Beer Company and brewed at Dry Dock Brewing Co. and Pike’s Peak Brewing in Colorado.

“It has definitely helped me get jobs,” Hartwig says.

That education helped her be more adaptable through the changing roles in her career, and she learned where her interests were through education. “My passions laid more in the process and organization side than the recipe development and experimentation,” she says. 

Oftentimes breweries are looking for an education to show grit and commitment to completing. Prerequisites vary by program, but Hartwig recommends hands-on experience before starting a program. She suggests contacting local breweries to see if there is any availability for an entry-level position, packaging role, or other position that doesn’t require professional experience.

She also suggests starting your education in advance by reading as much brewing literature and listening to as many podcasts as possible. “There is a lot of material out there readily available in order to further your education on your own.” 

In making the decision, Hartwig recommends prospective students assess goals, including furthering their career in the industry, taking on management roles, or opening their own brewery. Consider how much time you have and what fits into your schedule, she says. She also advocates for finding a program with an internship component or hands-on experience as a part of the education if you do not have very much experience in the field.

A formal brewing education is more about understanding the science of beer than just how to make it.

Hartwig says to pursue possible scholarships and even ask your employer to help you pay for your education. Once in the program, she spent two hours each night, including weekends, studying — so learn to balance studying and networking. And hang onto paperwork after the program to reference later.

Jonathan Hughes, PhD, Director of Brewing and Sensory Science at UC-Davis Continuing and Professional Education, explains that a formal education in brewing gets into the science behind brewing and comprehensive coverage of necessary topics all in one place from some of the top instructors in the world.

“Anyone can follow a recipe or a standard operating procedure, but if you understand the science behind what’s going on in the malting and brewing process, you know the reasons for your actions,” Hughes says. 

During the professional brewing program at UC-Davis, and many others, the entire process of beer production is covered from raw materials through packaging the finished product, including malting, wort production, fermentation, maturation, and processing. Instructors also cover quality, sensory analysis, and brewery engineering — the mechanical, chemical, and process engineering fundamentals involved in running a brewery. Students can also expect guest speakers from those active in the beer industry, such as brewers, suppliers, and brewing scientists who give further insight and provide additional context for the curriculum.

Hughes points out that another benefit of educational programs is the ability to build a professional network as you’re pursuing your education. “Many of our alumni have stayed in touch with their classmates for years, some even decades,” he says. They help each other troubleshoot issues, do collaboration brews, and sometimes just enjoy a few pints with each other. In fact, his biggest advice for students in the program is to interact with each other, instructors, and guest speakers that come to visit.

Jane Killebrew received a degree in 1981 from UC-Davis with a Food Science & Technology, Brewing Emphasis, degree and says her experience and education had an amazing impact on her career and made her a lifelong learner and teacher. 

“The guidance and support I received on top of the technical training was instrumental in getting my first job in 1981 with Pabst Blue Ribbon and then on to Anheuser-Busch (ABI) in 1985,” she says. In her 37-year career there, Killebrew rose to the highest level in brewing at ABI, Global VP of Brewing and Quality.

Killebrew received a sound foundation in brewing principles, she explains — organic chemistry, enzymology, microbiology, sensory analysis, and the brewing technical- specific training. “I applied many of these topics over the years in a lifetime career in the brewing industry,” she says.

Brian Hunt, Founder and Brewmaster at Moonlight Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California, says he is grateful for what he learned getting a degree in the field at UC-Davis in 1980. “I was taught the theories of why brewing works, and only minimally how to do it. That was my foot in the door in a 5-million-barrel brewery,” he says. Hunt found he really wanted to create and work with his hands, less than manage people and process. “I soon found work in the (then emerging) craft scene, and learned how many generalizations I had learned in school that didn’t apply in smaller breweries. But you gotta start somewhere,” he says. “If you want to learn new things, you can go far. For advancement though, both practical experience and technical training are a must.”

Hunt says he suffered through far more chemistry than his brain could tolerate, but from it he became able to better understand why something unexpected was happening. He now follows along with presentations on in-depth scientific studies and articles are more meaningful than to those who have not memorized the likes of the Krebs cycle. Hunt says that everyone needs to learn their own mix of practical and theoretical knowledge because everybody learns differently and will play different parts in brewing. “Follow your passion, be it in a classroom or by shoveling spent grain,” he says. He adds that knowledge of the coolest new hops or procedures pales to the knowledge of how and why to clean every brewery surface. “Hop varieties and beer styles become obsolete about every five years, but cleaning, microbiology, and chemistry will forever be relevant,” he says.

Brett Taubman, PhD, Professor and Director of Fermentation Sciences at Appalachian State University, says when he has met brewers who aren’t following best practices and asks them why they are doing it that way, the answer is inevitably because they were taught to do so. “A formal education gives a brewer the background necessary to learn why certain methods are used and to question every step in the process,” Taubman says. “Likewise, if something goes wrong, which it will, a brewer with a formal education has the background to understand why it went wrong and how to fix it.”

For instance, he says his students can expect to learn the science behind the fermentation processes, including the microbiology of the organisms involved, the metabolic pathways used by the microbes under varying circumstances, the physics and engineering aspects necessary to facilitate the fermentations, and the quality management protocols to ensure the product meets all metrics and if not, why not, and how to correct it for next time. “We also ensure that students get the most hands-on production experience possible so that they can put the theory to work as well as the analytical skills necessary to analyze the fermentation products,” Taubman says.

The American Brewers Guild offers a technical 23-week program with one week on-site at the Middlebury, Vermont, campus where they get hands-on experience.

In addition to fermentation science, math, economics, and chemistry courses related to the industry, other potential courses students may take in the program include ones on the hospitality and tourism industry, management, accounting, design thinking and entrepreneurial mindset, introduction to business, and principles of marketing.

When it comes to feedback, Taubman explains that while there are students who can feel a bit overwhelmed by the amount of information to digest at first, it all makes sense once they join the workforce. “I get so many emails from our graduates who are so grateful for their formal education because they now understand why the information was so important,” he says. “Likewise, I get emails from their employers thanking us for providing such well-trained employees who understand why things are done certain ways and how to change them when necessary.”

Beyond the technical understanding a brewing education provides, it gives you a head start in finding employment and lets prospective employers know you have the drive, determination, brewing knowledge, and work ethic that enables you to contribute to the success of the brewery from the start, says Steve Parkes, American Brewers Guild Owner and Lead Instructor.

“For graduates of the course it provides the confidence to take on responsibilities, and to take the first steps toward leadership,” Parkes says. “As a brewery owner I can’t do everything myself, so having someone there who is educated and trained making decisions in my absence is a huge comfort.”

American Brewers Guild was founded in 1995 and offers practical, hands-on experience with brewing. Students embark on a highly technical 23-week program — one week on-site in Vermont and the rest via online learning. (Working brewers aren’t required to come to Vermont provided their head brewer can conduct the practical training necessary to complete the program.)

“We cover everything from grain-to-glass,” Parkes says, including delving into water chemistry, hop production, and the fundamental concepts of engineering and packaging. Once the coursework is complete, there is an optional 5-week unpaid training course where a student is matched with a brewery. 

Eric Graham, Central Washington University (CWU) Craft Brewing Program Director says students are often surprised to find the courses are science-based and rigorous. In addition to the math and chemistry prerequisites Bachelor of Science degree seekers take, there are many others: Brewing microbiology, brewing process and biochemistry, sensory analysis for brewing, and brewing process technology, which focuses on the “hardware” side of a brewery. A farm-to-glass course explores the agriculture side of brewing with tours and input from local hop farmers or cider producers. Strategy for the Craft Brewing Industry covers the marketing and branding aspect of the business.

“We believe that exposure to the academic and research side of brewing better prepares our students for life both within and beyond the brewery,” Graham says. “Our academic and real-world classes better prepare our students for troubleshooting brewery issues, understanding the bigger picture of fermentation as it relates to the brewing industry, and opens up avenues for advancement within the beverage industry.”

CWU is a program that requires hands-on industry experience and practicum projects, such as making non-alcoholic beverages, experimenting with different sugars to make seltzers, comparing fermentation temperatures for lagers, and reproducing historical brews. Cooperative education internships allow students to get experience in breweries, hop laboratories, and within the food industry.

Further Considerations

Of course, there are things to consider when choosing a career path and brewing program including costs, job outlook and salary, and working conditions. The average brewer salary in the U.S. is $44,701, and typically falls between $35,801 and $54,425, according to The Brewers Association reports that in 2022 there were 9,500 operating breweries in the United States, with approximately 550 openings and 220 closures last year. For 2023, the association’s predictions include new openings will be the lowest in over a decade, distributed craft volume won’t grow but total brewery employment will still grow.

Graham says that one thing people should keep in mind when it comes to choosing a program is the time commitment, which can be challenging for those who are working at the same time. The program at CWU, for example, is mainly focused on students who are able to commit to a four-year degree (through they also offer a Craft Brewing minor for science-based students and a certificate program for non-science majors).

When choosing a program, Hughes says to consider who the instructors are. “Are they notable in the field? Do they have actual industry experience? Do they have a research background?” Another thing to consider, he adds, is outcomes for alumni – are they getting jobs, and if yes, what types of jobs.

For students enrolled in a formal brewing program, Killebrew’s advice is to be professionally curious, and soak up everything. Don’t just learn the basics, she says. “Dig in and learn not just the topic but the deeper ‘whys’,” she says. “Be that person who asks too many questions.”

Issue: July-August 2023