Brew U: Getting A Serious Brewing Education

In brewing school, class time may mean beer time.

Homebrewing is an art, pure and simple. Just like any other creative passion in this world, it takes a certain amount of innate ability to brew a beer that people can appreciate. At one point or another, this fulfilling way to spend your free time can morph into something more. You begin to crave a greater understanding of your chosen labor of love. There is a reason that institutions like the Academy of Arts and the Culinary Institute of America exist. They provide education in their respective fields to those that seek to take their skills to the next level. Thanks to the demand by those who thirst for more than just their next beer, we too have options when it comes to a brewing education.

There are many routes one can take to best satisfy this need for brewing knowledge. The first questions that need to be answered are, what are your educational goals and how do you plan to use them? Most people will fall into one of three categories: 1.) Those who want to become better homebrewers 2.) Those that are seeking a career in the brewing industry 3.) Those looking to advance an existing career in brewing. Determining which group you belong to will help you decide which program is appropriate.

The next important question is how much time and resources are you willing to devote to this endeavor? As with many other educational programs, the greater the duration and the more advanced the curriculum is, the higher the tuition costs will be. Some schools will include the cost of books, lab materials and other miscellaneous items in with their tuition and others will not. For the casual homebrewer, brewing courses can be found at select community colleges or if you are lucky enough to live nearby, the more prestigious schools like UC-Davis and the Siebel Institute. These courses can be as simple as how to make better beer at home and can be as complicated as teaching you professional lab techniques for beer analysis. Some classes can be as short as a few days and only cost a couple hundred bucks. Others may take an entire semester to complete.

Let’s now focus on the people that really want to unlock that door to the brewing industry. Full-fledged brewing programs range in duration from 2 weeks to 4 years. The cost can be as low as $3,600 for a short program and as high as $30,000-$40,000 or more for the more advanced programs when you throw in living expenses. Don’t let this frighten you as there are many options that fall in between these extremes. The intensity of the program can vary as well. Some will require your presence in the classroom up to 40 hours a week in addition to the time you put into studying. Others are available in DVD and online format which allow you the freedom to learn from the comfort of your own home.

In addition to the aforementioned money and time that it takes to make brewing school a reality, there are a couple other factors that may come into play when it is time to apply for admission. Due to the recent boom in the craft brewing industry and the high demand for well-educated brewers, many of the more popular schools have waiting lists. I know a few of the more popular programs are already booked through 2013. Depending on your level of patience, availability may play a role in which one you end up choosing. Most of the programs do not require you to have any previous experience or any scientific background. However, in the case of the UC Davis Master Brewers Program and the American Brewers Guild Craft Brewers Apprenticeship Program, you are required to fulfill certain math and science criteria before they will accept your application.

The format of how the curriculum is taught is also program specific. Some are heavy on the science/theory and just dabble a bit with hands on learning, while others are the exact opposite. Here’s where you have another decision point as to which type of education you want. Would you like to focus on fermentation science, thermodynamics, and sensory evaluation in the classroom and get an internship later to provide practical experience? Or would you rather get your hands dirty at your school of choice and read up on the finite details of brewing science later on down the road?

Which way you go will depend on whether you have any previous experience in professional brewing and what type of learning environment you best respond to. I also want to point out that not every career in brewing leads to being a brewer. Some people end up going into packaging, cellaring, quality control or work as a brewery lab tech. Again, your own personal goals will have a big impact on what best suits your needs.

One of the more interesting choices you have during this selection process is whether to go to school in North America, Europe or Australia. There are very good brewing schools located in Australia, Germany, the UK and Canada. Most of them offer programs that are taught in English, but you may want to double check before applying to them. If you want to get an education on two continents, you may want to look into the Siebel Institute’s Master Brewer Program. The first 8 weeks are taught at their campus in Chicago. Then you get to spend the last 12 weeks at the Doemens Academy located in Munich, Germany. Pretty cool!

If you are more inclined to study in the U.S., there are certainly some world class schools here as well. The Siebel Institute and UC-Davis both offer Master Brewer Programs, as a stand alone, complete brewing education. In addition, you also have the option to enroll in subsections of these programs if only part of them suit your needs. If you really want to get deep down into how important yeast is to brewing, UC-Davis and Oregon State University both have bachelor’s and graduate programs in fermentation science and food science. There are also multiple brewing education options offered by both the Master Brewers Association of the Americas (MBAA) and the American Brewers Guild.

Now that we’ve covered what you can expect prior to acceptance into one of these brewing programs, let’s quickly go over what can help you succeed once you arrive. Being part of the 2011 graduating class of the UC-Davis Master Brewer Program, I do have a bit of insight I’d like to share with you. First and foremost is to be excited! You are about to embark on a journey that many people will be jealous about for years to come. Secondly is to be sure that you have gotten all of your resources lined up so you can pay for the program on time. I stress this because there were lots of candidates on the waiting list ahead of me that did not do this, and hence I was able to get in. Another thing you should be aware of is that U.S. Federal Student Loans cannot be used for these programs, with the exception of a bachelor’s degree in fermentation science. There are private student loans out there you can apply for, but they are very costly.

Prior to classes starting, there are a few things you can do to really prepare yourself for the onslaught of information that will be thrown at you.

1. Get any and all practical experience you can. Everyone and their mother would like to have a job at a brewery, right? The people that run your local brewery have probably heard “Dude, can I get a job here?” at least a thousand times. When you approach your local brewmaster, tell him or her that you want to get any hours you can as an intern and work for free. Be sure to mention your acceptance to your brewing program of choice so they’ll know how serious you are. Working for free stinks, but if it’s your passion, then it’ll be worth it. You may have to bug them at least a half dozen times as well.

2. Read, read, read! I know this is a cliche, but knowledge is power. Prior to starting classes, I read at least a dozen books that touched on topics from the business side of brewing, fermentation science, style guidelines, ingredients, to the history of brewing in America. You want to know what’s funny? I probably learned the most from my three favorite homebrewing books: The Brewmaster’s Bible, by Stephen Snyder, Dave Miller’s Homebrewing Guide and The Home Brewer’s Answer Book, by Ashton Lewis (BYO’s Mr. Wizard).

3. Take a couple of science classes. Perhaps you already have a science based degree and won’t need this part. For the rest of us who majored in something not applicable to brewing or haven’t done a stint in college yet, this is a good idea. If there is one class that I can honestly say will give you a much better understanding of fermentation science than if you had never taken it, hands down it would be organic chemistry. I know it can sound very intimidating, but trust me on this. I hadn’t taken anything chemistry related for 15 years and after taking a summer school class in general chemistry at the local community college, I moved on to organic chemistry in the fall and it was a breeze. It’s amazing what you can do when you relate it to beer! A class in microbiology would also be helpful.

4. Brew, brew, brew! Your homebrewing should not, I repeat, not take a hiatus once you get into brew school. In fact, it should be just the opposite. There are a ton of parallels between brewing at both levels. The more you do it, the more you will understand it.

Here’s a little tid bit most people don’t know about brew school. For the most part, there is little to no curriculum on recipe formulation. Gaining knowledge on that is going to be mostly up to you. So if you plan on opening your own little nano-brewery, better get those recipes ironed out now! I should also mention that some of these programs are designed to prepare you for the Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD) General Certificate in Brewing, General Certificate in Packaging or the Diploma in Brewing examinations. Their curriculum will be tailored to give you the knowledge you need to pass one of these exams. If successful, you will have earned a professional certification that is recognized by the international brewing community. I had the pleasure and the painstaking task of taking the Diploma in Brewing exam in 2011. It is a 9-hour, 3-part exam that requires you to write two papers on various brewing science topics and one paper on engineering/packaging. It was the most difficult test I have taken in my entire life. Thankfully I put in the time, had great professors and peers that helped me get through it. If the program you choose includes one of these tests, prepare to be challenged!

Why Go Pro?

— Jamil Zainasheff (Founder of Heretic Brewing Co. in Pittsburg, California.)

Most homebrewers eventually have someone ask them, “Why don’t you open a brewery?”

It is a common question and one that we often answer with lots of reasons why we don’t. Usually the excuses are all centered around money such as, “I have a decent job that allows my family to eat each day” or “I can’t come up with enough money to buy my next batch of homebrew supplies, where do I get the money to open a brewery?”

The same thing happened to me. When people would ask, “Why don’t you start your own brewery?” I would reply with, “I don’t want to ruin a great hobby by turning it into hard work.” But the reality was that I let the issue of money stop me. I clung to the financial security of my soul-crushing job in software engineering, but in the back of my mind my “what if” dreams lived on. Finally the day came when I left my software job and an opportunity to open a brewery came up shortly thereafter.

I do get many emails from people asking about a career in brewing. Either they want to know how to break into the business as a brewer or how to start a brewery.

While I’m currently living the dream, don’t think of me as the poster boy for how to do it. My strength is working tirelessly until I achieve a goal, but I think I lack the risk-taking gene that would have allowed me to take this path earlier. I waited a long time to get into the business, only allowing myself to make the change once I had much more financial security, lower risk, and kids that are much older. I doubt many people will have the same safe opportunity that I did, so taking more risk is the only answer for them, if that is truly what they want to do.

The question you need to answer deep in your heart before you should commit to being a professional brewer isn’t, “Do you love craft beer?” but, “Do you love the craft beer industry?”

If you are basing your interest in professional brewing solely on a love of craft beer, then you shouldn’t make the move. Stick with homebrewing until you have a chance to learn more about the craft beer industry. It is filled with wonderful people that have a great sense of community and sharing, but one thing most of those people have in common is working long, hard hours for little money.

When it comes to making beer and selling it, the challenges are many and it can be frustrating. Craft beer is a business and if you have romantic notions that don’t include the harsh realities of running a business, you are going to be unhappy. Likewise, if your main thoughts are about the profit potential of craft beer, then you are not going to be happy either. If you get excited about working with other creative and interesting people that are passionate about great beer, then maybe you are headed in the right direction.

I enjoy the craft beer community enough that I would have found my niche in it regardless, even if I hadn’t had the opportunity to open a brewery. It is something that I love and that is why it was a good change.

There are many ways to get into the craft brewing industry. You can try to find a job in an existing brewery or brewpub, you can get a brewing education and then start your job hunt or you can start your own brewery.

My only regret is that I didn’t do this earlier. Life is short. We should not shirk our responsibilities to our families or our communities, but when you have an opportunity to chase your dream, you should take it.

Issue: October 2011