Students learn beer, more at A-B Tech program
From the Asheville Citizen-Times, August 29, 2014
The new school year has started at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, and students are hunkered down on such subjects as accounting, cosmetology, electronics and medical coding.
But for 44 students at the school's Enka campus, it's a very different experience. They are enrolled in the school's popular Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast, learning the ins and outs of the adult beverage world. When the first students complete the program in 2015, they hope to find jobs in the brewing world in Asheville and beyond.
"It almost doesn't feel like school," said Sarah Gulotta, originally of Downingtown, Pa., home of Victory Brewing. "I want this to be my career."
Brad Foster, from Mandeville, La., agreed. "My first goal is a career with a successful brewery, Sierra Nevada or New Belgium. They are great companies to work for."
The craft beverage industry continues strong growth in Asheville and around the mountains, with more than 30 breweries, plus cideries, distilleries, wineries and even two sake micro-kuras (breweries). The arrival of Sierra Nevada in Mills River, Oskar Blues in Brevard and New Belgium in Asheville has greatly increased the demand for trained employees.
"Our goal is to be the educational institution in Asheville that supports the craft beverage industry," said Scott Adams, the program's director. Beer school students learn all aspects of the trade, from sanitation to running a tasting room, legal issues, packaging and production and marketing and sales.
The Craft Beverage Institute was the first accredited program of its kind in the U.S., Adams said. Both the Siebel Institute in Chicago and the University of California at Davis are known for their training programs, but both offer professional certification, Adams said.
Two other North Carolina schools have programs similar to A-B Tech: Blue Ridge Community College in Henderson County, which has an emphasis on brewing equipment, packaging and maintenance and Rockingham Community College in Eden which has an "agricultural setting," Adams said, with courses on hops selection and malting. In Boone, Appalachian State University has a bachelor of science degree program in fermentation sciences.
The A-B Tech program offers a two-year associate's degree in brewing, fermentation and distillation.
The idea came three years ago when Adams and Chef Sheila Tillman, associate dean of hospitality education, started exploring ways to expand their program. "It wasn't rocket science to look at the beverage industry," Adams said. After visiting a similar program at Niagara College in Canada, they were more convinced that A-B Tech was on the right track, Adams said.
The state quickly approved the Craft Beverage Institute and listed the first classes for students in June 2013. "We had over 500 contacts" from potential students, Adams said. When enrollment began, dozens of students camped overnight to secure one of the program's 24 open spots.
The program has attracted students from around the country, and has a waiting list, Adams said. "I spoke with a marine sergeant who was calling from the field in Afghanistan, and said he wanted to come."
This is not a program for casual beer and wine drinkers. "You can't just come in off the street," Adams said. Students must be at least 21, have college-level English and math skills, and have passed high-school or first-level college chemistry.
Of the first class of 24, most already had a four-year degree. Three students had masters degrees and one had a Ph.D., Adams said. "It's not your typical group of folks," he said.
Gulotta had a psychology degree from the University of Virginia, then "got interested in wines" and moved to Oregon to learn more about that industry. She plunged into the beer world at the Rogue brewery before hearing about the A-B Tech program and moving to Asheville. This summer, she interned at Lookout Brewing in Black Mountain.
She sees plenty of opportunity in the Asheville area. "A lot of the breweries are getting bigger," she said.
Foster started working in the food and beverage business as a teen. He became a homebrewer in his 20s. After living in Fort Collins, Col. (home to New Belgium Brewing) and Atlanta, he was ready for a change and sees the A-B Tech program as a path to a brewing career.
It's not been easy, Gulotta said. "It's been physically demanding," she said. "I've had some 16, 17, and 20-hour days." But there's been plenty of payoff, Foster said. "The more that I have gotten into this, my palate has gotten more diverse."
Of the original 24 students, 20 returned for a second year. They were joined this fall by a new class of 24, Adams said.
The Craft Beverage Institute is continuing to grow. In April, it received a $195,000 grant from Duke Power to purchase an 8.5-barrel brewhouse, a canning machine, a distillation system, a micro-winery and to put money into a sensory analysis lab. The equipment is still on order. Students are now learning on Brew Magic homebrewing units and will also train on Highland Brewing's pilot system in east Asheville.
The program is getting strong support from the Asheville Brewers Alliance, a nonprofit organization representing Western North Carolina's craft breweries. "They are providing tremendous educational opportunities for aspiring brewers," said Alliance director Jennifer McLucas. "They will definitely produce candidates" for employment, said Oscar Wong, founder of Highland Brewing, where two interns spent the summer learning.
Asheville Brewing also had a Craft Beverage intern and kept her on as an employee. "She's soaking up beer knowledge like a sponge," said company president Mike Rangel. "It's an incredible thing to grow your own staff."
Highland Brewing's head brewer John Lyda will join the Craft Beverage program as an instructor this fall. "They are doing it right," he said. "They are giving their students hands-on experience."
The institute is also offering continuing education beer courses for the general public. More than 500 people have taken those programs on such subjects as "Beer Styles of Belgium" and "Critical Tasting and Basic Off-Flavors Training."
And this fall, the program will move into a third phase with its Brew Start Conference Sept. 18-19. The workshop is aimed at anyone interested in starting a craft beverage business. It includes finance and accounting, marketing, legal issues, business plan development, a tour of local craft beverage producers and a dinner with local industry professionals. More information on that program can be found at abtech.edu.brewstart.