Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues aren’t just craft brewers — they are three craft brewers with major muscle that already employ hundreds of people. When they chose to build new facilities in or around Asheville — a town already well-known for its own breweries — they solidified Western North Carolina as an epicenter of craft brewing on the East Coast. Our area colleges have taken notice, and for more than a year they’ve worked to create a new associate degree program.
Two weeks ago they received their approval to move forward. A-B Tech and Blue Ridge Community College will join Rockingham Community College as the first three schools in the state to offer an associate in applied science degree in brewing, distillation and fermentation.
A-B Tech and BRCC have decided to tailor their programs in a way that complements, rather than competes. Martha Ball, communications specialist at A-B Tech, put it this way: “Yes, there will be jobs for brewers, and all our programs will teach brewing. But the majority of jobs are [other roles] … so each school will have a specialty. We’ll each take a different piece of the pie.”
In practice, that means A-B Tech will handle the distribution, marketing and sales sides of the business. There will be classes that focus on facilities management, running tasting rooms, marketing and more. “The reason for this focus is because we have instructors here who already do a great job with hospitality education,” says Ball. “For us, the degree will fall within hospitality management.”
If it sounds pretty broad, that’s because there are a lot of options for someone who chooses this career path, according to Ball. “Maybe you want to work at New Belgium now, but your ultimate goal is to open a microbrewery. [With our program] you can do that,” she says.
Blue Ridge Community College will handle the engineering aspect, focusing on equipment, maintenance and other technical skills. According to Chris English, dean of applied technology at BRCC, “For us, the program is designed around mechatronics (electronics and mechanical engineering). You’ll learn how to brew beer and microbiology, but beyond that you’ll learn what happens as that product goes into the bottle or can. Our program gets the beer [brewed] and to the door.”
English added that with a mechatronic education, there are other options for employment outside the brewing industry. “It’s important that if you don’t get a job at Sierra Nevada or Oskar Blues, that you’re still employable. With mechatronics, you will be employable at places like Continental, Borg Warner and other businesses using automation.”
It should come as no surprise, but so far the local industry has been very supportive, according to Ball and English. “Highland, Asheville Brewing, French Broad and Wedge in particular have been amazing,” says Ball, adding that Sierra Nevada and New Belgium both had significant influence on launching the program. English also listed quite a few breweries, including Southern Appalachian in Hendersonville. However, for BRCC, the biggest partner so far is likely Oskar Blues.
Oskar Blues Brew School, a continuing-education program, has been held in partnership between BRCC and the brewery for months. However, English said that program will soon be rebranded as Blue Ridge Brew School, as the college will have its own facilities as well as the need to integrate the continuing-ed courses with the more comprehensive associate program. “The goal is to make it so you’re not repeating information if you don’t need to. We want to make it so your credit from Brew School can turn into curriculum credit,” says English.
While the new associate degree programs have yet to launch, the early signs are already positive. After the first session of Oskar Blues Brew School wrapped up, the brewery hired one of the students as an assistant brewer. “We are thrilled to have found a brewer from the class,” says Noah Tuttle, head brewer at the Brevard brewery. “This goes to show how important education and hands-on training is for folks who want to pursue careers in this incredibly fast-growing industry.”
If you want to be next, you’re not alone. A-B Tech already has a full class with a waitlist for fall 2013. However, you can contact either college to find out more about future semesters: www.abtech.edu / www.blueridge.edu