So You Want to be a Brewer?

Craft Beer Brewing Courses in the Triangle

By Julie Johnson
Photos by Matt Williams Photography
Students in Wake Tech’s Craft Beer Brewing program hone their practical skills at Raleigh’s Big Boss brewery in banner photo above.

The revolution in American brewing was launched in the 1980s by amateurs: beer lovers who were tired of light mainstream lagers, or travelers who hoped to recreate at home the variety of beer styles they’d encountered abroad. They taught themselves to brew with the help of books, and shared their knowledge at homebrew clubs. When the first of them turned pro, it was more likely an English major, a journalist or an aerospace engineer opening a microbrewery than someone with a formal education in brewing chemistry.

The age of the hobbyist may be waning. Given the ubiquity of craft beer, consumers have become much more discerning: novelty alone no longer sells beer, and quality matters. With over 150 breweries operating in North Carolina, there are employment opportunities for trained brewers. Now, there are also local institutions that offer that training.

The Craft Beer Brewing course at Wake Tech gives aspiring brewers a way to test their interest. The three-part certificate program combines classroom instruction with internships at local breweries.

“We run through the continuing education side of the college, because we want students to get the training as quickly as possible, and get out and into a job,” says program director Benjamin Wagoner. “We focus on providing the core training they need, and also developing partnerships with employers on the back end.”

Part 1 of the program, Wagoner admits, “takes some of the romance off” as students learn that brewing is physically demanding work. “You have to really like cleaning!”

 The introductory class is taught by Thomas Vincent, brewmaster at Compass Rose Brewery in North Raleigh. “We have a full spectrum of students – people who have homebrewed for years, others who don’t really understand anything about brewing,” he says.

Brewmaster Brad Wynn teaches Parts 2 and 3 at Big Boss Brewing, a larger Raleigh brewery where students gain experience with a range of equipment.

All the requirements can be fulfilled in about a year. Upon completion of the certificate, graduates are equipped for entry-level positions – roles that can vary widely depending on the size of the brewery, from support work all the way to assistant brewer.

“I think they’re well positioned to start working in breweries in the area, with a little more knowledge than someone trying to enter the field out of the blue. They have more understanding of the brewing process, the safety implications, the equipment we work with. It’s well-rounded: people get exposure to all elements of the career. As part of the internship, they definitely get hands-on experience, and get an understanding of the day-to-day.”

For the more academically-inclined, John Sheppard at NC State University accepts masters and PhD-level students interested in brewing-related research. He joined the Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences Department a decade ago, equipping his lab with his own small brewery.

When it comes to career tracks, “there are really two distinct beer industries,” he explains. “There’s the large-scale commercial breweries and the craft industry. If you’re interested in going into the big breweries, which is very well-paying, you need a university degree in science, ideally with a little business training.”

The craft industry is different, he says, and employees haven’t needed rigorous scientific training to get started, relying instead on learning by experience. “I think there are limits to that, though. At some point, you need to have some formal education, whether through someplace like Wake Tech, or Siebel Institute [in Chicago] or UC Davis [California]. Some recognized program is necessary if you’re really going to succeed.”

For economic reasons, as well as their focus on research, Sheppard’s students are unlikely to end up in the craft world after graduation. “The craft brewing industry typically cannot attract people with graduate degrees in science. Most of the breweries don’t have laboratory facilities, and they honestly can’t pay an attractive enough salary for someone with an advanced degree.”

Sheppard himself, however, makes his own contribution to Triangle craft beer culture. He has a contract with NC State’s catering service to supply beer from his laboratory brewery for campus events. The ten different beers he brews – including Brickyard Red, Wolfpack Pilsner and Pullen Porter – are very much in the craft tradition the students at Wake Tech are learning to master.

Photos below are courtesy of NC State University.