Brewing and distilling degrees are a relatively new concept. While there were some specialty brewing and distilling schools beforehand, a four-year brewing degree did not exist until 1971, when the University of California, Davis added a fermentation science degree to its curriculum with a concentration in brewing. Now, several colleges and universities have established brewing and distilling degrees and certifications.
Unlike a more traditional degree that has similar courses and focus across universities, structure and concentration in brewing and distilling degrees vary greatly from school to school. We talked to representatives from UC Davis, Western Kentucky University, and Western Michigan University about their different brewing and distilling programs to get a sense of what this space in higher education looks like, and to help you decide which program could be best for you.
Four-year degrees in the fermentation field fall under several different degree titles. These degrees may be called Fermentation Science degrees, degrees in Food Science and Technology, a Brewing Science and Operations degree, etc. Essentially, each school has their own niche in the field and method in which they educate students for the workforce.
UC Davis has the longest running brewing program in North America, offering a Bachelor of Science degree in Food Science with a brewing focus.
“It is a four-year program with detailed attention to all the sciences that are important to being an accomplished brewer–chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, chemical engineering, sensory science etc.,” said Dr. Charles Bamforth, Distinguished Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at UC Davis.
After taking these base science courses, students take capstone courses on the theory and practice of brewing. Bamforth said that these capstone courses includes substantial time in UC Davis’ pilot scale brewery. He explained that UC Davis has partnered with large brewing companies, including Anheuser-Busch, Sierra Nevada, and Gambrinus, to create their facilities. This gives practical experience in brewing that students can use in their future careers.
“Our primary aim is to develop people for careers in malting and brewing and associated (supplier) industries. We have a long track record of developing folks for brewing positions, quality assurance etc., for both the very biggest and the smallest companies,” said Bamforth.
Note: UC Davis also has a Continuing and Professional Education program where students can earn other brewing-focused certifications.
Western Michigan University’s program also offers a Bachelor of Science degree, but there are several variances. WMU’s Sustainable Brewing degree involves both Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo Valley Community College. Dr. Steven Bertman, Chair of the Steering Committee at Western Michigan University, said the program is flexible in that students can go to the community college for part of their degree, but they get to choose whether or not they complete two full years at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. The only requirement that a student must attend attain a 30 credit certificate from the community college, as this is the hands-on brewing aspect of their education.
“They learn all about the industry, what it takes, how to prepare ingredients, what ingredients go in, how to develop a recipe, what different beer styles are–all those sort of tactical, hands on aspects. Then, they get into the brewery and they actually brew beer,” said Bertman of the certificate credit coursework.
Bertman explained that this element of the degree includes the practical, vocational skills necessary for the field and incorporates some basic science. But, when students transfer the certificate to WMU and begin their bachelor’s degree program, the curriculum is very science-heavy. Students will take physics and math, as well as several chemistry and biology courses.
“It’s a very hard-course science degree. It shares a lot of similarities to chemistry majors and biology majors, and to a certain extent I think of this as another career opportunity for students who are interested in science other than medical school or working in the pharmaceutical industry or working for the petroleum industry. So, these [students] are formally trained scientists who are going to come out and enter an industry that is increasing in its economic impact in this country,” said Bertman.
Many Americans do not yet see a formal science education as a prerequisite for brewing. Bertman explained that this is necessary due to the nature of what brewing is as a science, as well as to minimize the risk of wasting huge amounts resources from a bad batch.
“Brewing is chemistry and biology. From the composition of the water that goes into the beer, to the effect of temperature on rates of reactions, to the impact of changing conditions on different types of microorganisms and the types of compounds that they will produce. To understand the nuances of creating new and unique beers you have to understand exactly what’s going on inside the tank. Not to mention that in some cases, tens of hundreds of thousands of feed stocks are going into a batch of beer–you don’t want to make a mistake,” said Bertman.
While a large brewery would have the resources to hire someone with this type of degree for their science experience and knowledge, Bertman explained that even small breweries understand the benefits of this knowledge to produce a consistent product.
“As the craft industry grows, American pallets are getting more sophisticated and so things that breweries could get away with 20 years ago, serving a bad beer, they can’t weigh with as easily anymore,” said Bertman.
The WMU degree plan is similar in some ways to other fermentation science degrees. However, the degree is unique in that it focuses on sustainability in the brewing industry. Bertman said that this aspect of sustainability is included both in the coursework of all required classes, but students are also required to take full sustainability classes.
“There’s the aspect of the ethic of sustainability that we try to incorporate in the entire program but it’s basically making students aware, making it clear to them that [sustainability] is an important consideration to be making when every decision is made. From the beginning of the supply chain, agriculture and transport, to the actual brewing process in the brewery, and what materials are used to transport, and how far does distribution go. We want our students to be thinking about the sustainability aspect at every decision point,” said Bertman.
He said that this element is important in the program for ethical reasons, as well as in the context of sustainable business practices that create a continuously successful business.
“We have treated our environment as a giant dumping ground and we can no longer afford to do that ecologically and economically. We would like to think that we can steward the environment and create economically viable businesses at the same time,” said Bertman.
Bertman concluded that while students who earn this degree are competitive in a wide variety of scientific career options, the most common jobs he sees these students take post-grad include roles as brewers or head brewers, directors of operations, quality control positions, and front-end management positions.
Other colleges and universities that offer four year brewing and distilling degrees: Metropolitan State University of Denver, State University of New York, Cobleskill, Appalachian State University, Colorado State University, Oregon State University, and Central Washington University.
Brewing and distilling certificate programs are much easier to come by than full four-year degrees in the field. This is a good option for students who are not set on being, for example, the head brewer of a large brewing company, but may want to work in a different area in the field that isn’t directly involved in the production of alcohol. Or, perhaps a student wants to start their own brewery, and with this will focus more on the business side of things.
Western Kentucky University offers a Brewing and Distilling Arts & Sciences certificate program, but its main focus isn’t necessarily to produce brewers and distillers. Instead, WKU fills different niches in the industry. The program’s approach is based on a series of interviews the creators of the program conducted with brewers and distillers around the state. During these meetings, brewers and distillers were asked two questions: “what do you wish you had known before you got into the industry?” And, “what would you want to see on a transcript from a student in order to hire them?”
“What we heard from them was, ‘I knew how to brew before I opened a brewery, in fact I was a very good brewer. What I didn’t know was how to make a business plan, I didn’t know anything about the law, I didn’t know anything about how to design a logo, or do an advertising campaign, or hire and fire employees, or any of that business side of things,” said Dr. Andrew McMichael, Co-Coordinator of the Brewing and Distilling Arts & Sciences program at WKU. “So, that led us to the creation of a certificate program that has three main courses in it.”
McMichael explained that the course curriculum includes an industry-focused history of alcohol course, an entrepreneurship class that students take at the Gordon Ford College of Business, and a science course that covers the science of brewing and distilling. The capstone requirement for students earning this certification is an internship.
“The way that we have designed this program and the way that we do the advising, is that we expect that students will identify some component, some portion of the industry that they want to be involved in,” said McMichael.
McMichael pointed out that many large alcohol producing companies employ people for several aspects of the business that aren’t fermentation science. For example, only 10 percent of Jim Beam’s employees are actually hands-on involved in the production of alcohol. McMichael said that the students that go through WKU’s brewing and certification program are looking at the other 90 percent of available jobs.
“The metaphor that I always use with students is that during the California gold rush of the 1840s, it wasn’t gold miners who made a lot of money–it was people who sold things to gold miners. So, if you want to get into the brewing and distilling industry, we tell students, think of things you can sell to the gold miners. What skill do you have that the industry needs?” said McMichael.
While some students that go through the program are looking to become brewers and distillers, the idea is that they will major in a field that they see as beneficial to their career track. For example, a student may major in business so they are prepared to open their own brewery or distillery, while another student may major in chemistry if they want to work in quality control or another science area of the industry.
“We see ourselves as a very broadly constructed workforce development program. We don’t see ourselves as a brewing and distilling program in a very strict sense. We service the brewing and distilling industry,” said McMichael.
Other colleges and universities that offer brewing and distilling certification programs: Auburn University, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, San Diego State University, University of California, San Diego, Regis University, Siebel Institute of Technology, Central Michigan University, Schoolcraft College, Dakota County Technical College, Montana State University, Billings, Schenectady County Community College, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, University of the Sciences, American Brewers Guild, University of Vermont, Moonshine University, and many more.
If you are looking to earn some sort of brewing or distillery degree or certification, evaluate first what you are looking to do in the industry, as each program caters to something different. The range between a bachelor’s in fermentation science and a brewing certification is wide, but focusing on your interests and career goals and finding the schools that fit these will narrow the gap.