Food & Drink

What it really takes to major in beer

Samples of beer made with the yeast from bees are poured by Dr. John Sheppard, with the NC State University Department of Food/Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences, in the Brewery in the Pilot Plant on the school's campus in Raleigh, N.C. on Thursday, July 23, 2015.
Samples of beer made with the yeast from bees are poured by Dr. John Sheppard, with the NC State University Department of Food/Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences, in the Brewery in the Pilot Plant on the school's campus in Raleigh, N.C. on Thursday, July 23, 2015.

When Keith McDonald enrolled at Rockingham Community College two years ago, he didn’t anticipate leaving the school as a professional brewer.

Though that’s exactly what the school’s brewing, distillation and fermentation program prepares students for, McDonald simply wanted to gain knowledge that might help him in his career as a salesman for R.H. Barringer, a beer distributor based in Greensboro. He had homebrewed for a few months prior to enrolling in the program, but had not planned on leaving the company with whom he had worked the last 25 years.

That all changed this summer when he was offered an assistant brewer position at Red Oak Brewery in Whitsett, weeks before he finished his associate degree.

McDonald was the first student to enroll in the program at Rockingham Community College, which is just 20 miles away from nearby Eden and its big MillerCoors brewery. Faculty first considered adding the program thinking it would prepare students for employment there as well as at many of North Carolina’s smaller breweries.

Brewing schools are not new, with long-established programs at the University of California, Davis, and the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago. Beyond that, there weren’t more affordable options for students.

“That was where it was decided, ‘Hey, maybe there’s a market for this,’” said Keith Elliot, who serves as Rockingham’s department chair over the brewing, distillation and fermentation program.

While some of the state’s community colleges were among the first to offer brewing or beer-related programs, others have sprung up in recent years, including at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, Appalachian State University in Boone and N.C. State University in Raleigh.

Johnson & Wales began offering a beverage concentration to its students two years ago. “We had wine classes, we had mixology and spirits classes,” said Alistair Williams, an associate professor in the school of hospitality. “The thing that was missing was beer.”

The school is finishing construction on a state-of-the-art beverage laboratory where most of that tasting is done, and hopes to add a pilot brewery in the winter term.

More than brewing beer

Rockingham Community College approached the state in early 2012 about starting a brewery program. Three other community colleges joined in the planning: Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, Blue Ridge Community College and Nash Community College. The state approved the brewery program in July 2013, at which point the schools were able to start offering it. Rockingham Community College did so the following August.

There’s more to a brewery than its brewer, though. When Rockingham Community College began planning its program, they sought input to see what brewery owners looked for in their employees.

“As many of the brewers told us, for most of the company there’s one brewer,” said Elliot. “But then they’ve got 10-15 people that have to keep everything running. They were interested in people with a brewing background, but also that had some of these other skills.”

Those other skills might fall under management, hospitality, logistics or marketing.

“You can make the best beer in the world, but if you can’t tell anybody about it you’re not going to make any money,” said Jeff Irvin, an instructor in Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College’s brewing, distillation and fermentation program.

It’s easy to romanticize about going to school to become a rockstar brewmaster, brewing small batches of artisanal ales to great fanfare. The truth of the matter, though, is that brewing is equal parts art and science. Appalachian State University began offering its bachelor’s of science degree in fermentation sciences in June 2012.

“What the training really involves in the program is to make them analytical scientists to work in labs,” said Brett Taubman, an associate professor who is also the president of Ivory Tower Brewery, a nonprofit that brews and packages beers at Howard Brewing in Lenoir.

That’s not to say students with a view to brewing never enter the program at Appalachian, but many soon find that the years of science-based study (2.5 years of chemistry alone) are not what they had in mind.

“The production side is the carrot for the program, leading them in,” said Taubman. “But then we sort of bludgeon them over the head with organic chemistry and microbiology and cell chemistry, and many find out they enjoy that.”

Many of the scientifically-minded students, on the other hand, find themselves attracted to the brewing side of things. And brewers – who may not have as deep a knowledge when it comes to the science involved – welcome them with open arms.

“A lot of the craft breweries have minimal lab facilities, so they ask students to come in and get their labs going,” said John Sheppard, an N.C. State professor in the department of food, bioprocessing and nutrition sciences.

Sheppard has overseen the university’s brewing research facility since he came to work at the college in 2006. It’s not an official academic program, but rather an extension of the work he was doing at McGill University in Montreal before he came to N.C. State to teach in the biopharmaceutical program. McGill allowed him to take his brewing equipment with him.

Now Sheppard oversees the brewing lab, where most of the hands-on brewing is reserved for students in the graduate program. They brew a variety of styles, and any beer that is made “incidental to their research” can be sold at campus events. Look for Sheppard’s Wolf-toberfest around campus this fall.

Daniel Hartis is the digital manager at All About Beer Magazine in Durham and author of “Beer Lover’s The Carolinas” and “Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City.” Reach him at or on Twitter, @DanielHartis.