'Beverage mecca': Why people are flowing to WNC to launch careers in beer, spirits, more

Post on the Asheville Citizen-Times website on May 13, 2024

Asheville — Philip Pate, a 25-year-old student and Michigan native, studied indoor agriculture and had only visited Asheville for mountain biking before deciding to shift gears and earn a Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation Associate of Applied Science degree program at Asheville Buncombe County Technical Community College.

By August 2023, Pate had moved to Asheville from Northern Michigan to enroll in the two-year program, part of the Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast® at A-B Tech’s Enka.

The following March, he was working alongside peers preparing a rye wash for whiskey during a lab session at the CBI.

“There’s people from all over the world in this program doing stuff. It’s a great network of people who’ve been through the program, too,” Pate said. “I highly recommend it to anyone interested.”

International students, including those from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and South Korea, have attended the program.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation program, launched in 2013 by former Dean Sheila Tillman and the first CBI Director Scott Adams who hired Jeff Irvin ― more commonly known as “Puff” ― as the CBI's first brewmaster.

A few years later, Irvin ― who'd come with a biology degree, an impressive brewing education, the title of Diploma Brewer from the Guild of Brewing and Distilling in England, and whose resume included a 10-year run as the brewmaster at Olde Main Brewing Company in Ames, Iowa ― was promoted to director after Adams retired.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation program, launched in 2013 and developed by Jeff Irvin – more commonly known as “Puff” – who’s served as the department chair and CBI director for the same time frame.

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Irvin, along with Brewmaster/Instructor John Lyda ― the original brewer for Highland Brewing, Lab Manager Jim Schram ― a 40-year microbiology veteran researcher of Raleigh’s Research Triangle Park, and adjuncts and guest industry instructors have shaped CBI into an education and workforce machine that rivals any other.

“Even if you’ve never brewed before, we’re going to teach you that. You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to learn from them, you’re going to smell and taste and understand the raw materials and ingredients,” Irvin said.

Pate said his goal is to return to his home state to work in the cider and seltzer sector and eventually open a cidery near Lake Superior.

“It’s interesting stuff and Puff’s a great teacher,” Pate said. “It’s a lot of information you learn here. It’s everything I expected and more.”

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation program, launched in 2013 and developed by Jeff Irvin – more commonly known as “Puff” – who’s served as the department chair and CBI director for the same time frame.


'Beverage mecca'

In its 10 years, nearly 250 students have enrolled in the two-year program with more than 100 graduates completing required summer internships at businesses within a 250-mile radius of Asheville.

The Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast on A-B Tech’s Enka-Candler campus.

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Many who’ve gone through CBI’s rigorous training have gone on to work in the beverage industry across the U.S. and globally, with alumni including Troy Kelly, lead brewer at Mua Craft Sake in Vietnam, and U.S. Army veteran Derek Biggs, bottling manager at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey.

But many program graduates have also found work in Asheville, helping to transform it into Beer City, and what Irvin called Western North Carolina's “beverage mecca.”

According to A-B Tech, the Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation AAS degree was the first two-year program in the U.S. Beverage production spans from traditional beer, wine, and cider to other alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverage products and innovative methods, including kombucha, seltzer, sodas, kava, mead, carbonated teas, and zero-proof beer and spirits.

Jen Currier, Wicked Weed Brewing’s head of mixed culture and 2015 CBI graduate, said she considers herself lucky to have been accepted to the program, and the regional beverage industry is lucky as AB Tech’s students are a “huge asset” to the community.

Local CBI graduates include Sasha Bynum, the brewer technician for Terra Nova Brewing Co., Kay Gonzales, assistant brewer at Oklawaha Brewing in Hendersonville, and Charlie Stanley, production manager and sales for Oak and Grist Distilling Co. in Black Mountain.

“Every brewery in Western North Carolina has likely benefited from having graduated from the brewing, distillation, and fermentation program. … from having a skilled, engaged and accountable group of not only interns but employees,” Currier said.

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Fueling the beverage industry

Before Gregory Hill was turning apples into hard cider as Urban Orchard Cider Company’s cider maker and production director, he was one of the first students to earn the Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation Associate of Applied Science degree.

Hill, who became an adjunct professor nearly seven years ago, said CBI and the local beverage industry have a community partnership in which they discuss what students need to be successful and what’s needed for the workforce.

He said the students come out of the program ready to work.

"They’re hirable, they have the experience and knowledge and there’s none of the wasted time and energy training someone who’s already supposed to know these things," said Hill, who has since earned a master’s in education and is working toward a doctorate.

CBI students are put on an entrepreneurial track to prepare them for positions in brewery and distillery operations and management, distribution, sales and marketing, and customer service. Education, experience, and job placement are key to the program’s success.

“Ultimately, the goal of this program is to get these students a job,” Irvin said.

Rebecca Murphy, who attended CBI from 2019-2021, was recommended by Irvin for product development and assisting operations at Two Trees Distilling in Fletcher.

For three years, she’s served as director of operations with duties including managing the tasting room, social media, marketing, and back-of-house production.

“Having the hands-on knowledge from the beverage institute, I know exactly what the guys need to do on the floor,” said Murphy, a former physical therapist who also has served in the U.S. Army. “It helps me know how to plan things out and make these more efficient and communicate better so they can get the job done.”

Many, like Murphy, have gravitated to the CBI, desiring to change or start careers. Irvin said it's common for students to discover a new area of interest after entering the beverage program.

Before enrolling in the CBI in January 2014, Currier said she didn’t have distilling and winemaking experience and had only homebrewed small batches of beer as a hobby. She considered physical therapy and sports medicine careers until she learned about the Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation program's launch in 2013.

In January 2014, she attended her first course. The next year, she worked as a bartender at Wicked Weed Brewing’s Funkatorium, a sour-focused brewery and taproom, while going through the program ― and graduated in the same year.

The program gives its graduates entering the labor market credibility, said Currier, who works with several other CBI graduates, including her fiancé Sam Bryant, Wicked Weed’s research and development brewer whom she met while in the program.

Since 2020, she has been the head of mixed culture overseeing its sour beer, natural wine, and cider production. Receiving training beyond beer prepared her for the production leadership role, strengthened by her prior education in science.

“It’s allowed me to continue to diversify and innovate and improve products at Wicked Weed Brewing. It makes problem-solving a lot easier when you can call on such a solid education,” Currier said.


Hands-on brewing, distilling and fermentation

Hill said, a decade ago, when he applied for a bartender position at Urban Orchard that the mention of his attending CBI’s program put him ahead of the competition and landed him the job.

“I wouldn’t have this position and be here for 10 years if I hadn’t gone there,” Hill said.

Hill said other brewing programs often focus on theory, but students may not receive hands-on learning in essential areas like sanitizing and operating equipment, which saves the employer time, energy, and resources for training.

CBI’s more than 8,000 square foot commercial-size brew-house contains six pilot brewing systems, a hybrid distillation system, commercial winery production equipment, a sensory analysis lab, packaging lines, and a quality assurance/quality control lab.

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The CBI aims to prepare students interested in owning a craft production facility.

The facilities management project requires students to stay within budget to develop an original business, including managing plumbing and electricity, bar layout, costs, and determining how many pint glasses are needed for the brewery’s capacity.

Irvin, who also hosts an award-winning podcast about the brewing, distillation, and fermentation of craft beverages, “Consuming the Craft,” said other institutions have reached out and visited CBI to study and emulate the program.



Enrollment is open and on May 13, A-B Tech will host an Admission Day for the Fall 2024 Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation program at the Bailey Student Services Center on A-B Tech's main campus in Asheville.

The first 24 qualified students will be accepted into the competitive program. The number of applicants changes but Irvin said, each year, slots fill up fast as many apply as soon as enrollment opens, and there is a waitlist.

The classes are limited due to equipment and space availability, for students to learn in an intimate setting.

Tuition for North Carolina residents, who must be ages 21 or older, is estimated at $3,000 a year in-state and $8,400 for out-of-state tuition, per year. In-state applicants may be eligible to apply for a Next NC Scholarship.

Irvin said some chemistry, math, and English skills are recommended and students should be willing and able to lift 50 pounds at chest height to pour ingredients into a mill and be on their feet for an extended time in steel-toed boots on concrete.

“It’s a hot, wet work environment,” Irvin said. “Being physically ready to do that on an eight-hour shift is something some people have to realize and be prepared for.”

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Consumer and beverage industry shifts

Irvin said the CBI continues to grow and develop as A-B Tech enhances the department and amid consumer and industry trend shifts.

"They give you a good, broad overview of pretty much everything that’s out there and then it’s up to you to decide," Murphy said.

As a leader at Two Trees Distilling, Murphy has returned to the CBI to troubleshoot issues with the instructors and engage with students in sensory panels to receive feedback on the distillery’s products.

Irvin said many students enter the program to learn a particular beverage-making style but discover a passion or affinity for another as all students must learn diverse areas.

“When we started the program, everyone was excited about brewing beer. I’ve seen that diversify quite dramatically,” Irvin said.

Irvin said consumer palates continue to change, and he’s witnessed a shift in younger generations who are less interested in alcoholic beverages and increasingly more interested in alternative beverages like THC-infused drinks and kava.

Pate, who’s completing his first year in the program, said he entered CBI to learn about beer brewing but discovered an interest in cider and seltzer.

Rebecca Murphy, director of operations at Two Trees Distilling in Fletcher.

Murphy said she was drawn to the program for brewing but found an affinity for distilling. She was a fan of bourbon and whiskey, but she discovered a love for the science and art of making them after receiving formal education.

Like Hill and Currier, many local beverage professionals who have graduated from the program ― and some who have not ― have been welcomed to CBI as adjuncts or guest instructors.

Irvin said other instructors have included Chall Gray, co-owner of Little Jumbo, who provides the foundations for designing and operating a bar.

Currier and Murphy said networking and internships were highlights of the program, as students can access industry professionals to receive guidance and make connections that can lead to careers.

“It’s a choose-your-own-adventure in craft beverage once you’re done with the program, which I think is pretty cool,” Murphy said.


Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation program admission day

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