Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast® Marks 10th Anniversary
When the Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast® at A-B Tech (CBI) opened its doors to students in the fall of 2013, its Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation program was the first two-year, accredited degree of its type in the nation. The craft beer industry was booming in Asheville and students began lining up at midnight before the doors opened at 8 a.m. to nab one of 24 coveted spots in the capped program. Ten years on, the CBI has several hundred alumni working throughout the industry in Western North Carolina and beyond.
“I can’t believe how fast it’s gone,” said CBI Director Jeff “Puff” Irvin. “We’ve been lucky to see a diversity of students who came from all over the country for this program. What I’m most proud of is seeing where they’ve gone and what they’ve done in the industry.”
Irvin was hired as the CBI’s first Brewmaster when former Dean Sheila Tillman and the first CBI Director Scott Adams launched the program (Irvin became director after Adams moved on a few years later). After a nationwide search, they touted Irvin as “the best-educated brewmaster in the country.” Irvin earned his undergraduate degree in biology from Iowa State University, completed the highly regarded Master Brewers program at the University of California at Davis, and then earned the title of Diploma Brewer from the Guild of Brewing and Distilling in England. He then spent ten years at Olde Main Brewing Company in Ames, Iowa as Brewmaster, building its processes and recipes, managing the facility, and training employees.
A-B Tech offered an opportunity for Irvin to build a new program, write the curriculum, and focus on educating and training students in collaboration with industry partners. The Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation degree consists of two full years and a summer internship. In addition to learning the science and getting hands-on experience with brewing, distilling, and fermenting, the program emphasizes marketing, equipment maintenance, and overall operations.
“What we’ve done since the program began is diversify the training and really paint a broad swath of the industry. Anything from the actual production side to marketing to telling people about sales and distribution, to adding a sanitary welding component,” he said.
Irvin also quickly realized that some of his students already had advanced degrees and were changing careers, which led to the creation of a shorter-term diplomas and certificates. The CBI also provides continuing education classes and workforce training for local brewers, including a Brewing 101 class for all initial employees hired at New Belgium Brewing when it opened in Asheville.
The CBI looks vastly different than when the first classes were conducted a decade ago. Located at A-B Tech Enka in Candler, the CBI initially was in a small space and struggled to find enough equipment, labs, and classrooms, and sometimes relied on local brewers to share space and equipment. Today, the CBI has expanded to over 8,000 square feet and has its own commercial brewing, distillation, and wine equipment, two labs with testing equipment, two classrooms, and a studio.
“The support from A-B Tech to expand and diversify hands-on offerings has been huge,” Irvin said. “Support from the craft beverage industry also has been phenomenal. The community really embraced the idea of having people trained and hitting the ground running as an intern or new employee, whereas the old model was an apprenticeship.”
Another critical milestone was the hiring of local brewing legend John Lyda in 2016, Irvin said. “We were very, very lucky to get him to teach and share his knowledge of the industry.” Lyda previously was the long-time brewmaster at Asheville's Highland Brewing, where he was one of the first three employees. He introduced Asheville to an assortment of beer styles and helped lay the foundation for what became “Beer City”.
Lyda said he was excited to pass along his knowledge to the school's students, who are already becoming the next generation of local brewers. "I have always enjoyed trying to help the industry as a whole. And this is a way I can do that and hammer in the mantra of quality,” he said.
Irvin said another important hire that cemented the CBI’s quality testing capabilities was Lab Manager Jim Schram, a 40-year microbiology veteran researcher of Raleigh’s Research Triangle Park. In retirement, Schram decided to take craft beer continuing education classes offered at A-B Tech, which led to Irvin and Lyda recruiting him to the team.
There have been more than 100 graduates of the Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation program so far, and the places they have landed are impressive. A short list includes: Jen Currier, head of the sour production at Wicked Weed Brewing; Troy Kelly, lead brewer at Mua Craft Sake in Vietnam and one of few sake brewers from the U.S.; Greg Hill, cider maker and production director at Urban Orchard Cider Co., who also is working on his Ph.D. and teaching for A-B Tech; U.S. Army veteran Derek Biggs, who went on to the Siebel Institute of Technology and The Doemens Academy, now bottling manager at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey; U.S. Army veteran Dedrick McFadden, who also went onto the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago, now a brewer at Petty Thieves Brewing in Charlotte; Kay Gonzales, assistant brewer at Oklawaha Brewing in Hendersonville; and Leah Rainis, brewery operations manager at 12 Bones Brewing and former director of the Asheville Brewers Alliance.
Asheville beverage entrepreneurs Chall Gray, owner of Little Jumbo, and Mike Rangel, owner of Asheville Brewing Co., are opening a new distillery and tasting room soon that will rely on CBI alumni. Gray and Rangel told the Asheville Citizen-Times that they recently hired several graduates of the Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation program for their in-house development team.
“We feel like their background in brewing has brought an element to their distillation process,” Rangel said. “It’s been nice to see their very different processes. We have some tricks up our sleeves.”
Irvin said his team enjoys consulting with industry partners “doing research, testing, and product development to help folks achieve their craft beverage dreams.” The CBI also has been part of regional recruiting efforts that successfully brought companies such as New Belgium Brewing, Sierra Nevada Brewing, and White Labs to the area.
Community support, a model program, and a podcast
Irvin also emphasizes that not all craft beverages are alcoholic. One of the CBI’s clients was Sarilla Tea. Its owner, Sara Stender Delaney, was importing tea from Rwanda and dabbling in the draft and ready-to-drink market. The CBI helped her formulate and walk through the manufacturing process to get loose-leaf tea into a shelf-stable beverage. “Her company has blown up, is now working with a manufacturer in Vermont, and is at grocery stores and all sorts of places,” he said.
The CBI also has been contacted by numerous colleges and universities seeking to emulate the program and has been “a sounding board and instrumental in helping schools diversify their offerings. It’s a model program,” Irvin said.
A couple of years ago, Irvin decided to combine his background in craft beverages, education, radio, and music in a podcast. He produced, hosted, and wrote and recorded its theme song. Dubbed “Consuming the Craft”, the popular podcast won two national Gold Paragon Awards from the National Council of PR and Marketing in its first two years.
“The podcast is a way to document all the great folks coming in to work with us, the next step to sharing information with students and everyone else who wanted to take time to learn more,” Irvin said. “Guest lecturers, people coming to check out the CBI, brewers, engineers, marketers, a lot of amazing people with great stories. It’s great for folks who want to learn more or get into the industry.”
Consuming the Craft’s tagline is “Listen, Learn, Laugh”, and Irvin takes it to heart. “I think you learn better when you’re laughing – you’re entertained, engaged, and learn more. I one hundred percent approach it as an educator, and it’s like continuing education for me, too.”
Irvin also serves as board chair of the NC Craft Beverage Museum and does a lot of educational events in the community. To better communicate his CBI, podcast, and volunteer activities, he’s finally joining social media and has new accounts on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. Look for the Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast® or @abtechdrinks on Instagram and Facebook and Consuming the Craft on YouTube.
To mark the 10th anniversary, Irvin hopes the CBI may finally be able to release its own beer this year. “The 10th-anniversary gift is tin or aluminum, so I hope we can release beer in aluminum cans this year. It has to be limited production, so we may be able to strategically partner with a bar where we have students working or have a separate LLC. The goal is to show ‘grain to glass’ and have an outlet to show student creativity.”
Find Consuming the Craft Podcast on the Apple Store or Google Play
Facebook, Instagram: @abtechdrinks
This article was originally published in the A-B Tech Education Journal Spring 2023 Issue.