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Brewing a Career

How a small community college in Mesquite became the breeding ground for the next generation of Texas beer brewmasters.

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Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Beer school, it turns out, can look an awful lot like regular school.

During a recent visit to the Journeyman Brewery Certificate program at Eastfield College, in Mesquite, a student distractedly doodled in his notebook, while another misjudged the volume a bite into a granola bar can produce. There were fractions, percentages, and equations on the board, and a few students were wearing befuddled expressions that suggested they’re in over their heads. The whole class was trying to keep up with one of Professor Peter Boettcher’s intensive lectures on subjects like the optimum temperature for enzymes during the “mashing” process of brewing beer, a complicated procedure that Boettcher described in his noticeable German accent. These students didn’t sign up for the typical college blow-off class; they were trying to survive a notably strenuous, surprisingly credible program.

“I would have thought it would have been like Hipster U,” joked Judith Dumont, the executive dean of Workforce and Continuing Education at Eastfield College, referring to the typecast image of the typical craft beer snob. But the students—all ages and backgrounds—enrolled in the course are serious and studious while seeking their certifications to become professional brewers.

“It’s been pretty challenging,” Zach Bowden, 21, told me on the second week of classes. “But I guess I prepared myself pretty well for this. I started getting into water chemistry [in preparation for the course].”

The six-week, $3,600 program began its fourth installment last September and is the only one of its kind that offers a certification in Brewing Science through the Texas Workforce Commission. With those credentials, Eastfield claims, graduates leave the program as qualified brewers ready to be hired by local breweries.

Every aspect of the course was thought of and implemented by Boettcher, who has a degree in Brewing Science from Doemans Academy in Munich and thirty years of industry experience, including a stint as a technical brewer for MillerCoors. “We really are partners in the sense that he brought us the curriculum and the idea, and then we provided the marketing, the advertising, [and] the credentialing,” said Dean Dumont.

For six hours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, a dozen and a half students take notes and ask questions as Boettcher makes use of nearly every inch of a long white-board while conducting lectures aided by charts and graphs pulled from a German reference book. But not all instruction is confined to a classroom. On Mondays and Fridays, students travel to a rotating selection of North Texas breweries—Deep Ellum Brewery, Shannon Brewing Company, Rahr and Sons, Grapevine Craft Brewery, Martin House Brewery, Lakewood Brewing Company, and Texas Ale Project—where they serve as interns. By the end of the course, each student will have interned at almost all of these breweries, most of which participated because of a relationship with or respect for Boettcher, who has served as an industry consultant all over the globe.

“We try to fit these students into our brewery to be exposed to whatever they are learning at the time,” said Shannon Carter, founder of Shannon Brewing Company in Keller, who gave a guest lecture on the S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) of brewing at Eastfield in the early stages of the program. “Sometimes it just fits that we’re packaging that day, so guess what? You’re going to be packaging.”

The mix between practical experience and exhaustive theoretical lectures is a product of Boettcher’s background. The “Journeyman” title refers to the process he came out of in Germany where he apprenticed as a brewer while earning his degree in the field. “We call this the duel system,” he told me during his lunch break.

The current program has only 18 students, but due to the positive feedback and success of graduates, Dumont says Eastfield is working on developing a two-year associate’s degree program they hope to launch next year. The expansion, which would allow for the higher enrollment numbers they’re hoping to attract, would require prerequisite courses, but would still be overseen and led by Boettcher.

The student demographic varies in age and background, with members of the class in their thirties, forties, and fifties looking to pursue a more passionate career path. The one stereotype Eastfield is having trouble breaking, though, is the notion that women are less interested in beer. There is only one woman participating in the program right now, and only a handful more have completed it. Yet Dumont hopes to change that over time: “I’m a raging feminist, and trust me when I say that I know women love beer too.”

Paying for and committing full-time to the program clearly requires a strong motivation to work in the brewing industry, and at least thus far, Eastfield has delivered on its end. The program claims a 98 percent job placement rate among their graduates with a starting salary between $35,000 to $45,000. In an economic climate where it’s rare for a four-year university to reliably find its students work upon graduation, this six-week program at a community college is quickly putting its graduates at the starting point of their dream jobs.

“When they come out of Peter’s class they are well-equipped to participate in an entry level job in our brewery,” said Carter, who has already hired four graduates of the program at Shannon Brewing Company. Jason Rhodes, a brewer at Deep Ellum Brewery in Dallas, said via email that they have also hired a graduate of the program.

While the benefits to motivated students are obvious, Boettcher claims his model is much needed in the brewing industry, which is constantly having to sift through potential employees who’ve simply dabbled in home brewing or perhaps have just seen too many Samuel Adams commercials. “The brewery is not a school,” Boettcher emphatically told me. “They are not in the education business.” He says the current learn-on-the-job model is inefficient and can lead to cutting corners. “It’s the biggest problem in brewing today.”

And growth for Texas breweries is at a critical juncture in Texas. In August, craft breweries celebrated a victory in court over the state of Texas that revoked a 2013 law preventing them from selling their own distribution rights. The ruling essentially permits breweries to now sell their beer for off-site consumption, allowing them to operate as more than just bar alternatives or tourism spots. It could certainly mean greater profits, but it will also likely mean more bottling and, perhaps, require more employees.

Eastfield’s Journeyman Brewery Certificate Program is still small and relatively new, but it’s hard not to wonder if Boettcher created a sort of American farming system for future brewers. The current students probably don’t even realize they’re already being evaluated. “We’re actually looking to recruit another person now,” Carter of Shannon Brewing Company told me over the phone. “So we’re looking at everybody that comes out [on their internship], and if the appropriate person comes along, we’ll make them an offer as soon as they’re done with the program.”

If the formula continues to succeed as the program grows, there will likely be universities around Texas and elsewhere trying to replicate it. The hardest part will be finding an instructor with the experience, knowledge, and time to design the course. Eastfield College has that, and Dumont’s attitude about potential copycats is simple.

“Let ‘em try. They don’t have Peter Boettcher.”

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