Why Yes, You Can Major in Beer at These Schools

Brewers say these programs are changing the ways professional breweries hire.

beer school
Scott Lafontaine, a graduate student at Oregon State, operates an automated brewery system | Department of Food Science and Technology, Oregon State University
Scott Lafontaine, a graduate student at Oregon State, operates an automated brewery system | Department of Food Science and Technology, Oregon State University

When people learn that Cade Jobe is studying brewing at Oregon State University, they tend to get the wrong idea. “You get to drink a lot of beer, don’t you?” they’ll ask. “The answer is, ‘Yes, we do,” says Jobe, who left a career as a lawyer to get a master’s in fermentation science. “But, it’s all for science. It’s all for quality purposes.”

Oregon State University is one of dozens of universities throughout the country that offer four-year diplomas, associate degrees, or some other training in brewing or closely related fields. From certificate programs at institutions like The Siebel Institute of Technology and Cornell University, to the four-year degrees offered by Virginia Tech and Western Michigan University, these types of programs are increasingly common and continue to receive major funding.

They also exert more influence on hiring in the industry, says Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, which donated the equipment used by brewing students at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. “We require either one of these certificates or two to three years of experience,” says Oliver, though he notes that such requirements can create further barriers to the industry. That’s why he founded The Michael James Jackson Foundation for Brewing & Distilling, a nonprofit that provides scholarships for brewing and distilling education for people of color, in 2020.

A New Model to Work in Beer

Traditionally, new brewers have learned through apprenticeships or have been self-taught as homebrewers. The latter isn’t always a perfect pipeline, Oliver says, drawing comparisons to talented home cooks versus professional chefs accustomed to working the line at a busy restaurant on a Saturday night. If homebrewers do join established breweries, they can have trouble taking their skills to the next level to advance their careers.

beer school science
Students study fermentation science and get hands-on laboratory experience | Department of Food Science and Technology, Oregon State University

Brewery training programs are designed to prevent this. For instance, when Katherine Pallarino, a junior food science major at The University of California, Davis, started a part-time job at Sudwerk Brewing Co., she felt right at home. “I have been able to go into this job knowing details about brewing science like yeast metabolism, but also about transferring large amounts of liquid because there are courses that we have to take in the food science program that are dedicated to learning about flow and pressure differentials and pipe fittings and friction.”

Miya Stahle, a senior food science and fermentation student at Oregon State, had a similar experience during a recent internship at a local brewery. “I knew what I was doing, but I also knew the reason behind what I was doing,” she says. “When I was talking to other brewers who have been in the industry for 15 years, they didn’t know until later on, why they were doing what they were doing. They knew you turn this dial, you press this button and use this temperature.”

What You Study

“For some students, when they see a program for fermentation science, what they’re really attracted to is the culture around beer,” says Zhenglun Li, a food science professor at Oregon State University and the academic advisor for fermentation students. While programs might celebrate this culture, they also delve deep into the science bubbling up behind it. At Oregon State, fermentation students earn a minor in chemistry and take as much science as their pre-med peers. “I want my brewer to know food safety just as much as I want my surgeon to understand human physiology,” Li says.

Students in degree and certificate programs also learn about the business of beer. This prepares them for all sorts of potential jobs and shows how a beer career is not all fun and hops, says Glen Patrick Fox, professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at UC Davis. “It won’t be this romantic notion that we’re just sitting around designing beers and drinking beer. It’s hard work and there’s a lot of cleaning. But there’s a lot of reward in that as well.”

beer school
In college- and graduate-level brewing programs, students celebrate the culture and science of beer | Department of Food Science and Technology, Oregon State University

How to Choose a Program

Broadly speaking, brewing programs fall into two categories, certificate or degree. Fox says certificate programs usually appeal to people who are changing industries or looking to advance their existing brewing career. Degree programs, on the other hand, generally appeal more to students who want a traditional bachelor’s or master’s degree, and hope to use their studies as a ticket into the beer business.

When Oliver assesses programs for his work at the foundation, he looks for websites with easy-to-find information on tuition, syllabi, job opportunities, and program length. “If, in 10 minutes, I can’t find all that information pretty easily, I don’t trust you,” he says.

As craft brewing continues to expand, Oliver expects more formal education to play an increased role in the industry. As long as there are academic opportunities for brewers of all backgrounds, he believes that’s a good thing. “It provides both the industry and the prospective brewer with a benchmark that they can both use to get what they’re looking for,” he says. In school, as in life, beer is brimming with possibilities.

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Erik Ofgang is a contributor to Thrillist.