The Craft Beer Boom: Stepping up to the Educational Challenge

I’ve been working in higher education for just over 25 years now, spanning three continents, a multitude of colleges and schools, and teaching across a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate programs. For the most part these were hospitality and tourism management programs and my area of emphasis has always been food and beverage, or operations management. It was little wonder then that I developed an early interest in craft beer and those entrepreneurs who were leading the charge. What fascinated me most were the host of challenges faced almost daily by craft brewers: navigating the very complicated legal environment, marketing and distribution, the ever-evolving technological challenge, and, my pet research project, managing customer expectations on product and service delivery.
It wasn’t long before I was knocking on the doors of both the AHA and BA seeking their support for a variety of research projects. Thankfully, both Gary Glass (AHA) and Bart Watson (BA) were quick to realize the benefits of these studies and helped greatly with the distribution of surveys: one targeted at ‘Understanding Motivations for Engagement in Home Brewing,’ and the other targeted at ‘Craft Brewers Motivations for Engaging Entrepreneurially in Craft Brewing.’ While I was easily able to get to the answers I sought from each study, the most surprising challenge identified by respondents in both was the need for further educational program development for those interested in home and craft brewing. At a time when the home brewing community and craft brewing industry (circa 2009) was booming, serious educational options were few and far between, with UC Davis and the Siebel Institute being the only credible national options.
Being a member of a local home brewing community I quickly got with colleagues (Curt, Bruce and Julie) around a mash pot one Sunday afternoon and we started to discuss the potential for another program. A graduate level professional program targeted at folks who were interested in breaking through the drudgery of their normal day-to-day in favor of engaging professionally in an activity that they had been passionate about their entire lives — producing excellent beer! We quickly got to grips with the local home and craft brewing communities in the Southeast with a view to testing market need and demand, and were surprised to learn that the number one challenge facing most folks that currently worked in the industry was also access to education. To delve a little deeper, while the existing programs of the day were well known and respected for what they did, not everyone could afford to leave house and home and relocate for an extended period of time to take these programs. It wasn’t long therefore, before we had the light bulb moment to develop a distance education program. Not a traditional ‘death by Powerpoint’ distance program, but rather one where real world application and theory could be blended and delivered in a very interactive and discussion based online environment.
Having decided upon the right mix and balance of courses, spanning biology, microbiology, chemistry, brewing science, agronomy, facilities and operations, and business planning, the team moved into a three-year production cycle that saw faculty, subject specialists and professional videographers traverse the length and breadth of the United States and a variety of countries overseas with a view to capturing best practices that could be showcased in support of the normal class and laboratory based teaching product. Some three years later we opened for business with our first cohort of 15 students starting class in the fall of 2013. Bear in mind that we all have full-time day jobs and do this out of a love for the discipline. This forces us to cap enrolment on a year-to-year basis. Four years later and we are mid-way through our fourth cohort and the program is going from strength to strength. Interest levels are high, inquiries are non-stop, there is a high demand for graduates, many of whom have placed exceptionally well to this point, and interest and support from industry is strong and supportive. While we were quizzed by many as to how you could effectively deliver a program on Craft Brewing via distance education, I am certain that most, if not all of our graduates to date, would testify that the real secret here has not been the delivery mechanism per se, rather an approach that personalizes and manages the educational process such that the perception of distance is removed from the actual delivery process.
I have to tell you that I have never found anything more rewarding than serving the students and graduates of this program and the industry professionals that recruit them. While they have all taken a risk, and come at this with a multitude of different motivations and expectations, there is one unifying factor that connects them all: passion for the craft beer industry. It is both humbling and an honor to be a part of their graduation ceremony and even more humbling to interact with them on their onward journey. Most rewarding of all though is knowing that with our very unique Auburn University approach, my colleagues and I are making a real difference daily in the lives of many. The fact that this was all borne out by a simple conversation over a mash pot is all the more delightful! War Eagle!


  1. We will be conducting a workforce training assessment of the food and beverage industry in our Columbia River Gorge region of Oregon and Washington State, and wish to identify a consultant by mid-July. References would be greatly appreciated.

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