Alabama's Auburn University to offer craft beer brewing classes - WSFA.com: News Weather and Sports for Montgomery, AL.

University taps into booming craft beer market

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Dale Katechis' Oskar Blues breweries make Dale's Pale Ale and a host of other canned, craft beers. The company grew more than 40 percent last year. (Source: tumblr) Dale Katechis' Oskar Blues breweries make Dale's Pale Ale and a host of other canned, craft beers. The company grew more than 40 percent last year. (Source: tumblr)
Martin O'Neill will head Auburn University's program in brewing science. (Source: Auburn.edu) Martin O'Neill will head Auburn University's program in brewing science. (Source: Auburn.edu)

AUBURN, AL (RNN) – Whoa! A college degree in beer? Awesome!

Actually, it is. But not the way you think.

In defiance of the sluggish economy, the craft beer business is booming, and employers are scrambling to find enough qualified people to fill the jobs at the hundreds of breweries popping up across the U.S.

Auburn University in Alabama wants to tap into that growing market with its new graduate certification in brewing science. The school's board unanimously approved the program, which is awaiting the blessing of the Alabama Commission of Higher Education this summer. Competition is fierce for the inaugural class of 10 students, who could start the 18-hour, distance-learning program as soon as 2014.

Auburn would be one of only two universities in the U.S. to offer such a program – the other is the University of California, Davis. Auburn's foresight is unusual since Alabama's antiquated liquor laws have stalled the craft beer craze that started in the U.S. a little over a decade ago. Alabama and Mississippi are the only states where home brewing is still illegal, and Alabama only legalized the sale of gourmet beers with high-alcohol content in 2009.

Martin O'Neill, the head of Auburn's Nutrition, Diatetics and Hospitality Management Department spearheaded the brewing program. He was quick to dispel the perception that Auburn is on its way to becoming to beer what the Penn State University creamery is to ice cream.

"We won't be running around brewing beer on campus," said O'Neill, who speaks with the lilt of his native Northern Ireland. "We're appealing to the professional brewing community. People who are working in the industry who would like to move up the career ladder."

The University already has a memo of understanding with the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, headquartered in London, to allow graduates of the 18-hour program to be eligible to sit for its certification exams, a much-desired official approval in the profession of brewing.

Students are clamoring to get into the first class. O'Neill said they had 15 "serious expressions of interest" before the program was even approved and have had about 30 more since it was green-lighted. Many of those are from people in professions other than beer-making.

"We're dealing with nontraditional students," O'Neill said. "People who are working 9-to-5 in a variety of fields, science, engineering, things like that."

The distance-learning element appeals to people who work, who can't leave and go back to college, and to those who might dream of striking out on their own to start their own craft beer line, O'Neill said. Up to now, people who want to get into the business have done so "by accident," he said.

"We want to put before the learner all the facts, the brass knuckle stuff, the good, the bad and the ugly," he said. "Forget about the books and talk to the people who have walked the walk, people who have worked on the development of the business of brewing.

"We want to visit those operations, here and internationally, interview real people about the challenges they face, and present that to the students so they can make good decisions."

Success story

Dale Katechis is one of those real people who made it in the craft beer business.

A third-generation restaurateur who grew up in Alabama and graduated from Auburn moved to Colorado in the 1990s to start a brew pub. He made his own beer in the basement. Now he's a craft beer rock star.

Katechis, who owns Oskar Blues breweries in Colorado and North Carolina, has become a national sensation with his flagship brand, Dale's Pale Ale. Selling his beer in cans has been a revelation in the marketing and distribution of high-quality, gourmet beer. He'd love to see more colleges, universities and trade schools help students learn how to make beer rather than just drink it.

"It's genius," Katechis said of the Auburn program. "We are experiencing a vacuum of leadership in our industry because there's no labor pool to supply us with adequate, experienced brewers. Our industry will double by this time next year. We have added about 1,000 breweries in the past 12-to-14 months. There really aren't enough experienced people to fill all the jobs."

Craft brewers provide 103,585 jobs in the U.S. according to the Brewer's Association. The craft brewing industry grew 13 percent by beer produced and 15 percent by money made in 2011, exceeding similar gains of the previous year. Their sales comprise 9.1 percent of the U.S. market, according to brewersassociation.com.

Craft brewers sold 11.5 million barrels of beer (31 U.S. gallons each) in 2011, up from 10.1 million in 2010, and the retail value of the industry grew from $7.6 billion to $8.7 billion over the same period.

Katechis grew up in Florence, AL, which is in the north part of the state. He got his first beer-making kit when he was a student at Auburn in 1990 and fell in love with it.

Dale's Pale Ale has won multiple awards, including the Gold Medal at the World Beer Championships in 2010 and was selected as the world's best canned beer by Details Magazine. Legend has it he brewed up the first batch of his masterpiece in an Auburn bathtub. He moved to Colorado in the late 1990s, started a restaurant where he brewed beer in the basement, and Dale's Pale Ale was a sensation. Oskar Blues makes seven other beers that have been critical and commercial successes.

When he built his second brewery in Brevard, NC, he created an alliance with colleges in the area to start a beer-making curriculum for undergraduates.

"We've done it out of necessity to enhance our training program." he said. "We offered our first class and it sold out, and had a waiting list. There's so much excitement about craft beer right now and not many places you can get a good degree."

Home brewing has business potential

The craft beer revolution that arrived late to Alabama is trickling down, in a manner of speaking, to the general population, said an owner of a Montgomery, AL, store that sells home-brewing equipment.

While home brewing is technically illegal in the state, selling the equipment is not, he pointed out.

"It's not like owning a head shop," said Lee Harrison. He's seen a gradual lessening of misunderstanding about small batch brewing, which some Alabamians seemed to think was along the lines of making moonshine or running a meth lab.

"The resistance to the bills have come from misconceptions among people who know just enough about home brewing to have an opinion on it," he said. "There are no explosion hazards, no dangerous gases. It's like making soup. You put ingredients together, boil them, which sanitizes it. Then you put yeast in, which consumes the sugars and makes alcohol."

The people who enjoy gourmet beer, and those who are passionate enough to want to make are a desirable economic demographic, Harrison said.

"They're educated, have a college degree, like to tinker and my customers are usually middle to upper income," he said. "You have to be 21 to buy the stuff, so they have jobs. My customers are usually in their middle 20s to 45. These are responsible folks. They're not kids looking to have a party."

People who make their own, high-alcohol beer aren't doing it because it packs more punch, he said. Beer that has too much alcohol in it tastes terrible.

"There are guidelines within the styles of beer that limit the amount of alcohol it has," he said. "And the stronger a beer, the more body it has. A stout that has a higher percentage is so thick it fills you up. You're less likely to get drunk than drinking a lot of a lower alcohol beer."

Turning tide

Alabama lawmakers may be catching on. There are laws before both houses of the Legislature that would allow people to brew, but not sell, small quantities of beer for personal consumption. Similar bills have failed in previous years, but this year, the bills have growing support and sponsorship from all corners of the state.

Many of the same people behind the grass-roots effort that got the 2009 legislation legalizing gourmet bill sales are working to push bills through the Legislature this year.

That would help people like Harrison, whose small shop is only one example of how the beer business can mean more jobs and tax revenue for the state.

The kind of skilled brewers that Auburn will train can make a lot of money, they can strike out and start their own businesses, and breweries are good for the economy in a number of ways, O'Neill pointed out.

"It can be a job creator for the state," he said. "Not just in brewing, but in agriculture, distribution, retail and wholesale. There are multipliers that create jobs all through the network."

Alabama had a single craft beer brewery in 2007. There are 11 today, and more on the way. O'Neill said they are making a good product, and are naturally service oriented.

"First and foremost, this business is about people," he said. "Alabama has a lot of people folks. The seeds are here for a successful industry,"

Katechis said he would have started his business in Alabama if the laws had been more favorable.

"Alabama is where I grew up and where my heart and soul is," he said. "It would have been a natural place for me to return and continue building my business."

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