Area Colleges Help Students Prep for Careers in Beer

Education Report: Colorado is second to only California in terms of brewing jobs

MSU Denver beverage analysis lab manager Katie Strain transfers a beer sample into a vial for aroma profile analysis. 

Colorado is second to only California in terms of brewing jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Jobs jumped from 3,497 in 2006 to 5,173 in 2016 as the number of craft breweries in the Centennial State continues to grow.

A deep talent pool is necessary to support the industry, and the state’s colleges and universities have risen to the task. Since 2013, Colorado State University, Metropolitan State University of Denver, Regis University, University of Northern Colorado and Front Range Community College have all brought brewing to the curriculum in a big way.

MSU Denver’s Beer Industry Program currently has about 90 students, most of whom are working toward a bachelor’s degree in Brewery Operations. “That’s one of the things that sets us apart: We offer a full bachelor’s,” says Scott Kerkmans, the program’s director.

Another big differentiator: an on-campus partner brewery with a 30-barrel commercial system in Tivoli Brewing Company. “It’s the largest production brewing system on a campus in North America,” Kerkmans says.

The program has also partnered with a nearby off-campus craft brewery, Strange Craft Beer Company, and neighboring Rising Sun Distillery. Both Tivoli and Strange Craft sell the beer produced by students, and MSU Denver shares in the profits. An on-campus beer lab also offers testing services to the industry, and the program has a Cask canning line. “We allow Tivoli to essentially rent that from us, and they pay us for every can of Tivoli beer they can,” Kerkmans says.

All of these public-private partnerships and resulting revenue streams are critical. “We’re unfortunately the least-funded four-year institution state,” Kerkmans says. “Because of that, we need to think of ways to fund the university.”

As of late summer 2019, the program had 13 graduates with B.S. degrees who had completed 120 credit hours, half of which focused on brewing and beer. The program is part of MSU Denver’s hospitality department and not a science department. “So much of beer isn’t production,” Kerkmans says. “We really allow students to choose your own adventure.”

That results in graduates not just going into production and lab work, but engineering, sales and marketing, and other areas, he adds. “I pull faculty from all over campus.”

Kelly Lynch landed the job of head brewer at Berthoud Brewing Company in the Northern Colorado town of the same name after completing MSU Denver’s certificate in 2016. He’d earned a bachelor’s in biology 25 years earlier at Grand Valley State University in Michigan and worked in the pharmaceutical industry before shifting gears in 2014.

“The opportunity just dropped in my lap to be head brewer at Berthoud,” Lynch says. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime.”

He calls the MSU Denver certificate “extremely helpful” as Berthoud Brewing opened a 30-barrel production system in Loveland in May 2019 after three years on a much smaller system.

Lynch points to both brewing and business classes helping him with everything from off-flavor identification to draft systems but says his internship at Tivoli was probably the most critical element.

“Most companies are looking for brewers with some education,” Lynch says, noting a baseline for head brewers of five years industry experience — or maybe just two with brewing education.

He’s personally hired CSU graduates as assistant brewers.

“It’s just good to have someone who has some scientific background,” Lynch says. “It’s all about quality. There’s some fierce competition out there.”

Matthew Peetz savors the finished product at Propagate Lab in Golden. 

Matthew Peetz, self-described “yeast whisperer” at Propagate Lab in Golden, is director of the Craft Brewing Certificate at Regis University in Denver. Launched in 2014, the certificate involves four classes and a 160-hour internship. It initially had one cohort with 24 students and expanded to two cohorts in 2017.

“What makes our program successful is our internship program,” Peetz says, citing a board of local brewers, including neighboring Goldspot Brewing in northwest Denver. “The craft brewing industry is so tightly knit, it’s hard to get your foot in the door. We’re trying to train people to be an assistant brewer or a cellar man, an entry-level job.”

Alumni have gone on to careers at Great American Beer Festival medal winners like Rockyard Brewing Company in Castle Rock and Fiction Beer Company in Denver, as well as jobs at Lafayette-based Stem Ciders and Laws Whiskey House in Denver. “There’s enough overlap and there are no programs that focus on distilling,” Peetz says.

At CSU, Jeff Callaway, associate director of the school’s Fermentation Science and Technology Program, helped plant the seeds for the program when he was in graduate school at CSU a decade ago.

Callaway brought a background in microbiology and food safety to campus when the program was approved in 2013. “I signed on to help get the program off the ground,” he says. “I had a clear vision of what I wanted.”

One key aspect: an institute that would complement the program. “Now that’s taking shape with a lot of our industry collaborators,” Callaway says. “My expectation is it’ll be housed at CSU and comprised of faculty from different departments and industry representatives.”

With donations from New Belgium, Odell and Coors, the program kicked off in 2013. It now has more than 100 students, including a significant number of non-traditional students, and has graduated more than 100 to date. “As far as I know, they all have jobs,” Callaway says. “Many of the students receive multiple job offers.”

The program launched the on-campus Ramskeller Brewhouse in late 2018. “There’s been a lot of serendipity,” Callaway says of the industry support of the 8.5-barrel operation. There’s also smaller systems for small batches, but Ramskeller allows for experiential learning on a small-scale commercial system that’s outfitted like a large brewery with cutting-edge control systems and other technology.

Graduates now work in a wide variety of positions in breweries in Colorado as well as Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, Minnesota and other states. A few have gone on to work overseas.

Justin Alexander graduated from the program with a B.S. in 2016. An internship at New Belgium led to a job as a beer chemist later in the year. “I’ve always had a curious mind,” he says. “The science of fermentation seemed to be a perfect fit for what my brain was curious about.”

Alexander says he picked CSU over Oregon State University to stay in the “craft beer utopia” of Fort Collins, and has no regrets. “Without the foundational knowledge from the program, I don’t think I would be prepared to function on my own in the lab,” he says.

At a state school like CSU, Callaway says, “Everything is more complicated than it should be. At the end of the day, it’s caused us to slow down at times, but it’s created more opportunities. We’re building something that’s going to be here for a long time.” 

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