As craft beer grows in popularity in Virginia, the industry is facing a shortage of skilled labor. The Virginia Craft Brewer’s Guild estimates that between expansion and turnover, breweries will need hundreds of workers trained in brewery operations each year. So colleges in Virginia are starting to step in and fill the gap.
One weekday night this summer, a crowd of about 20 makes their way into the tasting room at Stone Brewery in Richmond. But they’re not here for a night out, they’re here for school.
Tonight is the first in an intro course on craft beer offered by Virginia Commonwealth University. This two-day class is a prerequisite for a new six-month certificate program on craft beer, starting later this fall.
“It made me very excited to see that VCU was offering this course so that I could really bridge that gap between me just graduating with the technical knowledge, into what am I going to be getting into if I get into the brewing scene,” said Benjamin Ledoux, a recent chemical engineering grad who’s taking the class.
Virginia is home to more than 200 breweries, with at least 30 more in the works. As the industry takes off, qualified workers are in short supply.
Lee Graves has written books on Virginia’s beer scene, and is teaching today’s course.
“Part of having an effective workforce is having the training and education there, and that’s really starting to percolate a lot,” said Graves.
VCU has worked with local breweries to develop a curriculum covering everything from basic beer making, to bottling and marketing. Graduates should be ready to take the industry-standard certificate test by the end.
Similar programs are popping up across the state. The University of Richmond has one, and Piedmont Virginia Community College offers individual classes. Virginia Tech’s food science department has built a brewhouse for research.
“It used to be that if you were a great home brewer you could step into a professional brewing job,” Graves said. “That opportunity is there, but there’s so much of an emphasis now on quality control. You need a good head brewer who knows what he’s doing.”
And as bigger operations like Stone Brewing in Richmond and Deschutes in Roanoke move into the market, they raise the bar for skilled labor. Julieellen Sarver is community relations manager with Stone.
“We have wonderful brewers, some have come from California. Many others were hired here, locally. They have bachelor’s degrees in fermentation science, or certifications from the Siebel Institute, and lots of experience in other breweries,” said Sarver.
The Siebel Institute in Chicago is home to a prestigious $30,000 Master Brewing Program. It includes study time in Germany.
But not all courses are so intensive or costly. In California, where Stone is based, the public university system has highly regarded beer and wine programs.
“The university system here in Virginia is just catching on to that, as evidence by this VCU course,” Sarver said. “So I think that is evidence of a skills and education gap that definitely seems to be the case here. But, hopefully, there seems to be a lot of interest.”
Interest that, at this point, exceeds supply. VCU already has a list of more than 400 people interested in it’s program.
But industry leaders are continuing to work with higher education to create more options. Virginia’s community college system is developing a Brewery Technician certificate program that should be in place by 2018.