Here in Washington, and specifically in Thurston County, it seems like new breweries and distilleries are popping up all over the place. From mom and pop operations to full-scale major businesses, the industry continues to grow and is here for the long-haul.

SPSCC brew program
Industry professionals in the area say the biggest thing missing is education and SPSCC is ready to fill that void. Photo credit: SPSCC

This resurgence makes sense as the Olympia Brewery helped to shape this community over the past century. In fact, the City of Tumwater is in the middle of restoring the old brewhouse at the base of Tumwater Falls and hopes to one day offer educational opportunities centered around brewing and distilling there. In the meantime, the need remains to fill that education gap in the industry and South Puget Sound Community College is ready to help. “We are part of the larger overall project of bringing brewing back to Thurston County,” says SPSCC Dean of Social Science and Business, Valerie Sundby-Thorp.

She tells me the idea for a new craft brewing and distilling educational program came from talking with brewers and distillers in the area. “Most people who are in the industry now have kind of learned it on the fly or have apprenticed with somebody or were brewing beer in their garage. There’s just not a lot of formal education that exists anywhere, certainly not in Washington.” Although the college has offered non-credit appreciation certificates this past year, they’ve never offered an actual degree program. But, the enthusiasm is certainly there. “We wanted to start connecting with the industry, getting folks interested and building momentum. We’ve been doing that for the past year,” Valerie explains.

SPSCC brew program
With direct hands-on experience, students will be able to actually see the processes from start to finish. Photo credit: SPSCC

SPSCC’s new two-year program already has endorsement from the state board along with approval from SPSCC’s Board of Trustees and will be ready to roll out this fall. “First time through a program is always a learning opportunity, but we feel like we have the right people in place to make it successful,” says Valerie. “It really focuses on integrating both the kind of hard industry skills around craft brewing, distilling and cider, as well as integrating a lot of business skills.” Students will complete one-hundred and five credits throughout the course and will receive an associate degree upon completion.

However, the structure of this new program will be anything but traditional.

Valerie says they’ve been traveling all around the country looking at different scheduling models. “What we’ve learned is there’s just not a single program that does all three of these things (brewing, distilling and cider) anywhere in the country.” Because of this, the program is already generating interest from people out of state and Valerie saw a need to do some things differently “so students wouldn’t necessarily have to pick up, quit their jobs and move to Olympia for two years to be a part of the program.”

All of the theory learning for the program will take place online. Students will then come for an intensive forty-hour week of hands-on experience with industry experts.

The first two-thirds of the program will focus on fundamentals of business and fermentation science. “One of the things we’ve heard again and again is most breweries that fail don’t fail because they make crummy beer,” she shares. Instead, it’s because they don’t know how to run a business.” The SPSCC program puts the business learning at the forefront, hoping to set graduates up for financial success, not just success with their product.

SPSCC brew program
SPSCC says they will be working closely with industry professionals who are masters of their craft. Photo credit: SPSCC

In the final phase, students will choose to specialize in either brewing, distilling or cider making. They will learn recipes and problem solving specific to their product. “They want people who cannot just operate machines, but who can really understand the process so when something goes wrong, they can taste the product and know what happened and know how to fix it,” Valerie explains.

With so many industry professionals in the area, SPSCC is poised to utilize their expertise. Instead of hiring one full-time faculty member, local industry experts and business owners will rotate in to teach in their areas of knowledge. SPSCC hopes to also offer additional continuing education non-credit courses in the future, an opportunity industry experts say is another great need.

Because the local community of brewers and distillers is so supportive of new entrepreneurs, they view the program as another stepping stone to everyone’s success. “They tend to see new people and new ‘competition’ as people that just push them to be better, to keep learning and keep evolving and not be stale,” Valerie notes.

SPSCC brew program
In the final phase of schooling students will focus on recipe creation and problem solving. Photo credit: SPSCC

Even though the program hasn’t started, support from the community has been tremendous. “I’ve built a number of programs over my career and I have never, ever had this level of industry support and this level of industry involvement. They’re just so willing to be involved in developing the curriculum and the program because they see it as such a need for the growth of their industry.”

Students are excited, too. On any given week, Valerie receives numerous phone calls and e-mails asking about the new program. “It’s been a really exciting program to build.”

Registration for fall quarter begins in May and SPSCC is working hard to have the Craft Brewing and Distilling program ready for students to enroll. More information on the application process can be found online here.

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