As the Richmond craft beer industry continues to expand and flourish, VCU has created a way for anyone to become part of the growing trend.
Starting in the fall semester, the VCU Office of Continuing and Professional Education (OCPE) will offer a Craft Beer Certificate Program by partnering with the VCU School of Engineering and the VCU Department of Biology, as well as many local breweries such as Ardent Craft Ales, Hardywood Park Craft Brewery and Triple Crossing Brewing.
“There’s been a growing interest in craft beer around Richmond in general,” said Steve Fong, associate professor and vice chair of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering.
“Unless you’re completely new to Richmond, you’ve probably realized there are new breweries popping up all the time. I think the interest is not just from consumers drinking the beer. The other side of it is the breweries themselves have a problem of actually getting people with experience.”
The program was partly inspired by local breweries’ need for employees, as finding local workers with the needed skill set is difficult. Todd Shaner, the lead brewer at Stone Brewing, explained that many of his employees had to move from out of state.
“Anybody can walk out and work with somebody and put together some beer, but if you want to make a quality product consistently you really need to have an understanding of the process of brewing, plus the food safety aspects,” said Shaner, who has partnered with VCU for the program.
Director of OCPE Michael Huffman wanted to ensure the program catered to real-world applications of these skills, so students who finished the certification program could potentially go to work for one of these local breweries.
“We started the collaboration and then we started reaching out to numerous breweries, telling them about the idea and how could we help, and we really wanted to take the approach, ‘how can we help you?’ We really tried to hear what they needed from a workforce development standpoint,” Huffman said.
The program offers two tracks from which students can choose. The first focuses on the business and marketing aspect of breweries, titled, ‘The Business of Craft Beer,” while the other offers the “Craft Brewer Certificate,” for the actual crafting and brewing process.
The certification track requires a prerequisite for basic level courses in biology in chemistry, but both tracks require that students are at least 21 years old. The program cannot count for undergraduate or graduate credit, but it will be open to non-VCU students and does not require an admission process.
“Brewing is a very big subject, because there is a whole lot involved,” said Shaner. “Everything from learning about beer styles and the history of it… but the actual certificate program will be more centered on things like raw material, how to choose it, what they look like, what they’re for, how they differ, what chemicals to use when you’re cleaning, preparation and food safety.”
OCPE began research for the program about eight months ago by reaching out to VCU professors who already had connections with local breweries. One of these professors is Steve Fong, who will likely be teaching some of the classes offered in the program as well as providing lab equipment for students.
“We want people to be able to do things, to talk about [the brewing process] in very practical terms,” Fong said. “To be able to do experiments, to do things hands on, so we need laboratory equipment and stuff to be able to go with it, and for a large part the School of Engineering will be providing that.”
Students will learn how to use equipment that can analyze beer, reveal what different chemicals are present, why flavors vary between different types of beer, and how the brewing process can affect taste.
Fernando Tenjo, an assistant professor in the School of Biology who is also likely to teach classes in the program, explained that while individuals can brew at home, this program provides a solid, basic understanding of the science behind the brewing process.
“The other part we are doing right now is a fermentation class, that involves not only brewing, but wineries and other aspects of fermentation, too,” Tenjo said.
OCPE and its partners hope the program will not only be a new, interesting academic endeavor for locals, but also provide new job opportunity.
“This is good not only for VCU, but it’s good for the craft beer community, it’s good for the City of Richmond, it’s good for Central Virginia, and it really does have ripple effects because we feel like we are helping the local economy and we’re helping workforce development needs of the craft beer industry,” Huffman said.
OCPE is offering two introductory courses before the start of the semester on July 19 and 26 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The course is $200 but covers all course materials and beer tastings. The first introductory class will be at Stone Brewing Company and led by Lee Graves, local writer and beer expert.