Brewing Ahead of the Boom

Gabe Mixon, center, with students, directs the brewing-and-fermentation program at Blue Ridge Community College. He had his eye on the industry long before it began foaming over. Photo by Karin Strickland

Students looking to get their feet wet within the brewing industry don’t have to venture outside the south-mountain region thanks to the Brewing, Distillation and Fermentation program, entering its fifth year at Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock. Asheville claims “Beer City” status, but according to Gabe Mixon, the local program’s director, the entire WNC area began seeing a “rapid beverage-industry growth” in 2013. Transylvania and Henderson counties are home to two heavy hitters, respectively Oskar Blues Brewery in Brevard and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Mills River. And a rush of smaller craft operations (including Sanctuary Brewing Company and Southern Appalachian Brewery, both in Hendersonville) have taken firm root.

Mixon was hired on as an adjunct instructor in 2012 to develop and teach the continuing-education courses, and in August 2013, the program in Flat Rock was born. “At that time, there were very few options for people entering the industry to get some formal brewing education,” he says. “There was this massive need for local training programs in this area that would allow breweries and wineries to hire locals rather than importing their production staff from somewhere else.”

Program graduate Jon Ayers and his wife Becky recently opened their own business, Triskelion Brewery, in downtown Hendersonville. Photo by Karin Strickland

He recalls the “huge response” when the program was first announced. “Even though we created extra sections of the brewing classes, we still weren’t able to handle all of the demand right at first.” Mixon counts nearly 400 students who have graduated from the program with an Associate in Applied Sciences degree and a variety of certificates related to the manufacturing and production of craft beer. Among them is Jon Ayers, who opened Triskelion Brewery with his wife, Becky, at 340 Seventh Avenue in Hendersonville on New Year’s Eve. He worked in the construction industry for 20 years and was a home brewer for eight of those years before changing directions in 2013.

“I began dismantling my former business to make my dream of opening and running a brewery a reality, while signing up for my first semester at BRCC,” Ayers says. “I knew I’d need a formal education for the level of beer I wanted to brew, but I did not know how much there really is to learn.”

Right away, he says, “I found out that one semester would not be enough. I went back to full-time college in my 40s to get the full [five-semester] program BRCC offered. It was an amazing set of classes, and it was the right decision for my goal of opening a brewery.” (He went on to earn his General Brewing Certificate from the International Brewing and Distilling Organization in the U.K., in addition to his Level 1 Cicerone and Beer Steward certificates from the community college.)

 

Technology, know-how and innovation are standard for today’s brewmasters. Photo by Karin Strickland

Students take classes related to fermentation, science, and food-and-beverage production, and receive hands-on experience brewing beer inside the college’s lab, says Mixon. The program is meant to be fun, but the coursework requires a strong work ethic and a fair amount of technical skill.

Brewing is a profession, according to student Jamie Piastuch — and that profession is in high demand. While working at an ABC store in Florida, she spent three years learning everything she could about the craft-brewing industry before enrolling at BRCC.
“It’s true that many home brewers have opened breweries with a small fortune and no formal brewing education,” Piastuch says. But a lot of those breweries, she explains, “are either shutting down due to lack of proper preparation for the industry, or are expanding production and are taking on a larger brewing team.” Those growing companies, she adds, “turn to this program to find new team members.”

Brewing programs have become more accessible and affordable nationwide, Mixon points out. And that means employers can be more picky when hiring. “[They] are increasingly making formal education a requirement in posted job openings,” he says.
That awareness of a booming industry, combined with the brewing program’s hands-on experience, enhances a sense of camaraderie among students. “There’s a feeling of being part of a larger movement,” says Mixon.

For more information about Blue Ridge Community College’s Brewing, Distillation and Fermentation Program, see blueridge.edu/brewing, e-mail g_mixon@blueridge.edu, or call 828-694-1674.

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