MIDDLEBURY — After a long day of classes, the 22 students of the five-month residential course moved from a classroom behind the Drop-In Brewery to the tasting room, where they chatted with friends and drank freshly brewed beers.
What looked like a break from coursework was, in fact, “sensory training”— an exercise the students complete a few times a week. Students sip beer of varying quality, and must determine its flaws or perks based solely on taste. Some beers are too “skunky” and some “hoppy,” but all have something to teach a budding brewer.
The Drop-In Brewery, just outside Middlebury on Route 7 south, offers beers with quirky names like “Honey Carry My Bag” and “Sunshine and Hoppiness.”
Guests are welcome to bring their brews over to the adjacent restaurant, the Grapevine Grille. What guests might not notice while popping in to buy freshly brewed IPAs, however, are the two-dozen students attending lectures in classrooms located in the back of the brewery.
Brewery co-owners Christina McKeever-Parkes and Steve Parkes also operate the American Brewers Guild Brewing School, one of the only schools of its kind that offers both residential and online courses in the craft of brewing beer.
The brewing school is located behind the bar, and offers a wide array of courses, from a five-month residential course designed for students seeking a career in brewing, to 22-week online course for students that cannot make it out to Middlebury.
The couple opened the Drop-In Brewery two years ago, and McKeever-Parkes said having the space for classrooms and hands-on experience in the brewery has been beneficial to the school.
“The difference with having our own facility is we’ve been able to offer a wider range of classes,” McKeever-Parkes said. “Our regular diploma programs are filled two years out and have been for some time, so the difference is now we can bring them, rather than using other spaces we have our own space. The main difference is being able to expand and have more classes. “
Parkes has more than 30 years of experience in craft brewing and received his degree in brewing science from the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He owns the school and teaches courses alongside an esteemed faculty drawn from across the county. McKeever-Parkes works as the admissions officer, fielding applications for both online and residential courses.
The pair bought the school in 1999 and operated it in California for several years before moving it to Middlebury, where they have since educated a steady stream of students.
The regular diploma program typically has 24 students in a class, and is offered twice a year. (Distance learners also come to the brewery for one week to get hands-on experience as a capstone of their studies.)
The five-month residential program, also offered twice a year, is capped at 22. Students attend classes five to six days a week for six hours per day, and the courses are rigorous: Applicants are required to have some background in math and science, and must pass exams and quizzes throughout the course period.
Despite the intensity of studying such a specialized craft, the school has increased in popularity, drawing students from across the country and Canada. Craft beer sales have also increased, and were up 17.2 percent as of 2013, according to the Brewers Association. The number of craft breweries also increased 15.3 percent from 2012 to 2013.
“It’s exploding right now,” McKeever-Parkes said. “There’s a lot of people wanting to get into the industry. A lot.”
Despite the growth of the industry, McKeever-Parkes said they keep classes at the school small to maintain the integrity of the program.
“We also don’t want to flood the market with too many brewers,” she added. “We just wanted to keep it at an even keel.”
MORE THAN 20 students recently finished classwork at the American Brewers Guild Brewing School, located in the Drop-in Brewery in Middlebury. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
FOR THE LOVE OF BEER
Mark Bowers of the Massachusetts hopes to one day work as a head brewer. He said classes that day were hard, and that during sensory training he tasted beer he described as “too skunky.”
The coursework was mostly focused on the chemical engineering involved with brewing, and involved complicated calculations “in figuring out sizes of things you need, how hot to heat the water to, the cooling capacity you need, the heating capacity.”
While the coursework can be rigorous, Bowers is exactly where he wants to be.
“I’ve always wanted to get into brewing and I knew there weren’t many brewing schools in the U.S.,” he said. “Plus I know a few brewers who have taken this course before and they recommended it.”
For Etienne Renaud, who hails from Canada and has a bachelor’s in chemical engineering, the course material often covers what he learned as an undergraduate. For other students, though, it can be a tough learning curve.
Renaud has been recently paired with a brewery where he will conduct a five-week apprenticeship to learn the ropes of brewing and operating a brewery. He will be working at the Ommegang Brewery in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Unlike most students of the school Renaud had never brewed at home before applying to the course. He says he simply loved beer.
“I’ve always had a big love for beer in general, but I was looking for more,” he said. “There’s a fair amount of work that goes into it if you go deep enough, and beer is literally chemical engineering making food as opposed to chemicals.”
Andrea Kiel of the Hudson Valley feels similarly — she deferred graduate school to attend the brewing school.
“It’s great. In general it’s really the first time I've been really excited about school,” she said. “Over time I realized that (brewing) is a great career opportunity in that it coalesces a lot of things I’m interested in,” she said.
Since she has a background in studying natural resources, Kiel said she likes brewing because it has a heavy science component.
“There’s also the creativity which I love, it’s a craft — and there’s a bit of culinary happening there,” Kiel said. “So it brings together a lot of things I think are great in life.”
SENSE OF COMMUNITY
Later that week, Drop-In intern Nicoli Carr was busy cleaning the fermenters in the brewery adjacent to the tasting room. Carr is the first graduate of the brewing school to apprentice at the Drop-In; he graduated from the five-month course in June and is now four weeks into his five-week apprenticeship.
“People wouldn’t think it, but there’s a lot of cleaning,” he said with a laugh, gesturing to the giant steel fermenters just visible through a window dividing the brewery from the tasting room.
Carr has also recently helped brew his first batch of beer with Parkes, a brew called Red Giant that will soon be on tap in the tasting room.
Originally from New Mexico, Carr hopes to return to his home state and begin a career at a smaller brewery; he says his time at the brewing school and his apprenticeship at Drop-In have shown him the value of working in a small and close-knit work environment. But for the time being, he is learning various aspects of running a brewery, from bottling to brewing to cleaning.
Carr said his education at the school has been integral to his understanding of the craft, noting that many brewers without such extensive knowledge of brewing may often fall short in terms of beer quality.
“(Parkes) is all about being educated,” he said. “Really knowing how to brew is a big thing.”
And while Carr is unsure of where he wants to end up — “I’d just like a job in general,” he said with a laugh — he is sure of one thing: He is most interested in working with a good group of people.
“I want to work in a social environment like this,” he said.
Kiel is similarly interested in the community aspect of breweries and beer itself, and is drawn to Vermont’s strong community feel.
“One of the things I think is really important in general is the strong sense of community and I feel there’s a good opportunity within the beer world to do that,” Kiel said.