Commissioner: What Colorado Springs lacks is a beer school

By Stephanie Earls Updated: April 30, 2017 at 8:56 am • Published: April 30, 2017 0

Want to learn more about craft brewing, for professional cred or just kicks? Today's groggy Golden Age has something to quench a thirst for beer literacy of every bent and budget - podcasts and homebrew clubs, app-based primers and even graduate-level degree programs (heck, right now three hours and a $5 Groupon voucher can get you $199 worth of online home-brewing smarts).

Google the topic and you might wind up clicking on one of two websites operated by the nonprofit Brewers Association. The trade group's most-visited virtual pages are, by far, the ones listing beer schools and training opportunities in Colorado, the U.S. and globally.

"And those are static pages, not newsy or poppy," said Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Boulder-based organization, which represents the nation's small-scale, independent brewers. "Opening a brewery today is part of the American dream. The interest in brewing education continues to grow and the resources for beer education are exponential."

El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf would like to see Colorado Springs as a major player in that arena.

"I want to turn Colorado Springs into the microbrewery innovation capital of the United States. We have so many elements of it here already, but one of the things we don't have is a school," said VanderWerf, a Republican and retired career Air Force man who last year won the seat representing District 3, which includes downtown Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs and as far west as Ute Pass.

Ripe for a school

With close to 30 (and counting) craft breweries in the Pikes Peak region, the area's certainly proven a fertile one for suds commercially. There's no dedicated, comprehensive beer school here - yet - but there's certainly beer scholarship. The Biotech Center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, for example, has been conducting research into yeast genetics and fermentation science for 30 years, and annually hosts the highly regarded (and well- attended) Rocky Mountain Microbrewing Symposium.

"We have a lot of strength in our microbrewing industry. It's one of several facts that you can express about us that leads me to believe we are the right place for a beer brewing school," said VanderWerf, a craft beer fan who says he's found "at least" one beer he likes at every brewery in his district. "Frankly, we already have the interconnections in the community for a very interesting, broad and deep cooperation to achieve this school. There's real value in having something local that can deliver that training."

VanderWerf envisions something along the lines of Chicago's Siebel Institute of Technology, a for-profit technical school that offers training in all aspects of commercial brewing, a 20-week certificate program for Master Brewers and a satellite campus in Munich, Germany. How that scholarly dream plays out - whether as a moneymaking or nonprofit venture, as an independent entity or under the wing of established academia in the Springs - remains to be seen, but VanderWerf said he's shopped the idea to select audiences and community leaders and so far received unanimous support.

"I do want it to get in the public domain and express the vision and generate a community discussion about it. I think in doing that we'll have a lot of people that will start to propose ideas and concepts," he said. "There are potentially some very interesting roles for folks to play."

Despite the fast-growing sector of beer education, officially how a brewer achieves those tasty suds and business acumen doesn't really matter.

"There is no one standard (for brewers), just like there's no one standard for distilling or winemaking or baking. You could go to the Culinary Institute of America to be the best chef in America, but that's not the only way to be the best chef," said Herz, whose association offers educational programs including a $20, one-hour online certificate course and a draft beer quality manual, which can be downloaded for free from the group's website.

Build it, they will come

As the number of breweries and craft taprooms continues to grow nationwide, so too will the need to staff those establishments with trained professionals who understand and can explain the nuances of the products they serve, Herz said. A number of established programs are gaining wider recognition, on both sides of the bar, for the level of expertise they bring to the taproom environment. Among these are the Beer Judge Certification Program, the Beer Steward Program through the Master Brewers Association of the Americas, and the Cicerone Certification Program, "the beer world's version of wine sommelier programs," said Herz, who is a member of BJCP, an all-volunteer organization formed in 1985 to promote appreciation for "real beer" and the tasting and evaluation skills needed to recognize it.

Colorado already is among a handful of states where majoring in beer is more than a euphemism for the college experience.

Colorado State University in Fort Collins offers a bachelor's degree in fermentation science and technology and a robust brewing program underwritten, in part, by a large donation from New Belgium Brewing. Metropolitan State University of Denver has invested extensively in advancing brewing education and offers both certificate and degree programs, including a bachelor's in brewery or brewpub operations. Thanks to a partnership with the state's oldest brewery, Tivoli Brewing Co., Metro State students have access to a 28,000-barrel operation and can get hands-on experience at the Tivoli Brewing Tap House and Kitchen, which opened in 2015 at the school's Auraria campus.

But there's still plenty of room for the brewing brain trust to grow, Herz believes. Out of the more than 600 culinary institutes in the U.S., her organization has been unable to identify one with a program in beer education that's vino-comparable.

"Culinary institutes are advancing in how they teach beer education, but it's still not on the level of wine education," Herz said.

If VanderWerf's vision of a brewing school reaches full-pour, the Springs may play a role in helping change that landscape.

"I see this as an attractive force, as a capacity to keep dollars in our community and maybe bring in money from other parts of the country," he said. "And if we're diligent about that, given a couple years we can really start making some very serious claims about the size and quality and innovation of our microbrewing industry in Colorado Springs."

As for a timeline, if the pace of the craft beer industry is any indication ...

"It could happen a lot faster than this, but let's work on a goal of something that's really running in less than two years," said VanderWerf, who's founded several businesses but wouldn't have a financial involvement in the beer school. "I will have no personal financial interest at all, except I will be drinking the beer."

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