Schoolcraft College teaches you to brew beer with the best in the business

There’s a saying in the brewery business: The only way to make a million dollars in the industry, is to start off with $2 million.

“We love it. We’re passionate and none of us are rich,” said Annette May. 

It’s a fitting sentiment for the collection of home brewers and craft beer makers in the industry, who find themselves more motivated by malty aromas than money.

But that sentiment doesn’t stop at the professional level. Students learning the trade in the classroom may be exercising mid-life crisis fears, entertaining their hobbyist ventures or just love the taste of beer.

“For a lot of guys, they’re in their 40’s, 50’s. 60’s and started early retirement. You do a job for long enough and you want something new,” said Dan Pancy. 

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Pancy counts himself among those who wanted something new, despite being born in 1994. The music major spent much of his college years training and perfecting his slides on the trombone. To get away from the monotony, he brewed beer in his kitchen during his fourth year in school.

It gave him a chance to craft his own flavors and ended up being a cheaper alternative that buying beer. It also tasted better than Hams, the preferred drink of choice before White Claw blitzed the drinker market.

Pancy’s signature beer is a pineapple jalapeno wheat beer and he’s making it for his wedding. But between the music gigs and substitute teaching, he found himself yearning to take his hobby to the next level. 

“It was a hobby that kept me sane during long practice sessions. But as I looked into it, I thought ‘well maybe I could give this brewing thing a shot,” he said. “I could work as a brewer, get as much hands on experience as I can and then open a small business.”

Schoolcraft College opened its brewing program five years ago for prospective brewers like Pancy. Better known for its culinary program, the school has proven its quality as an established program to usher in the next era of beer makers in an increasingly crowded market, amassing quite the collection of accolades in the process.

The Brewing and Distillation Technology Certificate Program takes place in the VisTaTech Center, off of Haggerty Road in Livonia. It takes one to two years to complete and anyone can enroll (although its director Tom Block recommends a little chemistry knowledge). If students aren’t in the facility watching the process in real time, they’re learning the chemistry behind that process, how to identify appropriate and inappropriate flavors and aromas and even how to pour a beer.

“Drinking a quality beer doesn’t stop when the brewers brew it,” said May, who teaches two classes at the school. “This is the biggest thing people forget. The brewer can make the best beer in the world, but getting it to the customer is a whole process. It’s a separate step entirely.”

May speaks with more authority than most in the world on the basis of beer. She is an Advanced Cicerone and one of only 121 in the world. Much like a Sommelier is a certified wine steward, Cicerones are certified professionals in the world of beer. As the craft beer industry ballooned in the 2000’s, there was a need for people to better understand their brewing process and how to identify when something is wrong. Much in the same way a car mechanic could diagnose a problem with someone’s engine, a Cicerone must be able to identify any smells, tastes or aesthetics wrong with their product.

May teaches a class called Beer Styles and Flavor Evaluation, which provides students with a crash course into this world. She also teaches Craft Beer Management and Service, which guides brewers through the ins and outs of delivering the beverage to the customer.

“Beer is food you’re pouring through these lines,” she said. “Pouring a beer out of a draft system, it’s not as easy as it sounds. You can totally ruin a beer by pouring it a way it’s not supposed to be poured.”

When students aren’t learning the front end of the business, they’re learning the importance of temperature readings, managing the pH level of their mash and how long to ferment yeast. The instructors don’t wait long to show off the brewing process either. By week two, students are watching their instructors put their lesson plans into action.

The brewery itself inhabits a room adjacent to the culinary school’s kitchens. It has a hopper, stacked bags of malted barley mixtures, boiling and mixing kettles, fermenting tanks and bottling and canning machines. It also has a reverse osmosis machine, which strips down their water of all chemicals and additives so the instructors can modify it to their liking. Block said this is key to their brewing process.

“Can you make great beer with just filtered water? Sure,” he said. “Can you make phenomenal beer by stripping it and using our own? Yeah.”

And what phenomenal beer it is, at least per the opinions of judges. Since 2017, the school has won 26 medals for its submitted beers. The crown jewel is a Kolsch-style beer that’s the result of years of tinkering by Block, who’s been brewing for decades. At the World Beer Cup in 2018, the beer won second place among a submission list 125 beers long. 

Block plans to submit the beer for the next World Beer Cup. He said they could get first place, or they may not even medal. Every batch is a little different, which proves to be one of his favorite parts of the job.

“We’re not Coors or Miller where we got all these controls. We’re still a craft. So there’s variances - the mash temp’ could be a little different or the pH could be a little different that day,” he said. “The yeast, it’s a living organism and sometimes they do things a little different from one batch to the next.”

Some of the beers that have won medals weren’t even recipes from instructors. They could have come from students in the advanced portion of the program whose class revolves around creating their own beer. 

Patrons are welcome to try some of these concoctions. They’re welcome to buy the beer at the program’s counter, which is serviced by students on Wednesdays and Saturdays. 

“We wanted to make sure it was that way,” Block said. “So students get the full experience from the back of the brewery to the front. They’ve seen the real stuff. That was the point when we designed the program.”

What students chose to take away from the program is up to them. In a state closing in on 400 breweries, the industry and its drinkers are constantly looking for more innovative ways to enjoy their favorite beverage. That competition only breeds better beers though, as much of its workers see their fellow brewers on the same mission.

“It is competitive, but more than that, it’s a wholesome community and brewers talk to each other,” Pancy said. “It goes back to the tradition of brewing, which is thousands of years in the making. It’s a core part of humanity. Competition? sure. But beyond that, there’s a whole community of people who want to brew good beer and have good beer.”

You can learn more about the program on its website here.