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Some college graduates might joke they minored in beer studies. But that's actually the case for a new group of students at Paul Smith's College in upstate New York.
This month, the college announced it would start offering a craft-brewing minor to all of its students. But unlike traditional brewing programs, most of these courses get into the business of craft beer—how to market, distribute, and promote the increasingly popular adult beverage.
Joe Conto, the director of the Hospitality, Resort and Tourism Management Program at Paul Smith's, is the man behind the new academic option. A homebrewer himself (he's dabbled with pale ales and a Saison), Conto found himself drawn to the minor through the growing popularity of craft beer nationwide and through the food courses he was already teaching.
"Beer just began to take up more and more of the semester. It became more and more interesting to the students, certainly, but to me as well," Conto says. "And then I realized, holy cow I could teach a course just on beer. And then I said, 'Well, really, I could teach a whole major on beer.' And then I thought, 'Well, I'll just settle for a minor.' "
Students in the program take a course on marketing (an introduction to entrepreneurship, advertising, and promotion), a course on food chemistry (understanding how food reacts in a chemical makeup, and the basics of brewing and fermentation), a practical brewing lab (brewing the major types of ale in small batches, taught by a local brewer), and a course on the business of craft beer (learning how to make money from the product), along with other elective courses on the food and beverage industry.
The college, situated in Adirondack State Park, serves about 1,000 undergraduates in its three main academic divisions: liberal arts, science, and business; forestry and fishing; and culinary arts. (The recently retired CEO of Dunkin' Donuts, Jon Luther, is an alumnus.) But worry not, parents: Students aren't pursuing the minor just because they get to drink. "I haven't had anybody come to me with the idea that, 'I want to take this so I can drink beer,' " says Conto. "They don't need me to drink beer. They can do that on their own, and, I suspect, do."
Here's why they do it: Beer is changing rapidly. The number of the craft breweries in the United States rose by over 15 percent from 2012 to 2013—there are now 2,768, according to the Brewers Association. Beyond just the sheer volume of new craft beer out there, society is looking at beer differently, too.
Take one of the mental exercises Conto uses in his class: If he asks you whom you picture when thinking of a wine drinker, you generally think of a woman, tall and thin, French-looking, wearing a black dress, sophisticated. Now picture someone drinking a beer, and in your mind you see a guy with a beer-belly, in a bar, wearing construction clothes. For years, beer was for the workingman and wine for the elite. But that's changing.
"Beer is going through a shift, moving out of the idea that it's just for working stiffs," Conto explains. "This is an amazing product with an amazing history. Yes, it's always been a drink of the workingman, but it has much more to offer than just that."
Craft beer is more than flavor and bottle design. It can embody a place, the area where it's brewed, and the story of the people who brew it. Drinking craft beer means being part of a community. For Conto's students, who are part of this millennial generation, those connections explain both craft beer's popularity and why he launched the minor.
"These are students that have grown up in a world that has started to push away the idea of big box, nationwide consistency," Conto says. "They have really grown up in a time period where the idea of local, the idea of entrepreneur is much more interesting."
One of those millennials who decided to get into brewing is Jack Van Paepeghem, the beer director for ramen bar Pai Men Miyake in Portland, Maine. For him, craft beer is more approachable, both culturally and financially, than something like wine or whiskey due to its relative low costs and availability—in stores and at local breweries.
"People of all backgrounds are getting interested and excited about craft beer because it covers so many different aspects of life," he says. "Whether you are in it for history, anthropology, law, science, agriculture, or because you are a food-and-beverage enthusiast and enjoy working your palate, there's something for everyone."
Van Paepeghem's education track is different than the one offered at Paul Smith's College. He received both a World Brewing Academy International Diploma in Brewing Technology from the Siebel Institute in Chicago and Cicerone Certification after his undergraduate degree, where he learned not only how to brew beer but also how to serve it properly. Conto's program, on the other hand, focuses more on the business end of craft brewing. Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in North Carolina has also started offering a two-year craft-beer program this year that focuses on brewing and marketing, while the University of California (Davis) and other colleges offer master brewing courses.
It makes sense that these higher-education institutions are getting further drawn into this innovative industry: The students who are taking these classes—millennials—know that ale is more than just ale. It's cultural capital.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal and part of our Next Economy coverage.
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