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In another signal that the craft beer industry has fully arrived in Sonoma County, Santa Rosa Junior College is establishing a curriculum that will allow local beer lovers to turn their passion into a career.

After at least a decade of consideration, the community college will start a one-year program in the fall that will allow graduates to obtain a brewing certificate. The goal is to train the next generation of beermakers for a local industry with 30 breweries, whether for an established brand like Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma or an attempt to venture out on their own.

The 16-unit program is designed for those who want to enter into the $106 billion industry, as opposed to hobbyists wanting to show they can make their own killer India Pale Ale.

“People asked for it. It’s kind of done by consumer demand,” said SRJC President Frank Chong. “That’s one thing great about community colleges: We can be agile; agile and responsive to local industry needs.”

The program is modeled on SRJC’s highly regarded viticulture and wine studies programs that have sent scores of graduates into the local wine industry. It will have its own brewery at its Shone Farm facility in Forestville.

“I really want to focus on funneling people into the brewing industry,” said Chris Wills, manager of farm products at Shone Farm who is crafting the program. “It’s going to be a program we build upon. This is just beginning. We will get some fun classes in there.”

The courses include both lectures and labs on the fundamentals of fermentation, brewery operations and technology as well as food sanitation — a greatly underappreciated task that prevents spoilage. Internships will be offered. The target for the first class is 24 students, with the annual per-student cost estimated at about $1,500.

“I’ve had a lot of phone calls and emails about this,” said Wills.

For those who want to learn brewing through academia, the main options have been either UC Davis or Oregon State University. UC Davis has had its program since 1958 and produced such alumni as Mitch Steele, the former head brewer at Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, and local legend Brian Hunt of Moonlight Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa.

Hunt said he welcomed the SRJC effort — especially as it comes with a much cheaper price tag than UC Davis — though college courses have not been a barrier for entry into the business for some, such as Lagunitas founder Tony Magee, who never had formal training.

“There is no question there’s a lot of science in brewing,” said Hunt, who last year sold a 50 percent stake in his business to Lagunitas. “The more you understand, the better the beer is going to be.”

Given the popularity of craft brewing over the past decade, there have been more academic programs emerging to teach the craft, said Charlie Bamforth, head of the malting and brewing sciences program in the UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology.

For example, community colleges around Asheville, North Carolina, have developed their own brewing and hospitality programs as major craft brewers such as Oskar Blues Brewery of Lyons, Colorado; Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. of Chico; and New Belgium Brewing Co. of Fort Collins, Colorado, set up breweries in the area.

But he cautioned programs should be vetted through accreditation by the Master Brewers Association of America, a nonprofit that establishes best practices in the industry.

“The fundamental question is if there (are) qualified people teaching these programs,” Bamforth said.

The SRJC program is in the process of hiring its adjunct faculty.

Wills said the program would consider the accreditation once it has started.

Besides the science, the program also should tackle practical issues brewers face on a daily basis, said John Lilienthal, a co-owner of 101 North Brewing Co. in Petaluma. The college has reached out to local brewers to solicit input on the skills that are in most demand.

For instance, knowledge of equipment maintenance, such as electrical and plumbing issues, would be handy, especially for smaller brewers operating on smaller margins. At 101 North, head brewer Joel Johnson can weld, which saved the brewery up to $75,000 when it built out its brewhouse, Lilienthal said.

“When something breaks, it’s in your best interest to fix it yourself if you can,” he said.

Wills said he believes the internships and career classes also could provide some real-world experience to students, such as learning they shouldn’t expect to get rich.

“If you ask the brewers, it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of work for not a lot of money,” he said.

The brewing program highlights a trend at SRJC of identifying burgeoning sectors with local producers and designing programs to help educate and train future workers. It was funded by a statewide $200,000 grant in conjunction with the College of Marin and Napa Valley College to develop their own respective programs.

Wills noted there has been talk of expanding fermentation classes to cider and other products as well getting formal programs in areas such as cheesemaking.

“Most of the food and beverage producers in Sonoma County, they are dying to retain workers,” said Jerry Miller, SRJC’s senior dean for its career and technical education.

About one-third of SRJC students are career changers looking to obtain skills for their new field, Miller said, but he thinks the brewing program may have even a greater percentage given the sector’s popularity.

“We can help change your career and follow your passion,” Miller said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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