Chris Barker got his start in brewing years ago with a “Mr. Beer” home brew kit. Now he is opening his own brewery, Terramar, in Edison.
Barker graduated from the first class of Skagit Valley College’s Cardinal Craft Brewing Academy and said the program helped turn a passion into a business.
Since it began in 2016, the program has graduated 39, and 20 more are set to earn their brewing certificates this week.
Graduates are working at breweries in Washington and Oregon, and a few, like Barker, are starting their own businesses, according to a recent college survey of graduates.
Barker said learning the science behind brewing and making industry contacts were valuable parts of the program.
“It definitely helped me save some missteps,” Barker said. “It made it easier for sure.”
The Skagit Valley College brewing program is the first to be offered among Washington’s community and technical colleges.
Since it began, the program has switched from a three-month intensive academy to a yearlong program to allow more flexibility for students, said Tony Savoy, program director and instructor. Students also get more time to practice in the brew lab, and get to do an internship.
“(Businesses) are looking for brewers that can step in,” he said.
Savoy said the next step is to offer an Associate in Applied Science degree in craft brewing, with the goal of preparing students for Central Washington University’s Bachelor of Science degree in brewing.
About half of graduates want to work in the industry, he said. Others are interested in becoming better home brewers.
“I just wanted to learn more about the process,” said current student Paul Spilsbury, a retired Navy veteran.
Spilsbury was on a student team that brewed a smoked beer that in May won a silver award at the 2019 North American Brewers Association International Beer Awards for Excellence in Brewing.
Since 2017, student-brewed beers have won four national and international awards, and two state awards, rivaling top breweries, Savoy said.
“I don’t think these students even realize how cool that is,” he said.
Todd Owsley, owner of Farmstrong Brewing, said he thinks the college program has not only created a trained workforce, but improved craft beer’s reputation in the Skagit Valley.
“Not only do we have great breweries here, we have a college here,” Owsley said. “It creates more credibility.”
Graduate Shannon Vincent, who became head brewer at Anacortes Brewery in 2017 and now works there part-time, said students interested in the program should expect to pay their dues after graduation.
“If you’re at any smaller brewery, you’ll do everything,” she said. “Be ready to be washing kegs and doing the dirty work.”
She said the rewarding part is seeing people buying and drinking beer she brewed.
“It’s pretty satisfying,” she said.