GRCC program teaches basics of breweries


Students help produce Brewing Bourbon Aged Imperial Vanilla Ale and Blonde Ale, among others, for GRCC’s Fountain Hill Brewery. Photo by Danielle Nelson

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) After Kyle Rondeau graduates from Grand Rapids Community College, he said he envisions himself in a multitude of career paths.

Anything ranging from becoming a craft beer specialist in sales at a distribution center to farming on his own land and growing hops, but they all have one thing in common: beer.

“I just fell in love with the beer culture and what people like about the beer culture here in Grand Rapids, especially,” Rondeau said.

Now, his love for the “beer culture” has him enrolled in the second year of the Craft Brewing, Packaging and Service Operations Certificate program at GRCC.

GRCC is the first college in the country to be federal and state licensed to own and run a brewery and pub that leads to revenues, which Werner Absenger, program director of Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at GRCC, said goes mostly to scholarships for students.

Absenger said the two-semester program (seven weeks per semester) is not long enough to create brew experts. The program, however, can give them a glimpse at what is done behind the scenes in a brewery.

“We are trying to take students who have some level of skills or no level of skills in the craft brewing industry and teach them the very basics of what it might be like to work in a brewery, so that when they go in the brewery or other environments, they are ready for the task that they are given or asked to do without too much additional training,” Absenger said.

In its first year, 22 students have graduated from the program. The number of students who have found jobs in the industry after graduating was not available, according to Absenger. Students have taken tours of different breweries through the program, including Founders Brewing Co., where students toured the production facility, according to Michael Steil, Founders’ curriculum coordinator.

Some students have secured internships with local breweries. Breweries such as Harmony Brewing, Hideout Brewing, The Mitten Brewing and Schmohz Brewing in Grand Rapids have had students from the GRCC program.

Chas Thompson, a beer engineer at Schmohz, said it hired a graduate of the GRCC program. He said the brewery isn’t exclusively looking to hire students who graduate from the program at GRCC but rather it is looking for skilled people who are ready to work.

Absenger said it is probably a good thing breweries aren’t looking primarily at the program’s students for employment.

“There aren’t enough students to meet the demand,” Absenger said. “The first two and three cohorts ran actually at capacity of the program, so we had a wait list for that. We have 18 students per cohort but, obviously, not everyone graduates.

“It is a good thing for our students because that means there are more jobs out there as more and more students graduate from the program.”

Two students who currently are enrolled in the program recently were hired at The Mitten. Another person who graduated from the GRCC program has been working at that brewery for over a year.

John Vanderploeg, who recently started working at The Mitten but has years of experience working in breweries, is in his final semester at GRCC’s brewing program. Vanderploeg bartends and helps run the taproom at GRCC’s Fountain Hill Brewery when it is open on Thursdays and Fridays.

Vanderploeg said he has been cleaning the kegs and packaging while he is working at The Mitten.

Jason Warnes, head of brewing operations at The Mitten, said the employee who graduated from GRCC’s program also was cleaning kegs when he first started, but he is now working on the canning line, canning beer.

“Keg washing is not a glorious job, but you start there and you move up,” Warnes said.

Nevertheless, Jacob Brenner, a professor at GRCC’s Craft Brewing program, has that scripted in his curriculum.

“(We) introduce them to some of the chemicals we are using to clean our tanks,” Brenner said. “We actually have them clamping. In the industry, we have what is called a tri-clamp to hook hoses up and things like that when we are transferring products.”

The program includes topics such as brewing, packaging, labeling, merchandising, marketing and operation management.

On Thursdays and Fridays when Fountain Hill is open from 5:30-8:30 p.m. it is run by the advanced students, some of whom are enrolled in his Advanced Craft Beverage Brewing class, Brenner said.

Brenner said Fountain Hill makes a lot of ale because those products don't require a lot of work; the brewery has 12 drafts.

“We have Brewing Bourbon Aged Imperial Vanilla that is really, really popular,” Brenner said. “Usually anytime you have an IPA no matter what pub you are in, those are going to sell well. So, we have a Wet-Hopped Ale Undrafted selling well. We just put on a West Coast Style Imperial IPA selling really well, too. Also, we sell a lot of our Blonde Ale. You know Blonde Ale is very light, basic beer. That is very popular, as well.”

Upon graduating from the Craft Brewing, Packaging and Service Operations Certificate program, students will receive ServSafe Alcohol and ServSafe Sanitation certifications.

According to the program guide, students can then “sit for the Certified Beer Server and Cicerone examinations. They are also prepared to sit for three levels of certification from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling: Fundamentals of Brewing & Packaging of Beer; Diploma in Brewing; and Diploma in Packaging.”

For Rondeau, his love for food and brewery came to light while working at a brewery for a year. That experience, Rondeau said, pushed him toward the GRCC program. After graduating, he said he hopes he can work in the beer industry again.

“I just had a real drawing toward the sense of community that it has and just the bringing of people together,” Rondeau said. “I really like that.”

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