Dr. Todd White teaches students to learn the brewing and distilling process in a relaxed class environment.

The science and microbiology behind brewing came easy for Dr. Todd White, founder of the Brewing & Distilling Center (BDC) in Knoxville, a hands-on certificate program that trains and educates brewers and distillers for jobs in their respective industries. Todd, aka “Dean Suds,” earned his doctorate in veterinary medicine and has taught at the college level since the early ‘90s. Along the way, while indulging his interest in “finding good beer,” he opened a craft beer store in Maryville and eventually founded a brewing program at South College in Knoxville. Todd’s four-year stint with the South College program had a valuable ripple effect, and helped launch 80-plus students into careers in the craft beer industry.

But the more Todd learned about the craft movement that was spreading all over the U.S., the more he realized that the education side wasn’t keeping up. As an educator, he saw there was a gap in educating and preparing people to work in breweries and distilleries. “You don’t need a $100,000, 4-year degree to become a brewer,” he says. “I looked at the curriculums of good schools and didn’t see a lot of true hands-on, hard-core brewing instruction. A lot of the training was geared for hospitality and hotels.“

“We’re a trade school. We want people to get jobs in the industries they’re passionate about,” says Todd. “There are a lot of people with $150,000 in college debt waiting tables.” In fall of 2017, BDC graduated its first class. It focuses its curriculum and hands-on training on helping people either become brewers or distillers, or find jobs in supporting industries such as beverage distribution, sales, tap room management, and industry supply chain. In addition to placing people in great jobs all over the U.S., the BDC does consulting for start-up brewery and distillery projects, and provides continuing education for brewers and distillers.

Rick Cox, who studied with Dr. White, is now the BDC lead instructor. “BDC is more hands-on. You’re in the brew house more often than in other schools. At BDC, I’d go into the brew house with a class as often as I could, clean the system, and brew a beer. This is critical to the brewing process,” says Rick. “I began to understand the effort that goes into brewing – it’s long days and hard work. I started the day cleaning and ended the day cleaning. Some courses don’t explain that – we show what brewers actually do.”

“There are not a lot of people who do what we do at BDC,” says Todd. But BDC is the only privately-owned trade school in the South specific to brewing and distilling. The 13-week program is comprised of 96 hours in the classroom and 48 hours of brew house and practical work. Students attend class 10 hours a week (divided between two evening classes and one afternoon class). BDC supports its program with a core group of three or four full-time instructors, plus four or five rotating guest industry instructors. Dr. White teaches foundational biology, basic chemistry and microbiology. “Yeast is a living organism, and brewing is all chemical reaction.” he says. “You need a basic, general understanding of the sciences.”

But students who never aced a chem class should not be deterred by the science. In the real world of a brew house, brewing is a lot of cleaning and “pipe-chasing,” according to Will Brady, who landed a brewing job shortly after he studied with Dr. White at South College. Will is now one of three head brewers at Pretentious Beer Company in Knoxville. “Brewing is 95% janitorial. Everything needs to be clean,” says Will. And then there’s the “pipe-chasing” – or as Will says, “following pipes backward so you know what each pipe does.” He explains, “Beer is complicated, and you want to have consistency in your product. So you have to learn the microbiology and the proper use and safety of equipment – kettles that boil, filters with a lot of moving parts, and so on. Dr. White was my tutor – he knows all the microbiology. He is able to teach the science of brewing along with the mechanical.”

“The BDC program is very beneficial. And for people who want to start their own brewery, the information is invaluable,” says Will. “If this is something you think you want to do, you might want to volunteer at a brewery. If you’re still into it, you’re a brewer.” Will, who’s known for his way with sweet stouts – notably, his Coffee Mocha Stout – loves the creative vibe at Pretentious which combines a brewery with a glass-blowing facility. “You can watch your beer and your beer glass being made in the same place,” he says.

Rick Cox had such a “phenomenal education experience” with Dr. White at South College that he followed him to BDC, where he now teaches brewery business and fermentation microbiology. As a U.S. veteran who learned how to brew beer unconventionally – in “Gitmo” or Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – Rick sees another advantages to training at BDC. “Doc knows a lot of people and brings in many different perspectives on the industry,” says Rick, who stays busy with a lot of brewing, developing recipes, consulting, and lately working on opening his own brewery. (Rick is also a part-time professional pyrotechnician – he designs and operates Nashville’s annual 4th of July fireworks extravaganza.)

Although Rick says being in the military helped him to “focus on learning the craft of brewing,” thanks to the education he received from Dr. White, he views himself more as an artist. “I have the freedom to express myself, create different recipes, and the excitement of creating something new,” he says. Rick also appreciates that BDC condenses their certificate program into 13 weeks. “And at BDC, we learn never to cut corners on quality. We don’t cut corners on production of beer, whether it’s in the raw materials or cleaning. If you want the best beer, you have to buy the best ingredients. The cost of entry (into the brewery business) is high but the potential for earnings is there. I brew what people like – and right now they seem to like the barrel-aged, fruity, saison, farmhouse ales, and intriguing styles of beers.”

Another graduate, Joe Shanahan, appreciates the job placement strengths of Dr. White’s program. “There are a lot of brewing schools that offer similar things, but BDC is well connected. Doc White makes contacts, and he makes sure that job placement happens,” says Joe, who currently works at Lagunitas Brewing Company in Chicago as a second shift filtration guy (after beer is finished fermenting, he filters and carbonates it so it’s ready for packaging). “Doc White’s program helped me get my first job out of brewing school, at Hinterland Brewing Company in Green Bay. But you have to perform. It’s game time.”

“What I took away from BDC was learning the language and terminology. It helped me talk the talk which transformed into walking the walk,” continues Joe. “My first shot was in Green Bay, WI. They knew I had a firm grasp on brewing and all facets of brewing. They knew that I understood the ins and out of brewing.”

Joe also said it was valuable that at BDC you learn every facet of brewing, “from a small molecular level to the largest level.” He explains, “You learn why you’re doing what you’re doing. In brewing, you make a mess in five minutes that will take an hour to clean up! Brewing is very blue collar and industrial, very hard work, and tough labor. You have to be passionate about the product.”

If you’re not turned off by the tough, unglamorous side of brewing and still contemplating a beer career, your timing couldn’t be better. The number of breweries operating in the U.S. grew nearly 17% in 2016. Plus, small craft breweries employ nearly 129,000 people, according to the annual report released by the Brewers Association, the trade association representing small and independent American craft brewers.

Finally, while many of BDC students are already home brewers, and most in other careers, BDC takes you at the stage you’re in. “We listen to students and their goals, and try to lead them in the right direction.” sums up Todd. “We expose students to all aspects of the industry. Some students like people, others like sales and want to talk about beer, and so on. But what I love is teaching and helping people reach their goals. I love being in a classroom, and helping people become productive in the community. We want people to get jobs in industries they’re passionate about.”

Gini David is a freelance beer and travel writer living in Franklin, TN.