Brewing Up A Storm: Brewmaster, Jeff Irvin

— Anita Riley —

When I began my education in Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation (BDF) at AB Tech’s Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast, I didn’t know what to expect. I had been told by several people (not affiliated with beer or the program in any way) that a beard is a prerequisite for the program. I had been home brewing for only a year, but I had taken my first actual home brewing class a few months prior. I had toured a lot of facilities around town, and talked with a lot of brewery employees about what their jobs were like. They all spoke in jargon that I didn’t yet understand, about equipment that I didn’t know how to operate, to perform a process that I only understood on a very basic level. I knew that I loved the process of gentle manipulation of ingredients, waiting patiently while the mash did its thing and the yeasts did theirs.

Jeff Irvin. Photo by Anita Riley.

Jeff Irvin. Photo by Anita Riley.

There’s a Zen-like quality to that. What I didn’t understand is exactly what all that waiting was for and why we needed to wait so much. I knew most of all that I had a lot to learn. I spent a year working on the general education portion of the degree while I waited for enrollment into the program. I trained in the school gym so that I would be able to lift kegs and bags of grain. I was prepared in every way I could prepare myself. But nothing could have prepared me to meet Brewmaster, Jeff Irvin. He is what you would expect from a college level instructor: highly educated with an impressive resume. He earned his undergraduate degree in biology from Iowa State University and went on to complete the Master Brewers program at the University of California – Davis. Afterward, he earned the title of Diploma Brewer from the Guild of Brewing and Distilling in England. He spent ten years at Olde Main Brewing Company in Ames, IA as their Brewmaster, building their processes and recipes, managing the facility and training employees.

Somewhere along the way, he was also a rescue and recovery diver for a Sherriff’s Department, and worked in a lab to research the inner cochlear implant that allows people with hearing disabilities to regain their hearing. Fascinating, am I right? He had to give up that work when he developed an allergy to the mice in the lab. Having a background like that, you may expect him to be serious, maybe even bordering on dull, but I can assure you that dull is not in his vocabulary. In the brewing world there is a lot of German, Belgian, and British influence. Now imagine learning this history with the respective accent to accompany the material! There is nothing dry or dull about Irvin’s teaching style! He is one of the most engaging instructors I’ve had.

In our Brewing Calculations class, we were assigned the task of calculating the terminal velocity of a yeast cell based on its diameter, the viscosity of the wort (unfermented beer), and the pull of gravity. To mix it up a little, we had to do these calculations for Mars! It’s impossible to be bored in his class. When I sat down to interview him for this story, there was a joke answer (sometimes two) for every real answer. Knowing Jeff, or Puff as he is most commonly called, I most wanted to find out what made him move halfway across the country and leave his position at Olde Main to teach at AB Tech’s CBI.

“Well, the money, of course! Isn’t that why everyone teaches?” When we both stopped laughing, he said that he was looking for a way to challenge himself that he hadn’t had in a long time. There was no way to grow any further at Olde Main; he was already holding the highest position in the brewery, and after ten years, the challenge was gone. When he interviewed and was subsequently offered the job at AB Tech, the BDF program was a clean slate. The department head, Chef Scott Adams, had the course names, but the curriculum still needed to be written. Textbooks needed to be sourced, and equipment needed to be purchased and installed. Irvin saw an opportunity to grow and use his education that he hadn’t had in a long while.

He recalls packing his house and moving just two weeks after the job offer came. Two years later his first group of students have recently graduated and are going on to promising careers in the brewing industry. In the first graduating class were four women. Two more (myself included) are scheduled to graduate in 2016, and as it stands, five women are set to begin the program this fall. While several of these women are focused on the brewing aspect of the industry, several are interested in other positions such as the quality assurance lab, marketing, sales, distribution, packaging, and brewery management. All of these are skills that the associate’s degree program offers. As for the beard prerequisite I’d heard so much about, it’s a myth. Women represent about 25% of the BDF students, and Jeff reports that completion rates and GPA’s are right in line with their male classmates. I asked him what he would say to a woman considering this education path, and immediately he said, “Do it! Sign up now!”

The 24 seats for this fall are filled, but as he was also quick to mention, you can still get on the waiting list, and plenty of people have gotten a seat that were on the waiting list. He would like to see more women involved with the program. There is plenty of room in this industry for women. While some of the graduates are heading to other parts of the state or country, several are staying in the Asheville area. Their education makes them highly attractive to prospective employers that struggle to find skilled labor in this region. Until very recently there were only a couple of schools you could attend to get this kind of training, and they were all in the West or Midwest.

Irvin admits that his teaching style is more industry minded than academic focused. He wants to see his students show a working knowledge of the equipment and techniques rather than simply memorizing books. “Just because you’ve read a book on how to drive a car does not mean I’m going to give you my car keys,” he says. Brewing equipment and tanks are expensive, and if you are careless, the mistakes can be costly. He points out that he views his job as preparing students to be good employees in a brewery, and teaches at AB Tech in much the same way taught at Olde Main where he trained new employees or gave tours to the public.

I asked Puff what his hopes for the CBI are. “To take over the world, develop mind control, and to be a Bond villain. I used to want to be Bond, but I think I have a better chance of making it as a villain.” The serious answer that followed was much more down to Earth. “To become the destination for this kind of education in the Southeast. We are looking to grow our continuing education and workforce training programs.” I always ask people I interview what their favorite beer is. Most have a specific brand or style they like best, and it usually says something about what kind of personality they are, so I was anxious to hear Puff’s response.

“Free beer. The only beer that is better than free beer is the beer you win. I’m hoping to strategically place graduates all over the country so I can always have free beer.” The last question I asked Irvin was what he would do if he suddenly developed an allergy to beer. He teared up, his tone softened, and he responded, “That’s the saddest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

Anita Riley

Anita Riley

Anita Riley is Certified Beer Server Cicerone and a student of Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation at AB Tech’s Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast. She is the Beer Buyer for Metro Wines, and hosts a variety of beer tasting events at the shop. She is also an intern brewer at Altamont Brewing in West Asheville. You can find her blog Brewing Up a Storm, which focuses on women in the beer industry at Anita is a native to WNC.

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