Story Careers

California's Craft Brewers: Small But Mighty

Hazel Kelly

With some 900 brewers up and down the state, more CSU campuses are preparing students to work in this rapidly growing field.

​It's safe to say the craft beer industry is still far from tapped out: Nationally, craft brewers saw a 5 percent rise in volume in 2017, even while the total beer market dropped 1 percent.


The number of craft breweries in California has tripled since 2012, to more than 900 across the state. Though craft brewers are small by definition, their impact is significant: These businesses contributed $7.3 billion to the state's economy in 2016.

Driven in part by consumers' increasing desire for more complex and varied styles of beer, the industry continues to enjoy head(y) times. Which is why the California State University (CSU) is now preparing more students than ever to work in — and lead — the industry.  From Sacramento State to San Diego State, enthusiasts and aspiring entrepreneurs alike can learn about beer history and culture, basic chemistry and brewing, marketing, distribution and even legal issues.

On the first day of her Craft Beer Appreciation Certificate course at Sonoma State University, Herlinda Heras, program coordinator, tells her students the same thing: "You're going to look at that glass of beer completely differently when you're done with this class."

Wiser About Weiser

Heras acknowledges that "everybody thinks that they want to start a brewery," adding that "the smart ones come and take these classes." She draws students in part because, she says, her lineup of expert speakers is one of the best, including Northern California beer industry legends like Pete Slosberg from Pete's Wicked Ale and Mark Carpenter of Anchor Brewing.

Arthur Moye, CEO of Fresno's Full Circle Brewing Co., is an instructor for Fresno State's "Brew U" classes. The series of three non-credit courses includes Craft Beer 101; Craft Beer 201: Home Brew Challenge; and Craft Beer 301: Sensory and Styles. 

"They address both the casual home brewer and those with an interest in a career in the craft beer industry, either on the brewing side or the business, marketing and promotion side of things," explains Moye, adding that some of the same trends influencing food and wine extend to beer: "We're seeing a trend of localization and a growing farm-to-table movement within craft beer."


Innovation Brew Works brewer stirs a grain mixture that will eventually become
orange wheat beer. Photo courtesy of Cal Poly Pomona 

Local is something Cal Poly Pomona also does well. Aaron P. Neilson, dining services director at the campus' Foundation Dining Services, explains that agriculture students grow products such as barley and oranges, which are then used in the brewing program for the on-campus café and brewery, Innovation Brew Works

Innovation Brew Works then makes custom beers for local restaurants, says Neilson, who is chair of the Brewing Education Executive Roundtable (BEER) at Cal Poly. 

"We are the only operating educational brewery open to the public, staffed by students, open on a campus in the CSU. We were the first to do this nationally," he says.

Neilson adds that Cal Poly's classes — part of the campus' continuing education program — focus on different audiences: One is for the home brewer who wants to improve her skills; another track is vocational, to prepare students to take an entry-level brewer's assistant position. A third professional development course is still in the works, he says; it will be aimed at those already working in the industry.  

"The Capital for Beer"

San Diego State has been a leader in beer education since it introduced its Business of Craft Beer certificate program in 2013. "California is the capital for beer," says Chad Heath, vice president and general manager of Kegstar and instructor for the Business of Distribution course.

If California is the capital, then San Diego — home to 150 craft breweries, more than any other county in the state — would be the epicenter for beer brewing.

At the SDSU program, students learn how to market a brewery; identify potential wholesalers and work effectively with them; and speak the language of business, including contract law, negotiation, pricing, various finance models and a "historical perspective on what has worked and what hasn't worked from other breweries in the country," adds Heath.

"Good beer will always drive this industry. However, as we have seen, breweries need to have a clear vision and understanding of what they want to do in the market, how they want to be perceived and what they will bring that is unique for their fans." 

What is a Craft Brewer?

According to the Brewers Association, a craft brewer is:

  • Small — The brewer's annual production is six million barrels of beer or less.
  • Independent — Less than 25 percent of the brewery is owned or controlled by a company that is part of the alcohol industry and not a craft brewer itself.
  • Traditional — The majority of the craft brewer's total beverage alcohol volume is in beers whose flavors derive from traditional or innovative ingredients and fermentation.

Career Readiness, on Tap

Tuning students' palates to appreciate the complexities of craft beer and making them better business owners are just part of what happens in a certificate program like Fresno State's Brew U, says Moye.

After all, beer is a combination of chemistry and agriculture as well as savvy entrepreneurship. Beer companies of all sizes need water and agriculture specialists, enzymologists, sales and marketing experts, hospitality professionals and lawyers, notes Sonoma State's Herlinda Heras. 

As the state within arguably the cultural center of the craft beer renaissance, california continues to attract the industry's brightest minds." 

Extended education courses like Heras' help students make inroads into the craft beer industry, making them more valuable to employers. One of Heras' students was hired at a local beer garden after taking her course. 

"The owner told me that her taking [my] class was a big part of why he hired her," because her knowledge of beer history and production would prepare her for questions from customers, says Heras. Another student won the Sonoma County Home Brewer's competition in October 2017.

At Sacramento State, Robert Crawford, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, introduced a new beer-based biology course in spring 2018. Designed for beginning biology students, class activities include mashing barley, determining International Bitterness Units (a way of measuring how bitter a beer is), and examining different yeast varieties used in fermentation.

"We hope students learn that career opportunities within the California brewing and distilling industry extend beyond crafting an alcoholic beverage," Crawford says, who reels off the many skills needed to run a successful brewery.

In addition, Crawford encourages students to think about potential problems facing the industry, such as climate change and the fact that California doesn't grow its own hops, a primary ingredient in many beer recipes. 

"Oregon, Idaho and Washington produce essentially 98 percent of the nation's hops due to their ideal geographic location," he says, adding that in 2016 a paltry 130 acres were cultivated in California for hops.

Still, Crawford sees a lot of reasons to raise a pint: "As the state within arguably the cultural center of the craft beer renaissance, California has of course benefitted from the craft beer industry and continues to attract the alcohol industry's brightest minds."