FVCC Pauses Brewing Science Program

Following the departure of the director, the Brewing Academy of Montana will halt program while searching for new staff

By Micah Drew
A bubbly beer on Jan. 20, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Sacred Waters Brewing Company assistant brewer Marty Vollmer owes his current position to the skills he picked up as a member of the third graduating class from Flathead Valley Community College’s (FVCC) Brewing Academy of Montana.

“The program is so hands on. Every week we’d go through all the science involved — lots of chemistry and microbiology — but then we’d be working with the 3.5-barrel brewing system a few days each week as well,” Vollmer said. “It was the best that I ever did in school.”

Vollmer is just one product of the successful brewing program, which has placed graduates in breweries across the state. Despite a demand for educated brewers in Montana that continues to outpace supply, FVCC’s board of trustees voted at its July 25 meeting to put the program in indefinite moratorium due to staffing turnover.

Following the departure of program director Joe Byers from the brewing world — Byers was formerly the head brewer at Tamarack Brewing Company and Sacred Waters — FVCC officials had to make a decision about the program’s future.

“With so much transition, the trustees decided to put it in moratorium for at least a year to hire a new instructor and think about trying some new ideas that will bring in more students,” former FVCC Director of Trades and Industrial Arts Peter Fusaro said. “The plan is to move forward with the hiring process next year. The college is committed to bringing the program back online.”

The program opened up in 2015 as the only brewing school in Montana. The program initially offered a two-year associate of applied science degree in brewery science and brewing operations, later adding a one-year certificate program as well.

“We knew there were waiting lists for similar program across the country,” Fusaro said. “The college worked with legislators and local businesses to bring the program to fruition, and it speaks volumes to the college being able to move into places where there’s a need in our community.”

The Brewing Academy graduated 20 students from the program, many of whom were hired by local breweries while still in school. The associate’s degree required an internship at a local brewery, offering students even more hands-on experience on the brewery floor and leading to a great degree of cooperation among the local breweries.

“The brewing community itself is just so open,” said Vollmer, who interned at Tamarack Brewing Company before ending up at Sacred Waters. “Every brewery around the valley is big about taking on interns because they want to see more people in the field and more breweries come online.”

All students who were in the program this last academic year graduated according to Fusaro, so no one was left in a lurch with the program’s pause. The college hopes that the moratorium won’t last more than two years.

“It’s definitely a bummer they have to pause it, considering how much the Flathead Valley has been growing with breweries,” Vollmer said. “To not have the educational aspect right in their back pocket could make it hard for new breweries to pop up. Personally, it was the best thing I’ve been a part of, and I hope it returns soon.”

The Montana University System Board of Regents will vote to approve the moratorium at its next meeting.

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