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Botany, beverages, and A-B Tech

People and plants

Jeff “Puff” Irvin took a botany class at Iowa State University called People and Plants that may or may not have changed his life. Irvin was working as a bartender while attending school, and saw how the class could help him excel at his job.

“If I’m going to be serving you something across the bar top, I should know what I’m talking about,” said Irvin, who is now the department chair for Brewing, Distillation, & Fermentation at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College (A-B Tech).

Jeff “Puff” Irving canning at A-B Tech’s brewing facility. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Irvin’s instructor at Iowa State, Dr. Robert Wallace, inspired him to learn the language of botany. Wallace broke down everything botanically and showed how people can use plants to make things. Irvin learned how hemp and bamboo were turned into textiles, how grapes made wine, and how beer became beer.

He was beyond intrigued. “I really had a deep dive, and really got into all things beverage related at that point,” he says. At work, Irvin learned how to pair ingredients and create better cocktails. Customers tried new things because he suggested it. He liked telling the story about what he was making and why to those sitting at his bar. The job funded his undergraduate degree in biology, and the class helped develop his love of making beverages.

From Iowa, Irvin headed to UC Davis and went through the Master Brewers Certificate Program. He returned from California to be head brewer for 10 years at a brewery in Ames, Iowa before making the trek south to Asheville. He moved in August 2013 to be the first instructor of a newly offered associate degree.

Along with running the Brewing, Distillation, & Fermentation program at A-B Tech, he is also the director of the Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast, which happens to be housed in the same facility. In those two roles, he is teaching the next generation of brewers while supporting those already established in the booming beverage industry.

United States beverage scene

Why has this associate of applied science in brewing, distillation, and fermentation taken off at A-B Tech? For one, the industry has exploded. The Brewers Association reported a 52% increase in breweries in the United States over a five year period, from 2014 to 2019. The Craft Spirits Data Project says as of August 2019 there were 2,046 active craft distillers in the country, an increase of 11% from 2018.

In A-B Tech’s backyard of western North Carolina, there are 80 breweries and counting according to Irvin. The area boasts nine hard cideries, and the most-visited winery in the world.

“When you’re talking about craft beverages in particular, you are in the epicenter of creativity and quality.”

Jeff “Puff” Irvin – Department Chair for Brewing, Distillation, & Fermentation

Degree vs. Craft Beverage Institute

The two-year associate degree offered at A-B Tech was the first of its kind in the nation, and every fall a new cohort of students begin. The class caps at 24 and is two full years with a summer internship sandwiched in the middle. “We’ve been pretty lucky to see at a community college … the diversity of students that are coming from all over the country for this program,” says Irvin.

In addition to learning the science and getting hands-on experience brewing, distilling, and fermenting, the program has an emphasis on marketing, maintenance of equipment, and overall operations.

“What we’ve done since the program’s begun is kind of diversify the training and really paint a broad swath of the industry. Anything from the actual production side to marketing to telling people about sales and distribution [we cover].”

Jeff “Puff” Irvin – Department Chair for Brewing, Distillation, & Fermentation

Sanitation is such a large part of the job that Irvin jokes it’s a lot of “underpaid janitorial work.” He says there is a mysticism about taking ingredients and making a fermented product, but at the heart, it’s labor-intensive work, it’s manufacturing.

There have been around 90 graduates of the program so far, and the places they have landed is impressive. One graduate runs the sour production at Wicked Weed Brewing, another is the head of the Asheville Brewers Alliance. Two alumni are head cider makers, one at Urban Orchard and the other at Bold Rock. Graduates are working at a distilleries in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and some on the west coast.

Alumni that stay in the region have a special opportunity to continue working with Irvin via the Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast. Founded in 2015, the Institute gives businesses and brewers in the region a facility and experts to turn to with problems, experiments, or questions.

“We help them solve problems [and] we help them develop products. We give them guidance on, you know, whatever snafu they run across in the industry.”

Jeff “Puff” Irvin – Department Chair for Brewing, Distillation, & Fermentation

The most recent snafu has been the COVID-19 pandemic. With bars and restaurants closed, inventory sat on shelves longer than anticipated. Breweries, cideries, and wineries were able to use the Institute’s facility and its instructors to determine what was safe to drink.

The facility includes a lab, and with it, a 35-year microbiology veteran researcher, Jim Schram. In retirement, he decided to take the craft beer continuing education classes offered at A-B Tech, and eventually became the lab manager.

Lab manager Jim Schram at A-B Tech’s Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation program. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Testing, sampling, and consulting is the main focus of the Institute, and during a pandemic, that is no different. The Institute was able to help troubleshoot inventory for local businesses that hopefully curbed losses during a tough year. Pivoting like everyone in 2020, the Institute also started making hand sanitizer for local schools when supplies ran short.

There is no denying Irvin’s energy and the passion he has for his job. He believes “the brewing community here is phenomenal. It is one of the best in the world if not the best in the world.”

It’s easy to imagine that Irvin has inspired the type of interest in his students that his botany professor once motivated in him. And if that is the case, an entire industry and region is reaping the rewards.

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is a multimedia storyteller for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, and STEM education.