“If you haven’t had a pint by noon, you just aren’t studying hard enough,” says Keith Lemcke, vice president of the Siebel Institute and World Brewing Academy. That’s rule No. 1 of the school that’s been teaching brewers about the science and business of beer in Chicago for 135 years.
Many of Siebel’s students resemble that guy you see at the neighborhood bar working his way through Belgian drafts—beer geeks who want to gain more expertise about their favorite frothy topic, and perhaps even start a new career. Others are home brewers seeking deeper knowledge—such as Keith Gabbett, who just completed the course—and professionals from around the globe who need to learn brewing standards of their trade, and would like to know more about beer tasting and appreciation.
A year ago, Gabbett’s classmate Matt Potts was practicing law in southern Illinois and dabbling in brewing at his local brewpub. He recently decided to desert his law career in pursuit of beer education, and entered Siebel’s Associate in Brewing Technology program to further his knowledge of brewing. “I got to know the barley seed and yeast cells better than I ever thought I would,” Potts says. Learning the biochemistry of brewing and meeting the diverse faculty and student body energized him to finally open his own brewpub, Destihl Restaurant & Brew Works in Normal, this fall, with Gabbett as assistant brewer.
Originally located in Lincoln Park and known as the Zymotechnic Institute (zymo is a prefix that refers to all things fermented), Siebel offered classes in German, the language of brewing, through WWI. The institute moved into the Goose Island Brewpub on Clybourn Avenue several years ago, and now, photos of every graduating class line the walls of Siebel Hall, its classroom and library, including familiar brewer names such as Augustus Busch IV and Henry Stroh. And frat boys everywhere should pay homage to the academy’s namesake: Siebel is credited with inventing and refining many of today’s standard brewing practices, including how pressurized kegs are filled.
Lemcke calls on experts throughout the industry to serve as teaching faculty—people like local brewing experts, microbiologists, chemical engineers and industry consultants. Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker Brewery in Paso Robles, California (and former head brewer at Goose Island), was the malting expert for the weeklong session on malting hops and water, part of Siebel’s 12-week International Diploma in Brewing Technology program (which, for $13,500, includes seven weeks in the classroom and five weeks of brewing and boozing in Europe).
Next comes two weeks on yeast, and two weeks on the mechanics of bottle washers, kegging systems, fermenters and chillers. Beer first officially passes the students’ lips during week six and seven’s tastings of suds from around the world. Students also taste-test brews that are “spiked” with off flavors to teach them to detect common beer flaws. “It was really quite a revelation to learn that a lot of the beers we regularly drink at the bars are just old,” Gabbett says.
Then it’s off to Munich for “Applied Brewing Techniques” at Doemens Academy, Siebel’s sister school, where the gang gets to brew beer in a working brewery. “We did everything from grinding malt to bottling to filtering for two days and then hit all the major beer gardens,” Gabbett says. “It was great to see the traditions from a strict German brewer’s perspective…. You cannot mess with their beer.” The course continues as a behind-the-scenes European brew-study tour through the traditional breweries of Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, which includes visits to the birthplaces of some classic beers—such as Budvar and Pilsner Urquell—and a tour of La Trappe monastery to explore how Trappist monks have been brewing beer for centuries.
But not all Siebel courses are that long and intense. “The two-week short brewing course is intensive and expensive, and it will really help get you in the door when looking for a cool brewing job like assistant brewer at a small to medium brewpub,” says Jonathan Cutler, who has been the brewer at Piece (1927 W North Ave, 773-772-4422) since the Bucktown pizzeria and microbrewery opened in 2001. Back in 1997, Cutler took eight weeks of classes at Siebel after graduating from college with no idea what he wanted to do. After following Siebel with several years of career-building jobs at Goose Island and Sierra Nevada, he got the call to make Piece his home base.
Recently, Cutler joined several other local beer-industry leaders to teach a new three-day course called “Start Your Own Brewery.” Led by brewing expert Ray Daniels with assistance from John Mallet of Bell’s and several other top local brew guys, the class covers topics like writing a business plan, brewing, packaging and distribution, and even restaurant operations. Lemcke introduced the course to accommodate the growing legion of home brewers who want to create beers for wider consumption. “People want to get out of their ‘Dilbert’ jobs,” says Randy Mosher, Siebel faculty member and author of home-brew handbook Radical Brewing, “and craft brewing represents a great lifestyle, where no one minds if you have a beer at lunch.”
For tuition and class info, go to siebelinstitute.com.