Photo by Christophe Gruny
Get your beer education at the VLB, Berlin’s international school for aspiring brewmasters committed to creating that perfect glass of suds.
Last year, Cameron Lloyd left his junior high science and English teaching job in California and came all the way to Berlin for a new career path. Eight hours a day, four days a week, he would go to class in an industrial-looking set of buildings tucked away in Wedding. Twice a week, he worked in a microbiology laboratory. On days without class, he would have an extended day of chemical analysis lab work. Finally, after six months, he got his diploma: he was now an official German-certified brewmaster.
The Versuchs- und Lehranstalt für Brauerei (VLB) has been teaching students like Lloyd the secrets of brewing for the past 130 years. Founded by the Berlin brewing and malting industry in 1883 as a central location for teaching and research, it was rebranded in the 1980s as an international institution that gives English (and Russian!) speakers the scientific and technological background they need to run a brewery.
There are tests and books and study groups, but the brewmaster degree is more about the practical work: lab sessions, ‘field trips’ to German breweries such as Krombacher, and long days in the institute’s pilot brewery. Students can dig their hands into aromatic tubs of specialty malts, calculate recipes and experiment with proportions and flavours as they produce a total of 18 batches over six months. Dressed in traditional German brewmaster garb that he researched and sewed himself, head teacher and brewing engineer Burghard Meyer explains: “Because the VLB is a research centre, we do not have to adhere to the Reinheitsgebot (purity law). People are able to brew nearly whatever they want.”
Although a few students (like Lloyd) pay the €13,800 course fee themselves, most are already working for one of the VLB’s member breweries, which range from Firestone Walker and New Belgium in the US to Khmer Brewery in Cambodia and Efes in Turkey. The latter brewery, which has a successful branch in Russia, encouraged VLB to start an eight-week (€7500) course in Russian in 2004 to help tap into that country’s beer market, the fourth largest in the world. Since 2005, the VLB has hosted an annual brewers’ seminar in Moscow.
The 40 students in this year’s brewmaster course come from 18 different countries. Meyer thinks the more nationalities, the better. “For networking, later on, it’s pretty important,” he says. “And the more places you have people from, the more interesting it will be.”
Lloyd felt the same way. “My favourite part of the course was the international nature of it... learning about the brewing industry in other countries and what different people's experience with it had been.” Although the course is diverse in terms of nationalities, it’s still a bit of a boy’s club: just three of the students are girls.
After six intensive months, the VLB graduates seem to do pretty well for themselves. “Most of the graduates are in a brewery now, either as an owner or a brewmaster,” says Meyer. Now a shift supervisor at the acclaimed North Coast Brewing Company in Fort Bragg, California, Lloyd credits the VLB for his job. “At least in the US, pretty much anyone who is a VLB graduate and willing to relocate will find a brewing job in less than a year.”
So if you’re a chemistry-savvy expat who wants to learn the way of the brew, and you have a couple of thousand euros to burn, this brew-niversity could be your ticket to a new career.