Friday, March 21, 2008

VLB Evaluation

One of the main reasons that I started this blog was because I found it difficult to get insider information when I was researching different brewing schools. I hope this blog serves as a useful tool to brewers who are considering various programs, and I hope that students at other schools will offer similar reviews or blogs (and let me know so that I can link to them) in the future. Since we recently turned in our reviews of the 1st module, since we are almost halfway finished with the course, and since I haven't discussed academics in a while, I thought this would be a good time to offer a review of my VLB experience to date. If you're not a brewer and are therefore reading for the entertainment value alone, you may want to give this lengthy entry a miss.

Before I dive in, I want to point out that I recognize running an international program such VLB's CBC comes with some pretty enormous challenges. That's probably why VLB is the only school in Germany offering such a program. Our class is a total melting pot in terms of nationality, industry experience, and mastery (or lack thereof) of the English language. We have engineers from some of the world's larger breweries, microbrewers, pub brewers, homebrewers, and even a few with little to no prior experience. So that makes an intensive curriculum such as this a bit of a challenge as VLB tries walk the line between basic and advanced concepts. I think that in a lot of ways they do a good job of this, which speaks to the success and popularity of the program so far. But as a guy who paid some serious cash out of his own pocket to be here (the majority of the class is sent by their employer), I can't help but offer some suggestions for improvement. One of the things I really like about VLB is that they are flexible and seem to be interested in reacting/adapting to our feedback, which is probably a pretty good idea since our tuition pays the bills. Here we go...

VLB Best:
Although I'd like to see even more of it, I think the practical work in the lab, malting, and brewing is key. I really enjoy the engineering and energy topics, but wish they had additional info for craft brewers who don't have millions to invest in their plant. I like the amount of focus on raw materials knowledge, especially water, and I love that we learn malting, not just brewing. Understanding the barley kernel and the malting process is crucial to understanding brewing. Hands down, our best professor is Dipl.-Ing. Roland Pahl. He commands attention and never puts the class to sleep as he explains advanced concepts in baby steps so that anyone can understand them. He is organized, speaks great English, and his practical and academic experience is evident when he lectures and answers questions. All of us wish he taught more subjects. Maybe all schools are like this, but you get out what you put in, and while it wasn't obvious at first, nearly all of the staff are willing and able to spend time outside of class if you need help or just want to learn more about specific topics, equipment, etc.

VLB Worst:
While we have a week of excursions at the end of the course, most of the class would like more and/or more timely ones. My trip to Weyerman (and its timing) for instance was instrumental in solidifying what I learned in malting technology, yet I had to skip another class to make the trip happen as we only have weekends and holidays free. It blows my mind that we haven't had an organized, behind the scenes tour of the local Schultheiss Brewery that we've heard so much about in class. We also have been introduced to very little at the institute, outside of our course, including most of the other labs and research/services/projects/programs that are going on at the institute. We finally have a tour scheduled, but some sort of orientation should be added to future CBC courses. We have an economics course and none of us know why. We're not here to learn economics and we could really use the time in other courses (chemistry?). The schedule is less organized than I'd like it to be. It was difficult to plan a visit from my girlfriend because I couldn't get the schedule in advance and once I did, there were constant changes and additions. I would've paid extra for one schedule with everything on it that didn't change. Our manuals suck. They are full of spelling errors and graphs in German, are falling apart, waste too much paper, are not in color (which often makes the difference in understanding a graph or picture), can be difficult to read, will be expensive and a pain to ship home, often differ from presentations or are incredibly repetitive and/or out of order (water!), and lack indexes or page numbers. Electronic versions would solve a lot of problems.

The Biggest Disappointment Award, however, goes to chemistry. I expected chemistry for dummies, specific to brewing. Instead, I have an enormous headache. Less than 2 months before the class started, VLB recommended that I come with some basic chemistry knowledge. Too late. Dr. Rolf Hardt teaches at a level that is way over my head. His illegible stream of conscious notes on the white board are full of errors. The only chemistry I've learned so far has been from Felipe, my chemical engineer of a classmate who finds Hardt's class interesting. If a chemical engineer finds the class interesting, there is clearly a problem with the level at which it is taught. Felipe taught me how to number carbon atoms weeks before Hardt did, which was weeks after we needed to know how to in other classes. Hardt spent at least 2 lectures on quantum physics, which I'm pretty sure isn't as relevant to brewing as the other more important stuff that I still don't understand. I asked Hardt if he'd give me more practice problems since I was struggling. He said no. Even if Hardt was teaching at a level I could understand, there still wouldn't be enough chemistry early on in the program. Other professors assume we have a knowledge of the subject that many of us just don't. It's a mess. Do yourself a favor if you want to attend the CBC and take a semester or 2 of chemistry at a community college first. You'll get a lot more out of the program if you do.

Other Schools and Programs:
There are 3 main brewing schools in Germany. Two of which (VLB and Weihenstephan) are affiliated with technical universities. The third, Doemens, lacks the arguably important university connection and has recently come under fire from the proposed (and eventually withdrawn) buyout by brewery equipment manufacturing giant, Krones. Doemens might be a good option for some, but other programs better fit me and I was never able to get feedback from a previous graduate. Weihenstephan's programs are taught exclusively in German and only offer long-term training such as a Diplom- Braumeister program that takes years to complete. VLB offers similar programs if you want to train at university level for 2 years or more. Most Germans (including many of my professors) go through a 3 year combined academic/apprenticeship program to become Brewer and Maltster before entering into a Dipl.-Braumeister or Dipl.-Ing. (engineer) graduate level program.

Other options somewhat similar to VLB's Certified Brewmaster Course include UC Davis' Master Brewers Program, and The World Brewing Academy's (Siebel Institute + Doemens) International Diploma in Brewing Technology. All of these schools also offer shorter, less advanced programs that are probably a better fit for someone with no experience. The CBC at VLB emerged as the best fit for me (and my experience level) as I researched the options and came to know VLB's reputation within the industry. The CBC has a reputation for more hands-on work where other school's programs tend to be more academic. There's a guy in our class who's been to another program and swears that VLB is the most analytical, especially in terms of water chemistry, practical lab work, and microbiology. We've got another guy who also went to Siebel and likes VLB a lot more. The Brewers Association has a pretty complete list of all schools here. There are even distance learning options at some schools. So far, I am happy with my decision to come to VLB...I just wish I had taken chemistry first.

No comments: