Editor’s note:This article is part of a continuing series about what Asheville, N.C. is doing to build and promote its craft culture, from beer and food to products, services and experiences. I tagged along with a group of Sanford business leaders on a fact-finding trip to the mountain city. This is what we learned.

Craft beer in Asheville pumps $1 billion into the local economy every year.

To meet the needs of the industry, education leaders in the region created the Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast. It’s a 2-year degree program offered through Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, better known to locals as AB Tech.

Jeff “Puff” Irvin is the director of the institute. An engaging Midwesterner, Puff has a passion for teaching. After spending a couple of hours touring the Institute, I wanted to sign up for the program. I have zero plans to work in the industry, but Puff’s enthusiasm combined with the depth of his knowledge is contagious.

The curriculum has been well thought-out and doesn’t sugar coat the industry. The program graduates about 20 people a year, and every graduate will get a job at one of Asheville’s 40-plus breweries. Thing is most of those jobs won’t be making beer, at least not at first. The jobs may be in distribution logistics, marketing, quality control, IT, equipment maintenance and sanitation or packaging.

Students learn how to make beer, wine, cider and distilled spirits, but they also learning a wide range of skills so they can get a job.

“We’re providing the industry with job-ready graduates,” says Puff. “This is the reality: not every student is going to leave here and be the head brewmaster at Sierra Nevada or New Belgium. They may work their way up to those positions, but there are a lot of other jobs that need to be filled with skilled people. Our job at the Institute is to teach them those skills.”

The Craft Beverage Institute was impressive and is an example of something Sanford and Seminole County should emulate – but in ways that apply to our community. Frankly, starting a craft beverage training center would fail in Sanford right now because there are simply not enough jobs for graduates.

As we try to build on the culture of craft that is emerging in Sanford, it’s important that we provide the right infrastructure to foster more growth. Maybe that’s a training center for craft beverages or food or a combination of the two. Already there are some very early discussions about establishing a hospitality management curriculum within the Seminole County Schools.

Or maybe the community develops a training facility for aviation manufacturing like what’s happening at the Sanford airport with Jeteezy and Vertical Aviation Technologies. Those two companies most definitely embrace the culture of craft.

The trip to Asheville didn’t lead us to specific solutions about how to build the culture of craft, but it did show us the possibilities. What was clear from our visit to the Craft Beverage Institute is that we need to make sure we put the right educational infrastructure in place so we have skilled employees to attract quality companies to Sanford and Seminole County.

In the meantime, if you want to learn how to make great beer in your home, go see Gary Holmes and Aaron Libera at the Sanford Homebrew Shop in Magnolia Square. Those guys know their stuff, just ask the folks at Sanford Brewing Co.

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