An Inside Look at the UC Davis Master Brewers Program – One of the Most Prestigious in America

Photo: Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis

Residents of NorCal love their beer. But how many knew the oldest and most prestigious Master Brewers program of all is also located right here in Northern California? 

While asking the average person what they would wish for if they were magically granted three wishes is probably not a terrific idea, at least some might wish for the ability to brew really great beer. A lot of folks have considered buying one of those home “brewing kits,” or even tried their hand at whipping up a small batch. The fact that many college dorm rooms reek of malt and hops is surely no accident either.

According to the Brewers Association the craft beer industry exploded in recent years with revenues exceeding $22 billion in 2020. Way ahead of the curve, Michael J. Lewis, Ph.D, founder, academic director and lead instructor established UC Davis’ brewing program in 1964.

Lewis retired after the 2018 class, just after leading Master Brewer Marco Plastino’s class. Today Plastino is Brewer/Co-owner of Bottle Bay Brewing Company in Spokane, Washington.

Marco Plastino – Brewer/Co-owner of Bottle Bay Brewing Company

We tracked down Marco Plastino at his brewery/pub in Spokane and asked what he thought made the UC Davis program so good-

“The amount of knowledge they have. Those teachers, Charlie Bamforth, Michael Lewis, Jim Brown, those guys are all at the top of their field. Those guys knew what they’re talking about and had been doing it for a very long time. Between both Michael Lewis and Charlie Bamforth was probably 110 years of experience right there.”

“That whole program was different because every single day you actually are learning just about the one subject you want to learn. Everybody in there was extremely passionate. Going out and talking to those guys after school, drinking with them, trying out new beers, studying, going over things, it was just so much different than any other college program. It was just a really cool experience to be with people that are all 100 percent on the same page. And they are all just super excited about the same things. It’s different from any other educational experience.”

“I figured, if I go to this school I can work anywhere in the United States. If I don’t want to do the brewery or it doesn’t work out, I can go work almost anywhere in the world, get a good job at a brewery, and do something I really like.”

We mentioned to Plastino we’d read the prerequisites for the program and were a little blown away. While it said you did not need a college degree, it said you did need “college-level work in mathematics (pre-calculus), biological sciences, chemistry, physics and engineering is required for success in the program.”  We asked, what’s up with these high-level prerequisites? Did you have to take a few of these classes to get in?

“You don’t have to have them all,” laughed Plastino. “You have to have the pre-calculus. And then you have to have at least two upper-level science classes. So you might have to take other classes to get in.”  

“I had to take the two higher-level sciences. I ended up taking microbiology and biochemistry. I had already taken pre-calculus. That one took me a while! As a Fine Arts major I had stopped taking any of those types of classes. Actually, I did really well. The math took me a little longer. Some of it’s so obscure. You know, like, when am I ever going to use this, I thought.”

“After taking biochemistry and microbiology, I found I could actually read some of those brewing books I had. I have a huge collection of books that are awesome,” he said. 

We learned a great deal about the program from their website. It says the course is 15 weeks long, March through June, costs $16,000 and is not the same as a traditional masters degree. Successful candidates earn a Master Brewers Certificate, not a masters degree, but the certificate carries significant weight in the brewing industry where certificate holders are greatly sought after. We also notice there is a waiting list to get in. We asked, how long did you have to wait before being accepted?

“It took me a year, a year-and-a-half to get in. Part of that was Michael Lewis and Charlie Bamforth were like the big dogs, huge in the brewing industry world, and they were going to retire. So they added people to my class. Normally the classes are pretty small. We had 42 people, and that’s like the biggest class size they’d ever had. But I’d wanted to learn from those guys specifically.”

Some of the beer Plastino brews at Bottle Bay

“I’m glad to hear they still have a waiting list. Those (Lewis and Bamforth) are some big shoes to fill. I’m sure they were going to get some really good quality people in there. It’s the oldest program in the country. They’ve been doing it for a long time. They have a lot of connections. They’re really good at getting you set up. I already had my own plan going and the brewery set up. But if I’d wanted, going from UC Davis Master Brewers Program to another brewery, it’s like, they make it really easy. They already have a name for themselves. A lot of people from my program were going to those giant breweries. They all got jobs pretty much right away.”

“Go through the program, and you could be a brewmaster anywhere in the world; go be a head brewer at some big facility, even in Australia or South Africa. In my program there was a guy from India. We had a couple of guys from Spain, some from South America, Central America, all over. Normally there’s a huge number of guys from Heineken, but not in my class. They probably knew the big dogs were going to retire and thought, let’s let these young guys in instead of our guys already working for a giant brewery.”

“We went on field trips all the time to different breweries. Sierra Nevada is just a beautiful, giant brewery. A few breweries we toured were Lagunitas Brewery, Firestone Walker and Anchor Brewing in San Francisco.”

We asked Plastino how he became interested in brewing beer-

“I started home brewing when I was about 19. I just figured it out, had fun with it. Just something we did up at the lake cabin.” (Bottle Bay Brewing is named for the location of their family cabin on Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho.) 

“The beer always came out really good. Originally I was a Fine Arts major. So I had my fine arts degree and was thinking I’d do that, probably be a professor. The more I went along with it I figured out I really didn’t want to be a teacher. Just being a working artist is very hard to make actual money. So I wondered how I could keep making art and make a career? The whole time I was home brewing I thought we were going to open up a brewery, kind of side business thing. The more I looked into it the more I realized it’s a huge undertaking to start a brewery. I hadn’t really realized there were schools, programs for it. My dad suggested I go look at some schools for it, or at least take some science that would get me further along.” 

As a parting shot we asked Plastino what is the best part of being a Master Brewer?

“Coming up with new recipes and watching people enjoy it. When you get your product finally done and you get it out there and it’s what you wanted it to be like and watch everyone enjoy it. It’s like being an artist. It brings a little joy to ya’.”

So what’s it like becoming a Master Brewer? Well, a whole lot more than we thought. Yet the education is out there, very high quality and available in NorCal, just like a really good craft beer.

You can access the UC Davis website and read all about the Master Brewers Certificate Program here

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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