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Helmand Province, Afghanistan, is mostly desert, so it was not unusual for a young Marine named Jimmy Bass to ponder the refreshing glories of beer while standing post.

"I was thinking, 'I can't do this for the rest of my life,' " said Bass. Off duty, at a computer in Camp Dwyer, he searched the Internet for signs of his future.

The tattooed ex-corporal found it at Niagara College Canada, a community college in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., that has established the first two-year brewmaster program in North America.

"They say take something you love and make it a career," said Bass, "and I started thinking -- I've always loved beer, and always wanted to start brewing."

With the craft beer industry expanding swiftly in the United States and Canada, Bass and the 35 other first-year students in the program can expect a welcoming job market. In fact, several students working summer brewery internships already have job offers waiting when they graduate, said Jon Downing, a veteran brewmaster who helped develop the NCC program.

"This year in the U.S. there are more than 800 breweries in planning," said Downing, who has helped open 107 breweries in his 25-year career, including the Buffalo Brew Pub in 1986. "The recession hits, people open their own small businesses, and breweries and brew pubs seem to be one of the main choices this year."

Downing said he proposed the brewing school to NCC several years ago. "They already had a teaching winery" working with the Niagara region's winemakers, he said, "so it made sense." Its first trainees will graduate this spring.

Bass is one of three Americans in the program, and there is one Australian student. The rest have come from across Canada.

The program's curriculum uses input from commercial brewers, large and small, Downing said. He used that input in designing a teaching brewery for the school, near the intersection of Highway 405 and the Queen Elizabeth Way.

During their two-year course of study, students take classes in brewing subjects, like microbiology, chemistry and filtration, and business -- marketing, finance and business ethics.

"The most important thing we teach them is safety, like how to handle chemicals," the brewmaster said. "We use caustics and acids for cleaning. Then there's CO2 from the fermentation tanks, high-pressure steam from kettle boils. That's why, you can see, they're wearing steel toes and long pants and things like that."

The brewery, next to the school's greenhouse, is a concrete-floored classroom that contains a complex of huge stainless-steel vats, refrigerators for varieties of hops, and cleaning gear. Students train on a system that can brew 500 liters of beer at a time, and store six times that.

During a recent afternoon, students in steel-toed boots worked to shovel out spent grain from a tank where it had been simmered to extract sugars and produce wort, beer's first stage. The kettle's breath smelled like malted oatmeal.

The teaching brewery holds two brewing units, the industrial-scale 500-liter system and a smaller one designed to brew one keg at a time, Downing said.

The big rig is for learning commercial brewing skills, giving students the ability to work for companies like Southern Tier and Flying Bison, he said. Using it, students produce the college's own branded beers, marketed under the First Draft label, sold at the campus store and pub, and to local restaurants.

Recently, Brasa, the Brazilian steakhouse in Niagara Falls, Ont., learned that a Brazilian beer it sold, called Chopp, would no longer be imported by Molson. The solution? Get Downing and his students to duplicate it.

"I designed a recipe for them," Downing said. He pointed to one of the large stainless steel tanks. "This is actually the second batch they ordered from us. We make about 20 kegs at a time."

On the small system, "we want to teach them the creative side of brewing," Downing said. "How to develop the recipes, and how to create their own things. That's where they can make mistakes. That's where they learn and play."

It was that chance at creativity that drew Dave Collins to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Collins was working as a bartender at the Orlando Ritz-Carlton Hotel when he first read about the program. He had been studying whiskey and wine, and when he turned his attention to beer, something clicked, he said.

"It was kind of the first time in my life that I absorbed information like that," he said. With brewing, "You can always be creating, and trying something new. It's not like wine, where you have to wait a year to try it."

He searched for a way into brewing, and found NCC (www.niagaracollege.ca/programs). He learned that the two-year brewmaster degree would cost about $24,000 in tuition, about half the cost of a comparable three-year program at the University of California at Davis, which has a waiting list years long.

"It struck me as soon as I saw it that it was something I needed to do," Collins said. "So I just quit my job, sold my car, sold my house down there, and came up here without a job. Winging it."

As it happened, he applied for a bartender job at the Buffalo Brew Pub, the state's oldest, at a time when they needed brewing help, too. He had learned enough by then to brew beer professionally, and continued sporadically while crossing the border to attend classes.

After Collins' first year at NCC, he brewed right through his summer vacation, producing batches of home-brew with his brother, including a peanut butter porter, a mint chocolate stout, a strawberry India Pale Ale, and a pumpkin beer that ended up at a whopping 10.7 percent alcohol.

That's the kind of brewing that excites him. "There's a huge underground scene of beer nuts who are always looking for something new and exciting," said Collins.

There are other brewing programs available, but none with the kind of hands-on experience NCC offers, said Cory Muscato, another U.S. student.

The teaching brewery makes a huge difference in the quality of education, because "it's like cooking food -- they're both alchemy," said Muscato, who has worked as a cook at Dug's Dive. "You have to mess up until you get it. The hands-on experience teaches you how to fix your mistakes, and how to learn from them."

If they do it right, students said, their brewmaster education might provide them with more than just beer. It could be a career for life.

"I would love to start up my own small to midsized brewery," said Bass, the ex-Marine. "Realistically, I would have to work for someone else for a while -- but my goal is to get my own place."

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com