Having been to culinary school, both as a student and as a reporter, it’s hard for me not to compare it to beer school.
At both schools, classes take place in high-ceilinged cooking labs thick with bodies, humidity, and clanging sounds. Except that, on my visit to Niagara College’s Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Manager program earlier this month, the students seem to know what they’re doing.
Possibly because the average age here is 27, whereas cooking cadets tend to be food-TV inspired teenagers.
Against one wall, a student slides a sample under a microscope. For his targeted brew project, working with a choice of four hops (in the fall, these would be grown right outside, by the college’s horticulture program) and two yeasts (rare ones from Austria and the Czech Republic), he’s testing pumpkin-coloured liquid from a flask labelled “Belgian Dry.”
The kitchen functions like a curricular assembly line, with students working on individual aspects of the beer-making process, rather than the whole class repeating identical functions (as happened back at George Brown College, where we spent a morning making mayonnaise while an instructor checked on our drizzle speed and viscosity).
A young bearded man climbs a ladder to see into a hot-tub-sized vat, adding water to activate enzymes in the mash, converting the grain’s starch into sugar, which later reacts with the yeast to create alcohol.
In a corner, two students with their hair in topknots (nearly everyone has a beard, a topknot, a tattoo, or all three) operate a canning machine, packaging a strawberry grisette (like a light-wheat saison).
Another student empties spent grains of mash (that will become horse feed) from a 50-litre kettle.
Everything the class produces — standard brews as well as experiments such as mango, cucumber, or coffee porter — is available in a retail shop on campus. So the program is essentially a craft brewery where the employees are students.
“Every drop of beer they make, we sell,” says brewmaster/instructor Jon Downing. A bad batch, he says, doesn’t happen more than once a year. If he sees students making mistakes, he corrects them.
Instead of the final product, students are graded mostly on safety, organization, and efficiency. In addition to the lab work, the beer they produce is integrated into academic classes on sensory evaluation, history, marketing, and the regulatory business framework of Ontario.
To anyone who has experimented with making beer in the garage, this is a dream — but knowing the dismal earning potential of cooks, I question whether this is a viable career path.
Many culinary graduates never work in the field. And many more show up for their first week on the job behaving as if they are chefs rather than rookies, only to crash and burn quickly.
A key difference here is the students’ ages (similar to the police academy, an instructor there having told me they prize applicants with life experience). Also, there are only 18 slots per semester, with 10 times as many competing for acceptance. Applicants have to have high school math and either chemistry or biology credits, plus a portfolio (detailing, for instance, past bartending and homebrewing experience), and a letter of intent outlining what they plan to do in the industry. They’re not handing out diplomas to any Johnny-Off-the-Street.
Niagara College boasts of post-graduate employment in the 90 per cent range, and of students getting hired right out of school.
Some go on to work for the LCBO as product specialists, or in sales for larger brewers like Molson and Labatt (or their subsidiaries, Creemore and Mill Street). The majority want to be part of the craft beer scene, where there is considerable demand for their skills.
“It is always hard to find great employees. Brewing is no different,” says Jason Fisher, owner of Indie Ale House in Toronto.
Fisher met his future brewmaster while visiting the college in 2011, as the first cohort of students neared graduation.
He wasn’t intending to hire a student. But when Jeff Broeders began asking questions about Fisher’s planned craft brewpub, about what kind of beers it was going to make, the student’s passion was unmistakable. Broeders brought Fisher a sample of a Berliner Weisse he’d made, apologizing that he hadn’t had the year to properly age it in a barrel.
“The beer was excellent, technically wellmade, and Jeff recounted every detail in recipe development and execution,” Fisher recalls. “That was impressive, but I asked why he chose that style, and he said, because he wanted to drink one. That was it. He was hired.”
Currently, there are 180 breweries in Ontario, with another 50 on the horizon. Broeders says the number of breweries and employment opportunities has quadrupled since he started college. So there’s plenty of demand for labour from the Niagara program, which graduates about 50 students a year. But that doesn’t make all potential brewers equal.
“With the current boom in Ontario, there are a lot of people jumping in,” says Fisher, “and many have no idea what the job requires or how to do it. I see poorly qualified candidates all the time. I get five resumés a week from someone who says they are passionate about being a brewer. But when I ask how they put the passion into action, most come up way short.”
Home-brewing, attending brewing festivals, travelling to see breweries, and reading books on beer are the minimum requirements for a good candidate.
Fisher has two other Niagara graduates on staff. Academic experience is valuable, he says, but less important than being a problem solver who get things done.
A brewer or technician can expect to earn between $40,000 and $55,000 a year, according to Fisher. Though, with small breweries, that depends on being involved in much more production work — packaging, cellaring, overnight shifts — that require long or unusual hours.
“It’s not a 9-to-5 job. You are a slave to the yeast, which does not always do what you ask it to.”
Corey Mintz is a Toronto-based food writer.
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