Brewing Up Assignments at Niagara College

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Written by: Martha Hunter

Some of us have PhDs, some of us have their masters, and some, like me, have BAs.Then there are the few, the lucky few, the band of 30 brothers, and some sisters, who get to major in beer. These are the students of Niagara College’s Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program, the first of its kind in North America.

A few weeks ago I set out to visit the program and its head brewmaster, Jon Downing. Before I met Jon though, I had to make a stop at the on-campus retail store for souvenirs. After all, these blog posts don’t run on soda pop. Working the taps that day was Jamie Daust, a second year student. Like all second years, he had designed and brewed a special batch of beer. These final projects are then bottled and sold at the store as “Certified Originals,” but Jamie’s had sadly sold out. Still, I picked up some homework from his classmates, along with bottles from the College’s own Brewmaster series, including a Cherry Pilsner. As I sampled an oatmeal stout with a smoky finish, other second years came in to talk with Jamie. You have to submit a portfolio to apply to Niagara’s program, but watching this group, I figured it couldn’t hurt to also grow some facial hair.

Jon was finished with his meeting by then, and filled me in on some of the history of the program. A friendly guy with an English background and, like many of his students, a beard, he’s started more than 100 breweries. This includes one housed in an abandoned Soviet-era missile silo, so the much more scenic Niagara College couldn’t have found a better brewmaster to launch their program in 2009. “There was nothing set up for doing craft brewing on a college level at all,” he told me. The United States has UC Davis, but Niagara College is not just about the science of brewing on an industrial scale, but the art of running a craft brewery. You don’t need a chemistry degree to study here, and you will learn about marketing and business plans. The first class all found jobs as soon as they graduated, and have spread out across the country, providing better beer from coast to coast in a variety of ways. “Most do end up doing some brewing,” Jon said, “One guy has opened up his own homebrew store (The Brewmonger) right here in St. Catherines, actually.” Jon also did the near-impossible, and picked which one of his children, or rather beers, he liked the most. For the record: it’s currently the Butler’s Bitter, a hat tip to the classic British styles Jon grew up drinking, and the region’s history during the War of 1812.

He also cemented my fondness for the program with lunch at the Benchmark, the restaurant staffed by the school’s hospitality program. Journalistic ethics compels me to mention that it was a freebie, but good taste is the only reason I’m telling you that their Reuben sandwich is quite tasty. You can’t buy the food off-campus, but Niagara College beers, usually First Draft Ale and First Draft Lager, can be found at certain bars and LCBOs. And even if your bottle didn’t say Niagara College on the label, you may have already tried something brewed by the hand of a graduate. From the first class, Mark Murphy just launched Left Field Brewery, while his classmate Jeff Broeders is brewing at the Indie Ale House in Toronto.

I met up with Jeff over a glass of Indie’s Broken Hipster Belgian Wit. And yes, he had the requisite beard. “Well,” he said about Niagara College, “it got me a job.” He met Jason Fisher, Indie’s founder, while Jason was contract brewing at Niagara. One thing lead to another, and now he’s responsible for some of my favourite brews in Toronto. “We keep in touch,” he said of his class, “we’re a pretty tight-knit group.” As I finished my pint, I thought about how the brewmaster program was about to expand to Alberta, through Niagara’s partnership with Olds College. It made me feel that the future of beer in Canada looks, and definitely tastes, very good.