Beer school

By Peter Bailey.

The self-taught person has a fool for a pupil, goes the saying. We wonder what this means for craft beer, as so many craft brewers are self-taught!

In reality, there are few fools in craft brewing, for it is an exacting trade that demands smarts, skills and moxie. Knowing how to make great beer is a must, but one must also be a jack of all trades; part chef, financier, engineer and entrepreneur. And maybe part alchemist.

Craft brewers come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but a common thread is homebrewing. Alley Kat owner Neil Herbst and Hog’s Head brewmaster Bruce Sample were both accomplished homebrewers. But Hog’s Head assistant brewer Stu Chell had no homebrewing background when he started brewing for Amber’s. Chell is a trained chef, with a culinary arts diploma from NAIT and experience at restaurants like Packrat Louie’s and Niche. Chell told me that “cooking and brewing are very similar, in that you are manipulating natural ingredients to create something people will enjoy. A brew kettle is essentially
a giant stockpot.”

Up at Yukon Brewing in Whitehorse, co-owners and ex-homebrewers Bob Baxter and Alan Hansen are engineers, Bob mechanical, Alan chemical. Bob told me that his engineering background is helpful but notes that “it is much easier to brew a tank of beer than to create a demand for it. The marketing side is quite important.” Baxter and Hansen did get formal beer schooling via the Siebel Institute
in the U.S.

In a way, craft brewing is a return to the roots of beer. People brewed for thousands of years before formal brewing education began about 150 years ago. Medieval monks wrote things down, enabling brewing knowledge to be preserved. Later an apprenticeship system arose with the growth of secular brewing. Neil Herbst notes that many people have informally apprenticed at Alley Kat, including Brian Smith of Wild Rose, Jason Meyer of Driftwood, Brian Druhan of Phillips and Bruce Sample of Hog’s Head.

It was brewing’s shift from a craft to an industrial process in the 19th century that created a need for formal brewing education. Beer schools were established, usually within existing institutions. The Germans led the way, followed by other Europeans, and finally across the pond, led by the University of California at Davis, Oregon State University and the Siebel Institute in Chicago.

This September, Alberta brewing takes a step forward when Olds College launches their Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management diploma program. Yes, it’s true: the 26 students at Olds in the inaugural class don’t have to decide between beer or books.
It’s both.

I met Karsten Henriksen, the dean in charge of the program, handing out beer samples at Edmonton’s Craft Beer Festival. Henriksen noted that a brewing program is a good fit for Olds’ entrepreneurial and agricultural focus, as well as keying into the growth of the craft beer industry. Indeed, not only is Olds launching the program, but starting a commercial college brewery as well. Profits from sales of the four beers (Aggie Ale, Old Skhool, Hay City and Prairie Gold) will go to support the brewing diploma program. Be true to your school — drink a beer!

In honour of the students heading to NAIT, MacEwan and the University of Alberta, six beers from Western Canadian craft brewers that are a step up from bargain brands like Lucky Lager. Student life lesson: Life’s too short to drink crappy beer.

Beer school six pack

charlieAlley Kat: Charlie Flint’s Organic Lager, Edmonton

Back in 1908, Strathcona Brewing launched Varsity Beer, named after the new University of Alberta a few blocks away. Nearby today, Alley Kat brews a great pale lager, named after Alberta brewing pioneer, Charles Flint. This crisp, malty lager is a fine tribute to that Varsity Beer of long ago.

ribstoneRibstone Creek Lager, Edgerton

Many students flowing into the city come from specks on the map like Edgerton, out near Saskatchewan. Now a beer is making that same trek. Ribstone’s Don Paré and Alvin Gordon knew nothing about beer, but they knew enough to hire David Beardsell, a craft beer veteran. Beardsell created this nothing-fancy but solid lager for Ribstone.

czechPaddock Wood Czech Mate, Saskatoon

Steve Cavan and Kathleen James-Cavan moved to Saskatoon from Ontario in 1992. Kathleen was hired as an English professor, Steve in Classics. But Steve despaired at the lack of craft beer, shifted careers and started a brewery. Paddock Wood’s Czech pilsner is an excellent homage to the classics like Pilsner Urquell.

yukonYukon Gold, Whitehorse

Two engineers brewing beer in the Arctic seems an unlikely path to success, but Yukon Brewing has made it work. Their Yukon Gold English pale ale is the Yukon’s number one selling draught beer. Brewed as an ale, this very quaffable beer tastes lager-like, thanks to crisp Saaz hops and a soft touch of wheat.

hopslayerHog’s Head Hop Slayer IPA, St. Albert

When Hog’s Head partner Brian Molloy told me, “I will die on the sword of hops,” I think he may have had this big IPA in mind. At 7.5 per cent alcohol, it is on the border of being an imperial IPA, but a taste shows this IPA nicely balances the big hops with big malt. A unique IPA that shows Edmonton is not only a lager town.

rocketPhillips Bottle Rocket ISA, Victoria

I’m a little envious of my son, attending UBC in Vancouver and surrounded by great beer. But we get many great BC beers on our side of the Rockies now, so this summer I kept the fridge stocked with this great ISA (India session ale). This beer has Phillips’ usual hoppy punch, but toned down slightly so you can have more than one.

Peter Bailey considers September the real start of the new year. He tweets as @Libarbarian.