Who says school and suds don’t mix? At Niagara College, students learn the fine art of craft brewing.
In a sun-streaked vineyard below the Escarpment, wine students at Niagara College spent Friday morning picking Baco Noir grapes. Across the street, ﬁrst-year brewmaster students listened to a lecture on the fermentation process, while second-year brewing students were in the sensory evaluation room learning how to pair red wine with mushroom risotto, salmon and ribs—all cooked up by the culinary students that day in the kitchen next door. Close by was a modest brewery where students brew once a week, and a store where students hock their own inventive beers. (On tap that day was Great Weiss North, Oktoberfest, Black & Tan, Wet Hop Ale and First Draft Lager.)
Welcome to beer school.
Started in 2010, Niagara College has the only brewery school in Canada. Before it launched its two-year college diploma in brewmaster and brewery operations management, prospective Canuck brewers had to travel to one of a few schools in the U.S. and Germany or simply learn on the job.
Niagara is different from most brewery programs, in that students are also immersed in other programs under the umbrella of the Canadian Food and Wine Institute. “We want our beer students to wear more than one hat,” says Steve Gill, general manager of wine and beer operations at the school. “For example, if they go into beer sales, they must be able to tell a restaurateur, ‘Yes, that Pinot Noir does go wonderfully with your duck, but this beer does, too, and here’s why.’”
Later that day, coordinators from all three programs met to plan the first “forks, corks and caps” dinner, where beer and wine students created pairings for an elaborate menu conceived by the culinary students. (Paying customers will vote on which pairings are the best.)
Niagara’s brewmaster, Jon Downing, has long been the go-to expert for start-ups from around Ontario, like the Junction’s Indie Alehouse (set to open in December) and Sawdust City Brewery (opening in Gravenhurst next year). Downing’s a 25-year veteran of the industry and has helped launch over 100 breweries and brewpubs around the world.
Only 24 students are admitted to the school each year. (“Like a case of beer,” says Gill.) A good chunk of the brewing students already work as brewers at microbreweries, and want to ﬁne-tune their skills. Others are long-time home-brewers or beer aficionados; a handful are career-changers brand-new to beer.
First-year student Brett Corbiere, a 25-year-old from Batchewana First Nation, a reserve near Sault Ste. Marie, enrolled in the school with no brewing knowledge. Corbiere has big plans: He wants to open a brewpub back home with his brother, who studied culinary arts, also at Niagara. Corbiere says his northern community is normally a land of Coors Light–loving beer drinkers, so he wants to introduce craft beer to their palates. “But I’ll start with an easy stock ale,” he says, “and move up from there.”