Wanna work in beer? Better get trained

Thu, Nov 13, 2014

Kwantlen has stayed on top of the beer boom by launching BC’s first brewery diploma program

By Stephen Smysnuik — Westender

Here’s the thing about the craft brewery community. It’s, like, hip or whatever, and there’s an illusion that working within it will yield a great lifestyle.

Which has been true, for some, and for the past decade or so, professionals in the industry have managed to land jobs without any formal education. Now, as the industry expands, as the job’s perceived “cool” factor skyrockets and as more kids join the queue for whatever jobs there are, more training is mandatory.

So, here enters Kwantlen Polytechnic University, who’s Langley-based science and horticulture department was clever enough to stay on top of all this by launching BC’s first brewing and brewery operations program – a two-year, hands-on diploma program with a combined focus on the science and business of brewing. The university has invested $2 million, including building a brewing facility specifically for the program that will also feature a taproom.

Which, I must say, is a very cool thing for this historically uncool university to do. As a Kwantlen grad myself, I’m acutely aware of what little regard is shown for the school – at least from the general public's perspective. Unfairly so, in fact. So the brewery program is the perfect fit for Kwantlen, given the university’s focus on practical education, and the program’s inherent amount of (publicly perceived) sex appeal.

The program’s inaugural class started in September, and includes 29 students (though the program can accommodate 35), ranging in age from their early 20s to early 40s. For some, this is a second career. By the end of it, each one of them will have the skills needed to open their own brewery, if they so choose (and several have plans to go down that route).

But guess what?  Every single one of these students will have jobs in an established brewery upon graduation, if they want them. In fact, BC could have used this program at least three years ago. Since Kwantlen first conceived of the program, 10 breweries have opened in BC, with at least 20 more in planning stages across the province. Elizabeth Worobec, dean of Kwantlen’s Faculty of Science and Horticulture, which operates the brewing programs, says every craft brewery the university consulted during the due diligence process said they’d hire their students as soon as they graduate. 

Derrick Smith, CEO of Dead Frog Brewery, helped develop the curriculum and he’s already called dibs on three of these students, one of whom is his son.

He says, “I’ve been in this industry for 15 years and what I’ve noticed is, I’ll get people in here brewing, they work for me for three or six months and off they go into Vancouver to another brewery.” He adds that people want to be where the “cool” beer scene is, leaving suburban-area breweries to scramble.

“What the program will eventually do is stop the turnover of brewers moving so fast,” he says.

Many of these people were schooled in home brewing, but according to Nicholas Fengler, Kwantlen’s brewing lab instructor, these people don’t always have the skills or training necessary to make the jump to a full-size production facility.

 “Home brewing’s fine and dandy,” he says. “You can learn the basics, but it’s easy to overlook the details of what needs to happen in a production facility, where you need to reproduce consistent, high-quality product.”

A formal education is often preferred, but until now, BC students seeking one out would have to leave the province. Kwantlen’s is only the third brewery program in Canada, following Niagara College and Olds College, which launched its program in 2013. There are several programs in the US, but can be very expensive. University of California Davis has a four-month program that costs $16,000, compared to Kwantlen’s two-year diploma program for the same amount.

Entry-level brewery jobs – brewer’s assistants or cellarmen – make around the $15 per hour, so for most people, paying international student fees is out of the question. Head brewers or brewmasters can make $60,000 and beyond, depending on the brewery and the contract signed, but that’s still a stiff investment for a career path that’ll likely never yield riches.

“If you’re going in to be a brewer, you’re not going in to be rich,” Fengler says. “Any brewer will tell you that. You’re not doing this because you want to make a ton of money, especially in the craft sector.”

But money’s not everything, obviously. As I’ve written before, the craft beer industry offers a wealth of other benefits. It’s just going to take some actual training soon to actually break on into it.