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KPU Brewing: BC’S Class Of Beer, Part I

KPU Brewing faculty L-R: Jon Howe, Dominic Bernard, Martina Solano Bielen, Nancy More, Alek Egi, Derek Kindret  & Stan Wong. Not pictured: Ken Beattie. Photo: Brian K. Smith

How a Langley University is Helping BC Brew Better

Since 2010, the BC Beer Awards & Festival (BCBA) has championed microbrewing excellence in British Columbia. During a decade of furious expansion in this province’s craft beer sector, the Vancouver-based competition’s rotating panel of judges has annually appraised a growing multitude of product samples and styles in order to select deserving prizewinners. Each time, its overseers have dutifully compiled the extensive results in order to extrapolate the identity of the ultimate victor—the ‘Brewery of the Year’.

For nine years, the succession of small brewers basking in the elation of overall triumph has involved a uniformity too ordinary to notice: each one of those winning breweries, no matter how large, small, successful, fashionable or obscure, has been a for-profit commercial entity. It took until the tenth year of the festival for that invisible pattern to break in dramatic fashion, when Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Brewing & Brewery Operations program was crowned champion at the BC Beer Awards this past October.

For the first time ever in Canada (and maybe only the second time in North America), a brewing education program at a registered not-for-profit institution faced off against well over 100 commercial breweries in a fully adjudicated, top-level regional brewing competition and beat them all for top honours. Certainly, the question here cannot be ‘why did it take ten years?’. The question is: how did this happen at all?

KPU faculty & alumni celebrate the big win

Riding A Wave

Those same ten years have comprised an amazing decade in the BC beer renaissance, during which a series of advancements in both liquor policy and consumer experience has driven mass acceptance of a new craft beer subculture. The heroes of this movement are its head brewers, many of whom honed self-taught skills as passionate homebrewers before successfully negotiating a path to competence in a commercial operation.

With a bit of reflection, one can imagine that the learning curve involved would have been significant, and that success in the industry was never guaranteed for these self-starters. There was probably also a leap of faith for the new BC brewery owners employing many of them. But what choice did they have in candidates, given that dedicated brewery education programs were an esoteric luxury offered in far-flung locations like Northern California, Chicago, Scotland and Germany—not here in Canada.

At least, that was the case until 2010, when the Niagara College Teaching Brewery (NCTB) was formed. Based in pastoral Southern Ontario, Niagara College had founded a Teaching Winery by 2002, prompted by the growing success of local vineyards. As is often the case, beer followed wine when NCTB launched a new two-year diploma program. Amazingly, the Teaching Brewery began competing with commercial breweries within a year and winning awards for individual beers at the U.S. Open Beer Championship as early as 2011. Since then, NCTB has become part of the fabric of the Ontario brewing scene.

In 2016, All About Beer magazine published a feature on the brewing education scene in which it identified that there were at least a couple dozen US colleges offering beer and brewing programs. That same year, the people behind the U.S. Open also apparently noticed that there were a lot of schools competing for mainstream brewing awards, so it forked off a standalone competition called the U.S. Open College Beer Championship. The top honour for best college brewing program at the inaugural U.S College Open went to…Canada, as Niagara was crowned Grand “National” Champion.

One can see that it was only a matter of time before the popularity of craft beer triggered a demand for brewing education elsewhere in Canada. The next to pop up was mid-Alberta’s Olds College Brewery, established in 2013 in consultation with NCTB. (Reflecting the region’s sharp cultural contrast with Ontario wine country, the department responsible for brewing also offers a Meat Processing certificate program.)

Jason Armitage, now Head Brewer at Surrey’s Big Ridge Brewing Co., graduated in the OLDS class of 2015. He will explain to anyone who asks that there wasn’t a program like theirs in BC when he left for cattle country. It turns out that while he was away, this would change.

Nancy, Jon and Derek with Dean Worobec

A Stroke of Fate

There are occasions when the right person happens to arrive in the right place at the perfect time to make a difference to many. For the purpose of our story, one such example is when Dr. Alan Davis came on board as President of Kwantlen Polytechnic University in 2012. Among Davis’ past educational appointments was a term at Niagara College in the early-mid 2000s, beginning soon after their Teaching Winery was established. This experience clearly made an impression on Davis, because early in his KPU tenure, he made an interesting suggestion to another new arrival.

Dr. Elizabeth Worobec (better known as Betty) became Dean of Kwantlen’s Faculty of Science and Horticulture in 2012. In her first year, she was asked to assess the feasibility of a new program. “Coming from Niagara College,” she recalls, “President Davis thought we should have some kind of credential around wine and winemaking.”

As she tells it, “We arranged for a consultant to come out from Niagara, then toured some local wineries. To fill out our day they had us visit two craft breweries,” referring to Surrey’s Central City Brewing and Russell Brewing.

Dean Worobec continues, “I went to each of the establishments with two questions:

  1. If we provided a trained workforce, would you hire?
  2. If you would, what sort of credential would you require?”

The wineries were noncommittal, leaving Worobec skeptical. But both breweries told her, “We will hire five people today. Here is the type of training they should have.”

Beer wasn’t on the menu at first, but it now had Worobec’s attention. So, she followed up. “I think I called every craft brewery in the area and asked them those same questions,” the Dean reveals. “Every single one I talked to was so excited and welcoming; that was the impetus that kept us going.” They investigated other programs such as Niagara, Olds, Oregon State University and U.C. (Davis) until they settled on a two-year diploma program.

Worobec recalls, “In 2013, when we were putting together the proposal for approval by the University and the provincial Ministry of Higher Education, we brought together a group of BC craft beer specialists.” Ken Beattie was newly minted as Executive Director of the BC Craft Brewers Guild. Brad McQuhae (now with König Brewing Systems) was the founder of Newlands Systems Inc., who ultimately donated the school’s main brewing system. They and some local head brewers met in a room with a whiteboard and drafted a bare bones outline for a two-year diploma program.

Thus formed the large, loose steering group termed the Advisory Committee, comprised of the very industry members that the new program would be constructed to serve. This grassroots community engagement helped the program start off on the right path for serious potential.

“The impression that remains with me is: collaboration was at the core of the decision-making process,” shares Ken Beattie. “The University was completely focused on the feedback the brewing community was providing them.”

Jon, Derek, Martina, Dominic, Alek, Stan & Nancy in the office at KPU Brewing

Developing A Team

At that point, as Dean Worobec explains, “We then needed to hire content experts to create the courses and curriculum. We put out a want ad and had two amazing candidates with different skill sets apply:  Dominic Bernard had a strong science background, while Nancy More had the science along with amazing business acumen. Both had considerable brewing experience. They divided the courses in half and went on to develop the curriculum.”

Outside of Beattie, Nancy More is easily the KPU faculty member best known to the BC brewing community—and in terms of being celebrated, she gives Ken a serious run for his money. Considered by many to be the first female Brewmaster in North America, Nancy is an international brewing industry veteran who worked for decades at Interbrew (Oland, Labatt) and Diageo (Guinness). She’s also now officially a Legend in BC brewing (you’ll find out more about that in Lundy Dale’s Women in Beer interview with Nancy). After rising to senior management and holding positions in the UK, Russia, Asia and Africa, she came back to Canada in 2013 with the intent to retire from the industry…until a friend saw a job posting on Kwantlen’s website.

“It was pretty random”, Nancy says of the happenstance that brought her into the KPU fold. “I was in Nigeria acting as the Technical Director for Guinness.” The next thing she knew, she was applying for a job in Langley BC and helping develop a fledgling educational program.

With her experience in training brewers, creating a curriculum wasn’t completely new, but as Nancy says, “I discovered that teaching takes way more time than I ever expected. I tell people it’s a lot easier to run a multi-million-dollar organization than it is to teach two university courses at the same time.” She’s gained new respect for higher education, noting “Academia has its own special language, and I had to learn the thinking processes, language and culture.”

The person Nancy was partnered up with had a head start in formal education: Dominic Bernard is a former high school teacher with a chemistry degree from SFU. When a friend at Granville Island Brewing said Dominic should work in beer, he started homebrewing. After running into James Walton of Storm Brewing at the Great Canadian Beer Festival, he sat in on a brew day and met veteran Lower Mainland brewers like Tim Brown, then at Mission Springs Brew Pub. Dominic hung around Mission Springs doing things like filling bottles until he was finally hired and trained to brew by Brown. Later in 2004-2005 he was off to Scotland, completing his Masters in Brewing & Distilling at Heriot-Watt University.

Dominic recalls how different that program was from the experience he’s since helped shape at KPU. “[Heriot-Watt] had a brewing lab with very nice equipment, including a centrifuge. I wrote my master’s thesis on the effect of centrifugation on yeast. But not once was I offered personal control over the centrifuge.” At KPU, the faculty would ensure that the students’ experience was hands-on.

Dean Worobec continues, “Once the program was approved by KPU and the Province, we needed to hire our main brewing faculty. We knew we wanted to hire both Dominic and Nancy, but we needed another full-time brewing expert, who turned out to be Program Chair Alek Egi.”

Alek came to Canada from the University of Belgrade, landing at Halifax’ Dalhousie University to learn from a prof who was doing some interesting research in brewing. He then interned at a malting facility in Alberta, and ultimately became long-time Brewing Manager at the Canadian Malt Barley Technical Centre in Winnipeg. His background with malt gives him an special perspective as a brewery instructor.

Worobec continues, “The hiring committee knew from the first interviews with Nancy, Alek and Dominic that they would be able to lead the program to success. We were also fortunate to hire the other great instructors we have today, including Martina Solano Bielen, Ken Beattie, Stan Wong, Jon Howe and Derek Kindret.”

The latter two, dubbed ‘the twins’ during our photo shoot, are KPU graduates who decided it was also a good place to work. Jon recounts, “I learned a whole ton in my first year, then got picked up at Bomber Brewing.” Subsequently, in the fall of 2016, a KPU Brew Lab job posting went up online, and he applied for the faculty position.

“It’s the best of both worlds for me,” Jon reveals. “I get to stay in that University environment where I’m constantly learning new things, but I’m also practicing my brewing skills. It’s very cool to be around a group of people that are so passionate about it.” Derek adds, “It’s hard to find a cohesive group that collectively knows so much about all of the topics of brewing.”

“It’s a well-rounded program,” states Martina, whose superpower is microbiology. “They get to do Chemistry, Biology, Sensory, Mechanical Engineering, Marketing, Business Management…” Derek continues, “You might want to be a brewer, but you also need distribution, you need health & safety, you need sales.” On that latter point, Stan notes, “It’s an evolution from being a homebrewer into the business of beer, and making sure that the great products that you’re making are saleable.”

Everybody Loves an Underdog

Bit by bit since its debut, the KPU Brewing program has climbed up the ladder of success. In 2016, first-round alum Ashley Brooks was the first KPU graduate to take gold at BC Beer Awards, while brewing for Surrey’s Big Ridge. The next two years, the program won its own BCBA trophies. Recipes for submitted samples are typically designed by the instructors, but production involves the brewing students.

In 2017, the year after Niagara took top honours at the inaugural U.S. Open College Beer Championship, KPU placed second overall. Then in spring 2019 they reached the pinnacle: Grand National Champion among all North American brewing schools. Half a year later, they were crowned BC champion brewery, period. It’s hard to imagine what else there is to win at this point.

Why all the fuss about the BC Beer Awards win? Consider that BCBA invites commercial breweries doing professional work daily, many for quite some time. For instance, Vancouver Island Brewing was founded three decades before KPU’s program began.

Rare as the BCBA win was, Kwantlen isn’t the first school in North America to beat the pros—although it probably didn’t miss being first by much. The only equivalent win we’re aware of belongs to the Culinary Institute of America, whose teaching brewery was awarded New York State Brewery of the Year in March 2019—a mere seven months prior to KPU in what seems to have been a stellar year for post-secondary brewing. (Credit goes to BC Beer Awards co-founder Chester Carey, a culinary expert himself, for digging up that tidbit.)

The Ontario Brewing Awards, hosted by the same folks at TAPS Media who host the industry benchmark Canadian Brewing Awards (and with the same pool of judges), doesn’t nominate a “Brewery of the Year”, essentially robbing Niagara College of the opportunity to match KPU’s feat. Not that such a win would have been a likelihood in a blind tasting competition with hundreds of other Ontario breweries—just as it wasn’t likely here in BC. As Dean Betty says, “This [BCBA win] wasn’t even on our radar.”

Even Program Chair Alek Egi agrees, admitting “I knew that we had some good beers, but to be honest, winning the title of BC Brewery of the Year was beyond my wildest expectations.”

Chester explains how the school was chosen by BCBA as champion: “The title is awarded to the brewery with the highest medals-per-entry averaged score. The total medals each brewery wins is divided by the number of beers that brewery has entered into the competition.” That’s a relatively common approach at similar events.

It does mean that there might be another brewery which won more total awards, which was the case in October when Dageraad Brewing took home an astounding nine BCBA trophies. But judging by Brewery Manager Mitch Warner’s comment to this author that “It’s pretty awesome KPU won,” one can tell that the former Canadian Brewery of the Year holds no grudge. It’s hard not to root for the underdog.

In Part II of our story, we look at the nuts and bolts of KPU’s program, hear what some BC industry members think about it, and find out what’s coming next for this influential initiative.

Part II: Inside The Program

KPU Brewing: BC’S Class Of Beer, Part 2

Part III: Nancy More

KPU Brewing’s Nancy More: Learning From a Legend


Dave Smith

Editor of What's Brewing Magazine and Beer Me BC. Past contributor to Northwest Brewing News, The Publican/Quarterly Pour and BC Ale Trail. Became a craft beer evangelist in 1999, a CAMRA BC member in 2005, and an accredited member of the BC Association of Travel Writers in the 2010s. Along with wife Ivana, Dave travels Cascadia as half of the beer duo BeerSeekers.

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