Time Spent in Reconnaissance 1

As regular readers will be aware, I have somehow managed to get into the Niagara College Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program. It’s my intention to write about the experience whenever the mood takes me. I doubt that I will be talking frequently about the content of the courses, as some of the material is fairly dry. I will not be committing sentences like “What you want is a friable barley corn so that the starch of the endosperm can be easily extracted after the deculming process” to paper with any kind of regularity outside of exams. That’s the kind of thing that makes for relatively dull reading, unless you’re actually in the course. Also, I would probably have to explain a lot of the specific jargon pertaining to various brewing processes.

I won’t lie. There will be some of that, mostly because it’s fascinating stuff in its own way.

Mostly, I’ll be talking about my experiences.

I’m starting from a relatively humble place from an intellectual standpoint. After the huge number of applications for the program in the first year, I decided that I would start writing about beer in order to create some credentials for myself should the program end up being competitive. I didn’t realize it would work out this well. I landed a gig with Quebecor, writing the beer column for the major regional newspaper markets and for canoe.ca, and thanks to the support and feedback of my editor, I’ve been improving at writing for that format.

The problem is that up to this point, whatever information I’ve had about beer has been self taught or picked up from conversations with brewers and industry professionals. If you’ve ever picked up books about brewing, you know that it’s almost impossible to come up with a complete system of knowledge pertaining to the processes involved. I have a relatively decent understanding of the process generally, even having designed a few recipes and seen them through to service. The problem is that many of the technical details have thus far eluded me. It’s a sort of Rumsfeldian “known unknown.”

My experience in talking to people in the industry is that there are relatively few people who understand everything about brewing. That’s as it should be. Everyone has their areas of expertise, and the reality is that people end up in a certain job and it helps to define their ongoing knowledge base. There are things that they need to know on a daily basis. If you ask a brewer who makes ales for help designing or brewing a lager, there will be trepidation. It’s a lot of information to have floating around inside your skull.

What I’m hoping to be able to do is learn as much as possible about brewing in order to be able to talk about every step of the process with some degree of authority. I freely acknowledge that my own understanding is currently incomplete, and I’m sure that at some point in the middle of this program there will be times when I look back on blog posts from previous years and cringe when I notice that I got details wrong.

There are a couple of questions that I’ve gotten from people about the program, so I’m going to do my best to answer them:

The first question is sort of universal. I’ve gotten it from profs and brewing students and brewers when I explain that I’m going to Brewing School. It’s frequently charitably worded, but it boils down to “You don’t actually picture yourself becoming a brewer, do you?”

The answer is: Possibly!

I really don’t know as yet whether I’ve got any facility for it. People seem to like the beers that I have made, but I think that in order to decide whether this is going to be a career, I’ll need to scrub in and work in a brewery. Fortunately, the school has one of those and luckily I have some access to a pilot system outside of the school which people will let me work with if I ask really nicely. I think it’s about finding a working rhythm and understanding the process. I know that the appeal for me is the creative process: At the end of the day in a brewhouse you have something to show for your work and if you have done it right, it will be something that people actually want to buy. It’s a lot more fulfilling than shuffling numbers in Excel, at least for me. I suspect that I will talk about that in greater detail later.

Usually, when answering that question, I’m quick to point out that even if I don’t end up as a brewer, wouldn’t you rather have someone writing about beer with a really in depth understanding of what goes into it? Instead of some schmuck who is piecing together an imperfect understanding from fragments of information gleaned off the internet and from whatever books are to hand? That would also be a fairly valuable use of everybody’s time.

The second question has more to do with logistics: “Isn’t that a long commute from Toronto?”

Yes indeed. It is a very long commute. Over three hours a day. This semester I’m waking up at 5:00 at least two days a week in order to make this thing happen. The problem is that I write for a major newspaper chain, so in order to remain relevant in a quickly expanding industry, I have to be where the action is. If you want to interview reps from import companies or attend events, you pretty much need to be where the reps and events are.

That said, it’s not without some advantage. I don’t drive, so what I’ve really got is about three hours a day where I am forced to sit quietly on a bus without access to the internet. I plan on making my way through the school’s brewing library during the commute over the course of the next six months. I figure that there can’t be more than about 40,000 pages of information there, so that should work out tolerably. I mentioned this to some fellow students yesterday and they thought I was joking, as you might. I refer you to the Duke of Wellington: “Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.”

It’s going to be a long slog, but I can tell from the outset that it’s also going to be worthwhile.

For a day to day look at the curriculum, you may want to look at Alan Brown’s blog: Student of Beer

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