Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Brew School's In Session

I just got off the phone after an exhausting 15 minute chat with Steve Gill — the highly enthusiastic beer program coordinator for Niagara College's brand-new brewing course. Gill is best known as a wine expert who has run over 50 independent wine stores in Ontario. He also co-ordinates courses at Niagara College's teaching winery — the success of which paved the way for their new Brewmasters and Brewery Operations Management course.

- This is the first course of its kind in Canada, how did it come about?
SG: We've had the wine program since 2000. It's won awards, the students have won awards, it's been immensely successful. About three or four years ago we started getting calls from the Ontario Craft Brewers' association, and Jon Downing [of Downing International Brewing Consulting], and the Ontario brewing industry in general. The idea was to try and do the same with brewing: train people in all aspects of brewing from production, to appreciation, to running a brewing business.

- We've never had a course like this, so why do we need one now?
SG: There's a huge shortage of skilled people, the industry is crying out for them. Whether its with bigger beer companies or craft-breweries, this course will contribute to the brewing industry in a lot of ways. We've been working on the curriculum with people like Downing [great name for a beer-drinker...] and Bill White, and it's ready to go this fall.

- How many students?
SG: It's full. Two hundred applied, but we took twenty-four — which is kind of a nice number in beer terms. We may add a few more if we can.

- Always room for another sixer?
SG: Right, haha. There were applicants from all over the world. Twenty of the twenty-four are Canadian. They'll be brewing beer from day one. We're even constructing a custom-made [1,500 square foot] brewing facility for the program. The graduates will walk out of here with provincial diplomas, and great job prospects. It's a very exciting project.

I take the opportunity to grill Gill about his interest in the brew industry — what with him being a wine-expert by trade. He professes a growing passion for the craft-brew scene over the last few years, and even admits recently ducking out of a "boring" wine-evaluation meeting to attend a craft-brew event instead. Gill's just returned from New York with cases of craft brews, and he's looking forward to working through them. "Which ones?" I ask. "Ah...I knew you were going to ask me that!" He can't remember, but he listens keenly to some of my suggestions of great NY beer.

As a craft-brew-loving convert, Gill excitedly informs me that the course will be integrated with a working, commercial brewery, and their beers will be sold throughout the province. Any chance of getting them in BC? Not likely. Canadian provincial laws and regulations can make beer distribution tricky for smaller producers.

Ontario alcohol laws have perplexed Gill on occasion before. He recounts a tale about a private wine store he ran on Bloor St. in Toronto that had the misfortune to be situated on the border of a "wet" zone and a "dry" zone. After a visit from the police, Gill was forced to divide the store in half, with alcohol only permitted to be sold in one half of the building. "It was totally crazy," he says, but with good-humour rather than irritation. You get the impression talking to Gill that he enjoys the challenges and variety his work throws up. Perhaps that's part of the reason his course is on the frontier of Canadian brewing education.

I will keep informed about the course, perhaps even try and talk to a student or two, and report back. My thanks to Steve Gill for an informative and fun interview.


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