Student brews leave school and head to Craft

There’s something new on tap at Craft Beer Market — and it might not be what you’d expect. This March Craft hooked up lines up to a new keg. Coming out of the tap? A session IPA produced with the help of the first cohort of students in the brewery operations management program at Olds College.

“The tap is up there with the big boys” says Peter Johnston-Berresford who co-ordinates the diploma program.

The initiative with Olds is new to Craft Beer Market but operating partner Rob Swiderski says it’s been well received. “People are excited to see us doing something to support the local community” says Swiderski. “It’s a good way to help expose craft beer in and around Calgary.”

Now nearing the end of its first year the Olds brewing program is only the second of its kind in Canada (the other is Niagara College’s Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program which is partnered with Olds). Students range in age from 18 to 40 years old and in experience from brewers to homebrewers.

Jeff Grandy and Doug Checknita are among the first 26 students who were admitted to the program’s inaugural class last fall.

Checknita 22 grew up in a homebrewing family in Alberta where he was learning the craft as early as 16. After studying web app development for a few years he discovered his heart wasn’t in it. He left to work part-time for a small craft brewery and later for Craft before applying to the Olds program. Similarly homebrewer Grandy originally from the East Coast left an unsatisfying business career at the age of 32 to attend Olds.

“College life is a little different” Grandy says “but the teachers and facilities are great. This college really wants you to succeed.”

Both Grandy and Checknita aim to start their own breweries after graduation which is not unlike many of their colleagues notes Johnston-Berresford.

“Let’s face it recent changes in AGLC [Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission] legislation has made it a lot easier for people to get into brewing and distilling” he says. But that doesn’t mean that students who graduate from the program have to be “just” brewers he adds. With courses in packaging business microbiology and more students are looking at “more jobs than you can shake a stick at” including careers as machinists installers malt producers (for instance in Alberta’s world-class malting facilities) and even instructors.

“I’m a bit envious of these students” says Johnston-Berresford. “My god they have so many options; better than I’ve ever seen in my own life. They have a pretty wicked future ahead of them.”

Part of the Olds College program involves helping out in the 6-barrel brewery on campus where students lend a hand in everything from choosing ingredients to making the beer and testing it throughout the process. The brewery produces between 1000 to 1500 litres per week. Revenue from brewery sales goes into the program which Johnston-Berresford predicts will be self-sufficient in two to three years.

He hastens to add however that Olds is not interested in competing for market share. “We’re not here to displace any of the existing brewers who are trying to make their living. This is as big as it’s going to get.”

The goal he says is for the college — and the students who graduate from it — to be an asset to the Alberta economy. And with brewers such as Checknita who aims to start his brewery in Alberta once he graduates and gains a few years of experience abroad it seems this might very well be the case.

“I want to bring a change to Alberta” says Checknita who’s debating between launching a rural farm brewery or one in the city. “I want to bring a world-class mentality to the Alberta brewing scene.”

Grandy plans to head back to the East Coast and start a rural brewery that would feed product to Halifax. “It’s ultimately a lot easier than getting started in the city” he says.

Both Grandy and Checknita will begin working on business plans in their second year as part of their course work.

Meanwhile applications to next year’s program have already started rolling in with hopefuls from across Canada and even the U.S. “We’re clearly developing a program with broad appeal” says Johnston-Berresford.

For a taste of what the program has to offer he encourages Calgarians to stop by Craft Beer Market and ask for a pint of Olds College. “If you ask for an Olds College beer you’ll get something special” he says.

Olds College craft beer is also available on tap at the student pub on the Olds College campus as well as the Thompson Tap House and Pub in the Pomeroy Inn & Suites. Growlers are also available through the brewery’s retail outlet.