Day 239: Looking back at the first year of Brewmaster school

After eight months of school, it’s taken me a few days to reorganize my brain and my life so that working and blogging both fit in. Yes, I have landed a summer job in the brewing industry–more about that later. Today, it’s time for my thoughts about the first year of the two-year Brewmaster program at Niagara College.

First of all, what a great group of students! Bright, ambitious, curious, and always ready for a beer.

But what of the program?

In tech parlance, I am an “early adopter”. Commodore 64, PalmPilot, smartphone–I love being at the front of the tech wave.

The problem with being an early adopter is that the first model is always released before the bugs have been ironed out.

(The Commodore 64’s power adapter inevitably heated up until it melted. The PalmPilot’s alarm volume control was almost inaudible. My original smartphone did everything well except make phone calls.)

So to be an early adopter, you have to be relentlessly optimistic that the fun of having the latest toy outweighs the inevitable glitches.

(Note: Over the past three years, my Palm Pre cellphone has certainly tested the limits of my early adopter optimism.)

In a similar vein, I knew when I applied for the new Brewmaster program at Niagara College that there were bound to be a few glitches. I therefore entered the program with the full knowledge that we, the students, were going to be laboratory rats–as we made our way through the maze, our successes and failures would shape the future of the program.

Of course the first reaction of every student is to go postal on the teachers, but I’m going to resist that temptation–I see that criticism as low-hanging fruit. I am much more interested in the overall structure of the program and how that might be improved.

In examining my expectations and how they juxtaposed with reality, I am struck by one major theme: I had expected that the Teaching Brewery would be the focus of the program–that all Brewmaster classes would spend time in the Teaching Brewery making theory turn into practice. In fact, the opposite was true–practical work in the Teaching Brewery was almost completely divorced from the theory taught in the classroom.

So this is my primary suggestion: In the future, all Brewmaster classes should connect in some way to the Teaching Brewery. For instance:

  • In Packaging, we were shown a Zaum & Nagel CO2 tester and an air tester, and we were told how to use them. In the future, I hope students will go to the Teaching Brewery and actually use the testers on fermenting beer. Similarly, we learned in theory how to carbonate a bright tank of beer, but wouldn’t it be great if, the very next week, students met at the Teaching Brewery to actually carbonate a bright tank of beer?
  • In Microbiology, we learned the theory of how to crop yeast from the fermenter, how to propagate a new batch from a single colony, and how to count yeast, test for viability and check for bacterial infection. Wouldn’t it be great if students were actually be doing these activities using yeast from the Teaching Brewery?
  • In Sensory Evaluation, we learned how important it is to have a regular Quality Control tasting program for each step of the brewing process. Shouldn’t there be a daily QC program in the Teaching Brewery?

I was also concerned that the theoretical classes were–ironically–interfering with opportunities to brew. Brewmaster Jon Downing would let us know that there was an extra opportunity to brew, but we would be so busy studying for a test or working on a project that no one could take the time to brew.

My final concern is the first-year students’ disconnect to the entire beer-making process. Yes, it’s all a lot of fun on brew days, but there is much more to making finished beer than just brewing it. At the moment, once the students have finished brewing the beer, they lose touch with it: they don’t check to see how “their” fermentation is progressing, they don’t filter “their” batch on its way to the bright tank, they don’t carbonate “their” beer, they don’t package “their” beer, and they do not taste “their” finished beer.

The end result is that first-year students do not see–and taste–the effect that their brewing decisions (and mistakes) have on the final product.

This will change in second year, of course, as we work on our individual beers, and necessarily follow them from mash tun right through to keg; but it should be a mindset that is inculcated into Brewmaster students from Day One.

So, ’nuff said about first year. Up next is the four-month gap until the start of second year–and that means a summer job in a brewery…

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3 Comments on “Day 239: Looking back at the first year of Brewmaster school”

  1. Eric Ross Says:

    I enjoyed reading your experiences throughout your first year at NC. I have been accepted in to the program, starting in September and your blog has given me real insight as to what I can expect. One question that I have been wondering about though is textbooks. Are there many to buy? Are they used frequently or is most of the teaching lecturing while taking notes? Anyways, enjoy your summer brewing job, I look forward to seeing you and your class around campus in September!


    • Alan Brown Says:

      Eric, glad to have you on board, looking forward to meeting you and the rest of your class in September.

      Your question about texts is a good one–I will post an entire blog about textbooks in the near future.

      • Eric Ross Says:

        Thanks Alan, I would really appreciate that. Have fun this summer and I look forward to reading what you have to write!

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