Niagara College, ON: Ben Morris (Toronto, ON)

There are a growing number of brewing programs available in Canada, and this article is part of a series where we chat with Canadian brewing program graduates about how their programs helped them get to where they are now.
Ben Morris is a graduate of Niagara College’s Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program, and currently works for Sessions Craft Canning, after some time as head brewer at Bandit Brewing in Toronto. Sessions Craft Canning provides mobile canning equipment for breweries who are unable to own a canning line but are interested in canning, as well as on site canning services that include cans, shrink sleeving and printing services. Morris also provides brewing consulting services, with current projects including a local gastro-pub that is planning to expand into a pilot brewing system.
“I got into home brewing on a whim in university when several members of the student paper decided to start a homebrewing club [brUBC]. We knew next to nothing about brewing, but after several months making under-carbed beer we finally figured it out. Mostly,” recalls Ben Morris. The second year ran more smoothly, with the introduction of weekly brewing sessions. “We made a different batch each week – at least one batch, sometimes 2 or 3 – and ran wild with recipes. Some were great, many were okay, and enough were sufficiently awful to warrant outright bans. What got me committed to home-brewing was the blending of science and art that is brewing: letting your imagination run wild with ideas and then puzzling through how to make them happen.”
When Morris found himself brewing more beer than being in class for his final year of university, he realised that beer was quickly becoming a driving passion. “When I left school, I took a hand in an election campaign in my hometown to try to put my BA in Political Science to work. Politics didn’t quite sit well with me, and I figured I should fall back on what I enjoyed doing the most in university: brewing. I applied to a few places to work as an assistant brewer or brew-monkey and didn’t have much luck – most places wanted more practical brewery experience or education. I found out about the Niagara program and decided I would enroll.”
While Morris found that the program had some rough edges, it was great at preparing him for a career in brewing. “The science courses, calculations, and practical experiences were invaluable and the instructors were excellent resources, having all had experience in various capacities in the brewing industry. Being in the brewery consistently and taking part in all aspects of brewing – pilot brewing, commercial scale brewing, packaging, transferring – mimics the variety of roles and tasks expected of brewers in a commercial setting. By your final semester you are expected to design, brew and manage your own beers with your final grade determined by how close your final product is to your designed recipe and the tasting notes you wrote prior to brewing, as judged by your classmates.”

Morris described the classes to be very diverse, with students from all backgrounds, each bringing a different experience and knowledge to the program, including their varied interests in brewing. “Your classmates rapidly become excellent sources of information and then, contacts and friends in the industry. The wealth of knowledge and diverse personalities alone would almost warrant the tuition, as well as the long-lasting friends you make along the way.”

One of the program’s shortcomings Morris pointed out, was the need for students to take English and several electives to qualify the program as an accredited diploma program. “The large majority of the class has bachelor’s degrees or higher, or have enough work experience to call the need for electives into question. It can feel like some classes outside of the core brewing classes are a waste of time and could be better spent focusing on areas currently less covered. Each year the program improves to address the shortcomings – and it is impossible to conceive a perfect brewing program. If you choose to enroll, take advantage of what the school offers and make it work for you. Join the beer club, get to know your instructors and ask questions and enjoy your time – even if you have to sit through less than ideal courses.”

As any grad of any post-secondary program will tell you, education will only get you so far. A brewer needs to have the skills of a general contractor, custodian, lab tech, project manager and handyman. In a small brewery you will be fixing pumps, valves, grain mills and draught systems on an almost daily basis. What Niagara gives you, more than anything, are resources to reference when problems come up. Old class notes and slides from Microbiology or Calculations now serve as your first point of reference when a batch goes sideways. Knowing classmates in similar roles give you contacts to call to help troubleshoot. Your value is more than your diploma – it’s who you know and can reach out to, and the piles of information you have access to that would take years to accrue on your own.”

The brewing program at Niagara College was the first of its kind in Canada when it first started accepting students in the fall of 2010. Now, they accept three rolling intakes a year, one in January, May and September, accepting roughly 20 students per intake and with the program running for 18 months straight.
What distinguishes the program from others, besides being the best teaching brewery in North America in 2016, are their facilities and faculty. “We are very uniquely set up in such a way that really lets the students experiment with new techniques, ingredients, methods, while still learning the standards methods on larger equipment,” shares Nathaniel Ferguson, program director. “Everything we have is a scaled down and slowed down version of what you will see in the industry. A commercial bottling line may run at 30-120 bottles per minute while ours runs at 10, which allows the students to see how each of the elements of the unit interact. When they are working on a larger brewery and something goes wrong, this core foundational understanding of how each device works will allow them to troubleshoot common brewery problems we all face in the industry.”
The Niagara College Teaching Brewery is basically two breweries set up as one. There’s a 100L brewery side that is meant for small scale experimental batches, and a the 500L brewery  that is more
akin to what is expected in a commercial brewery.
“The biggest asset I think we possess is our faculty who are still very tightly knit into our industry,” beams Ferguson. A quick look at their faculty list boasts years of varied experiences in all facets of the brewing industry. Ferguson himself, besides being the program director, co-runs Escarpment Laboratories, Canada’s first domestic supplier of liquid yeast. Jon Downing, the program’s Brewmaster professor, has opened over a hundred breweries all over the world, with over 30 years experience in the brewing industry. Since the program opened in 2010, Ferguson estimates close to 500 graduates from the program., with most graduates finding employment in Ontario breweries, though some have gone as far as South Korea and Turks and Caicos.
Advice for those thinking of getting into the beer industry? “The beer/beverage industry is massive and diverse. The first thing is to consider what you want to be doing: sales, marketing, brewing, consulting, design, equipment, yeast, hops? There are many avenues to pursue.”
For those thinking of getting into brewing, Morris suggests getting a formal brewing education, or get your foot in the door by looking for seasonal work in breweries in the summer time. If sales or other non-brewing aspects of the industry is what you’re interested in, getting your BJCP or Cicerone certifications would be helpful, especially with the Cicerone certification as it’s a widely recognized accreditation.  “[It] would be invaluable to someone in sales, and can help with your application to a brewing program as well.”
For the women who are looking to get into beer, Morris advises to reach out to the women brewers in your area on social media across Canada. “Don’t be shy – these women were in the same position not too long ago and, based on those I know, are always eager to encourage and advise. Look for Women in Beer organizations in your area and use them as a means to meet brewers and make contacts. Women drink craft beer – a lot of it. It’s time to stop acting like beer is a drink for men.”
And Morris’ last tip: Talk to people. “Hang out at your local brewpubs and try to meet the brewers, or see about helping with events over the summer. Most of us are a little shy, so consider complimenting the beers first before asking for a job – it helps lower our guards.”
Photo courtesy of Ben Morris

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