Olds College, AB: Caswell Johnstone (Red Deer, AB)

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.

Caswell Johnstone is the head brewer at Sawback Brewing Co, a new brewery that’s opening up soon in September this year in Red Deer, AB. “I work closely with the Director of Operations to ensure high standards are met in the quality control of all areas of the brewery,” Johnstone explains. “We have a 10 barrel brew house with single and double-batch sized FVs and Brites, as well as a 10 barrel and two 30 barrel foeders.” The foeders are fermentators made of white oak. “We intend to make a wide range of beers including blondes, IPAs, sours, Brett beers, and several in between, but we will be a hop-forward brewery overall. Our desire is to service and be a part of the local community, with little desire to be a heavily distributing brewery; we want the people in the same city we live in to be a part of our journey, and we want them to be the first to enjoy our beer.”

Before becoming the head brewer of a start up brewer, Johnstone was a homebrewer who decided to go to brew school. ” I had been homebrewing for a couple years, and my friends were telling me that my brews were pretty good. One of these friends asked if I had heard of the newly formed Olds program. I hadn’t and so I began to look into it.  I love learning, and I thought that this would be an exceptional opportunity to gain some professional knowledge and make a career out of a passion of mine.”

The Olds College Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program started in 2013, originally in partnership with Niagara College, and runs for 16 months. “We take in 30 students in a single intake every September. Our maximum number of students [was] reached within about a month of opening the gates for entry. There is high demand for the program which we expect to continue as the market evolves,” says Peter Johnston-Berresfold, a lecturer and researcher with the Olds College Brewers Diploma at Olds College. “We’ve transitioned from originally just trying to turn out brewers, to preparing graduates for any role in the brewing industry.  There is a lot of need and a wide array of positions that require filling.”

Distinguishing program features are that students are give a lot of opportunities and time to brew, including access to free ingredients, and the programs has a curriculum timetable affords students at least two weekdays off every week to be able to get real life experience working at a brewery while completing their studies.
“Whenever people ask me about the program, my response is always, ‘There is way more science in a glass of beer than you can imagine.’ ” says Johnstone. “The program has given me an abundance of excellent tools to be able to address a wide range of brewing concepts…from yeast microbiology and water chemistry, to quality control and recipe formulation, and even beer history.”
I have had the unique experience of being a part of the construction crew that built the brewery, and there have been a fair number of times that I have been asked to consult with the trades working on the different aspects of the building.  Be it boiler operation or glycol process piping, concrete work or gas fitting; I have been directly or indirectly involved in a number of construction parameters, and I was prepared to answer the questions as a result of my training (side note: floors are immensely more important than you would ever think)”

And for those who are thinking of making the leap from homebrewing to pro, Johnstone has some advice. “The leap from being a homebrewer to being a pro brewer is, understandably, a big leap.  That’s honestly probably the reason that lots of craft beer start-ups simply don’t make good beer to start. The number one reason that those places get better is by seeking education and applying it. Soak in every ounce of wisdom possible on as many things possible. If you visit good breweries, talk to the brewers—if they have time to chat—and ask them what their main concerns for good beer are (most of them will likely say yeast management), and then go read more about what they told you.”

I will warn you, though, to be prepared to be stretched intellectually. You’re going to be learning things like chemistry, math, and microbiology. You can’t simply stumble on to that stuff and it takes many hours to master these things. If I may take the time to give at least one specific topic to immediately start working on, I’d say learn more about water. It is the most underrated ingredient, and yet without managing it properly you will have problems at literally every stage of your beer production. And don’t just get answers on what to do; figure out why you’re doing it!”
Photo courtesy of Caswell Johnstone

The Canadian Homebrewers Association is a non-profit dedicated to promoting and advancing the hobby of homebrewing in Canada. Established in 2018, it currently has more than 330 members across most of Canada's provinces and territories.

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