This past weekend, I headed down to Olds to judge at the Mountain View Homebrew Open, organized by the Olds College Brewmasters Program students. It was a good day of judging with a group of knowledgeable and convivial beer judges and professional brewers who donated their time to evaluate and score the 150 or so entries. I opted to stay the night and got to spend some in the pub after with some of the students and some beer industry people.
On the drive home Sunday morning I got to reflecting (as I am wont to do) on the previous day. I come away with a few observations about what this little snapshot of beer says about the state of craft beer in Alberta and where the future might take us.
First, I was impressed with the overall quality of the entries – from homebrewers across western Canada. Some opined that it was the result of the five entry limit per contestant, but I actually think it is part of a broader trend. I judged my first beer competition (I think) in 2002. Over the past 15 years, I have observed a general increase in the quality of entries. There are fewer absolute stinkers and there are more clustered in the higher score range, making medal decisions harder. In short, I truly believe homebrewers are getting better.
This matters because homebrewing is often the training ground for the next generation of small craft breweries. Most people opening a brewery have had some degree of homebrewing experience. Having homebrewed does not guarantee success at the commercial level, but it does inspire passion and instill a respect for brewing and the process. If homebrewers are getting better, that is a good sign for craft beer.
Second, the Olds students impressed me. They have true passion for beer, have that insatiable appetite for learning that young people can have, and seem truly interested in understanding the intricacies of operating a brewery. Many left far more lucrative careers for the program and the joys of working very hard for significantly less money. There is a valid debate about the Olds Program curricula and whether it emphasizes the right elements, etc. – I am in no position to offer a useful opinion – but there is no question it is producing year after year a crop of dedicated, knowledgeable and passionate brewers.
I say this because I think it bodes well for the future of the industry. The traditional programs in Germany and the U.S. have long produced first rate brewers, but their expense, inaccessibility and selectivity mean they simply cannot produce the number of brewers needed to support the rapid expansion of craft beer in North America. Programs like Olds fill an important role in creating locally-produced, educated brewers who can operate on a small scale.
Combine an experienced homebrewer opening a brewery with an Olds College graduate, you might just have the recipe for a successful brewery (it has already happened a couple of times in Alberta).
Finally, I was wrong about something. When the Olds program first opened a few years back, I privately worried that there wouldn’t be enough jobs for all the graduates they were putting through. That, of course, was before the explosion we have seen in western Canada. Virtually every graduate who wishes it is working in the industry somewhere in western Canada (some have chosen to pursue other paths). Maybe it really was a case of build it and they will come.
By the end of my two hour drive back home, I must say I was feeling pretty good about the present state of craft beer in western Canada and even better about the near future.