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Jon Downing, Brewmaster Professor, Niagara College Teaching Brewery
When Jon Downing traveled to the Ukraine to help launch a brewery, he had an armed guard watching him 24/7. It was the early ’90s, and Downing was traveling the world as a brewing consultant, picking up techniques—like using moldy bread to ferment, because in the Ukraine, that’s about all there was—along the way. Now he’s sharing that knowledge with students in Ontario, where he helped develop Niagara College’s brewing education program. In July, the teaching brewery won the first US Open College Beer Championship, a competition among collegiate brewing programs. Even after decades of brewing, Downing says he’s still constantly learning—especially being surrounded by curious students who, for example, wanted to brew a lobster Gose with live lobsters in the mash, “which made for one of the best brewers’ lunches,” he laughs.
What does your program offer that students can’t get from jumping into a brewing job?
What we teach is the basics, from the ground up. The first thing the students learn about is safety—how to operate equipment, how to handle chemicals. They’re lectured by industry leaders so it’s a classroom technique matched with a practical application in the brewery, and it’s a sensory technique as well. So it’s really getting what might take five or 10 years [to learn] out in the industry in four semesters.
As a brewing veteran, what’s it like to work with young people who are just starting out?
I was trained as a traditional brewer would have been trained 30 years ago, and that’s very different than what’s happening today in the industry. Today, you have all the fun flavors, all the different organisms being used to ferment with, all the sours. Back then, brewing training in North America and England was to avoid those things. So that’s something that I’ve learned to love about it, especially from my students.
Why is a quality brewing education important for aspiring brewers?
The industry was growing so quickly that it was really tough for employers to grow, because they couldn’t find educated, knowledgeable staff. They had to train in house, which takes time, they had to steal staff from other places. I opened up 100 or so breweries up until 2004, and I’d seen it firsthand—I’d be training people and going back to train new people again three months later because they’d been poached by another brewery. So I knew there was a need for this. And there still is today, especially with the phenomenal growth over the last five or six years.
You helped the US Military launch for-profit breweries on bases all over the world, teaching soldiers and sailors how to brew. What’s a memorable experience from that job?
I had to fly to Camp Casey, which was the closest base at the time to North Korea. On the Fourth of July, the base was being opened to the general public for the first time, and they needed to get me over there to get the brewery operating properly. … I remember walking into the base, […] and this officer yelled out, “Are you BeerJon?” and I said, “Yes!” and he said, “Oh, well come with me.” The first thing he showed me as he checked me into the gate was a helicopter landing strip, and he said, “If you hear the sirens go off, go there, that’s how you’ll be getting out of here.” I said, “Is that likely to happen?” and he said, “Well, we’re 5 kilometers from the border, so the potential is always there.” So that was my introduction to brewing in South Korea. ■