Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Niagara College Teaching Brewery - producing the best future brewers in North America

by Mike Keenan

Niagara College Teaching Brewery, photo by Mike Keenan
Niagara College Teaching Brewery, photo by Mike Keenan

When I attended university decades ago, my distinct recollection is that I was an avid beer drinker, but as I walk around Niagara College today, the emphasis here is more on beer making thanks to affable Jon Downing, Jon Downing, brew master, photo by Mike Keenan brew master and professor, originally from Salisbury, the cathedral city in Wiltshire, England.

Jon has reason to be proud of his 74 students ("Our program fills quickly.") and the curriculum initiated in 2010 because job wise, graduates enjoy 99% employment throughout the industry, and he has just returned to campus with his team, named Grand National Champions at the inaugural U.S. Open College Beer Championships, held recently in the United States.

Niagara College captured four medals for student-brewed beers, including gold for 16-73 Pils in the German Pilsner category; gold for its Caramel Machiato Golden Stout in the Open category; silver for Witty Grandpa in the Witbier category; and bronze for its Czarina in the Imperial Stout category.

Keegan Dombrosky, photo by Mike Keenan The gold winning pilsner was designed and brewed by third-semester students while the Czarina and Caramel Machiato Golden Stout were individual efforts by fourth-semester student Keegan Dombrosky whom I met while he and others were busy working on site. Keegan is from Simsbury, Connecticut, in his graduating year, and fresh from winning a gold medal, he hopes to return to his home state as a brew master. "To be able to test my mettle against the best brewing students in North America and have such success gives me great confidence and excitement as I prepare to finish this amazing program. The purpose of this competition was to determine the best future brewers in North America and to now be a part of that discussion is a great honor."

I walk through multiple stations for individual student brewing, the stainless steel beaming under fluorescent lights. This 1,500 square foot Niagara College Teaching Brewery offers hands-on training also in retail, sales and management. Students brew large or smaller batches (one keg) such that they can experiment with taste, ingredients and style, brewing lagers, ales, wheat beers, seasonal and specialty beers. Inside Jon's crowded office, I spot a large sign covering one wall, which he proudly reveals is "a souvenir from the Atlas Hotel in Welland - Ontario's first craft beer brew pub."

Jon's curriculum covers everything from safety to ingredients, and when I ask for a Beer 101 course, he confirms my understanding that ale or lager constitute the basic division of beers, the latter a cold fermentation process, and from there, by means of yeast and other ingredients, students may fashion their own unique brews. Karen Belfry shared some of her delicious brew with me and was pleased to be the head brewer in Cobourg this summer. She gave up a career as a paramedic for brewing and "loves her ability to play scientist, concocting unique brews." Nearby, I encounter two grads, Michael Bevan and Asa Proveau who along with Colton Proveau have opened Brothers Brewing Company in Guelph.

  Jon compares brewing beer to the work of "a great chef or baker." The student success comes from hard work. "The contest entries were designed and brewed by students from all four semesters of our Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program. As we prepare our students to excel in the burgeoning craft brewing industry, it's very satisfying to see their work earn international recognition."

Niagara on the Lake boasts four craft beer sites - Silversmith Brewing Company, Oast House, the Exchange, and of course, Niagara College where one can purchase award-winning beer. And in St. Catharines, The Merchant Ale House is the only brew house at present but two startups are coming on stream - the Welland House and Plan B.

Beer can be purchased and sampled on the Niagara College Campus located at 135 Taylor Road, Niagara-on-the-lake. For more information visit

Note: August 6-7, the Canadian Craft Beer Festivals hosts the 3rd annual Niagara Craft Beer Festival in Port Dalhousie. Featuring 100+ of Ontario's best small batch craft beers and ciders, incredible culinary creations by Niagara's top food trucks and restaurants, the festival overlooks the Martindale Pond at Rennie Park, 60 Lakeport Road.

If that whets your whistle, brew master Jon advises that there is now a Niagara craft beer trail to accompany that of wine.

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Rick Mercer at Niagara College
Rick Mercer at Niagara College

Learn More About The Teaching Brewery at

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