The Australian craft beer industry may still be relatively small, but it is growing fast. As it ramps up, it is becoming more professional in every facet and one sure sign of this is competition.
Talk to almost anyone within the Australian craft beer industry and they’ll be able to reel off examples of the unique and healthy collective spirit, one of brewers borrowing sacks of malt and reps recommending beers that aren’t their own. But, for all the friendliness, there is competition everywhere: for tap points, for the most popular hops, for space on bottleshop shelves and so on. And now, with the number of breweries in Australia at an all time high, there is increasing competition for qualified brewers to run them.
The reason is simple economics: there is great demand and the supply is short. One significant reason for the shortfall is that, locally, there isn’t a great deal of formal brewing education available to aspiring brewers. However, through a new Micro Brewing course at Sydney TAFE, Neal Cameron is planning to change that.
Many beer drinkers will be familiar with Neal’s work through his time as head brewer at the micro-canning pioneer Australian Brewery. But he is the wearer of many hats: Director at the Institute of Beer; Brewing Director for the Beer Farm; Chair of Judges at the Sydney Royal Beer & Cider Show; Technical Director for Brewtique; Director of Brewing for Walkers Brewing Co; and, imminently, a TAFE teacher.
The proposal for the course came about through a chance meeting between Young Henrys co-founder Richard Adamson and New South Wales Premier Mike Baird at a dinner a few years ago. They got chatting about the growing local beer industry and, long story short, Baird offered some support from the state government’s side.
Later, with the brewer not having heard anything for months, it seemed they might be just empty words, then out of the blue Sydney TAFE got in touch with the announcement that a brewing course would indeed be going ahead as promised by the Premier. Neal got involved and the rest is not so much history as near future.
The Certificate III Micro Brewing course will run over 42 weeks and feature a mixture of core and elective subjects. The core components span the less sexy elements of brewing, such as food safety and finance, while the elective modules dig deeper into practical elements like yeast management, testing and assessing beer and setting up a brewery.
The brewery currently being installed at the TAFE is a 200 litre system which Neal describes as “a cute little set-up, a real brewery mini-me that will be excellent for doing a lot of the teaching”. Practical experience will also be offered at Sydney breweries of various sizes and configurations, including 4 Pines, Australian Brewery, Malt Shovel, Rocks and Young Henrys. As well as the input from Neal and the TAFE, brewers at some of those operations have helped shape the direction of the course.
“Chris Sheehan [Head Brewer at Malt Shovel], Chris Willcock [Chief Brewer at 4 Pines] and Richard Adamson have been fantastic as the steering committee for the course," says Neal. "They have made sure that the skills we are looking to impart on the students, and the way we're going about the training, is exactly what the industry needs.”
Involvement from those sorts of brewers would seem key considering that, between them, they employ a great number of the Sydney’s brewers and would be acutely aware of any issues relating to a lack of proper training. And that, believes Neal, is certainly an issue.
“There's no doubt that a shortage of qualified brewers has been top of the issues list in the industry for some time,” he says.
“Ask any brewery and they'll tell you that they have trouble employing well qualified or experienced brewers. Most take on people with no experience, but plenty of enthusiasm, and train them up themselves. But, in reality, many don't have the time to do it properly and some will also be lacking skills themselves to then go on and teach another brewer.”
For those in NSW casting an eye towards the brewing industry, what the Sydney TAFE course is aiming for is something unique for the state whereby the theory comes fully underpinned by practical experience.
“It’s important to understand that this really is vocational,” says Neal.
“It’s about training people to brew practically, such that they are fully trained brewers when they graduate. [Some other] courses can be gained without ever having brewed a beer, which is crazy really, and therefore [are] really only for people that are already working in a brewery and need the theory to back up the practical knowledge they're gaining from actually doing the job.”
It’s natural to then ask why there are so few practical brewing courses available in Australia.
Says Neal: “There are a few weeklong 'How To Brew' courses, and of course Federation University’s Graduate Diploma, but I think there's been very little need for a large phalanx of brewers in Australia until the last five to ten years.
“And in the end some poor bastard – ie me – has to sit at his computer for weeks on end to actually put the thing together. There's an enormous task of creativity and plain hard work in getting a good vocational training course developed, especially when I have so little experience doing it, but it’s most certainly a labour of love.
"It is proving to be enormously challenging but I've told enough people that it’s going to be taking place and we've spent a fair amount of the government’s money getting it to this stage so there's no backing out now.”
With the first public information session set to take place this week, the next step will be taking enrolments. In the first year, the aim is to guide 15 people through the course, with a double intake in future years dependent on Richard Adamson pursuing a teaching qualification and taking a spot at the front of the classroom. Either way, Neal believes there is plenty of demand.
“[We’re hoping to attract] people wanting to get into the industry, or new brewing recruits that want a comprehensive training platform to develop their skills. There's also plenty of people out there working in allied industries like tours and sales that might also do the course. There's no doubt that it will provide very thorough knowledge of how to brew beer.”
While Australia’s resurgent craft beer industry owes much to the homebrew heroes who took a punt on scaling up a hobby to something on a commercial scale, the rising standards of the local beer scene are likely to demand that those joining the industry today come armed with something beyond raw enthusiasm. So, if brewing is what you want to do, now might be a good time time to think about heading back to school.
The Certificate III Food Processing (Micro Brewing) course Information Day is on Wednesday September 14 at Sydney TAFE’s main campus in Ultimo – corner Harris and Thomas Streets, Ultimo (Building F, Level 7, Room 7.25) – from 5.30pm to 7pm.
About the author: Nick Oscilowski lives on the South Coast of New South Wales and writes about beer. He has nothing to complain about.