Brad Barta knows his job title of Pilot Plant Production Specialist doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
It’s a long title for a big job that’s made up of many small moving and mighty parts.
The one-line plot summary is that Barta manages the small-batch production of beverages and liquid food products in Niagara College’s Food & Beverage Innovation Centre (FBIC) (formerly known as the Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre), for companies to test those items with consumers or ramp up to industrial-scale production.
“So instead of a client having to start with making 20,000 litres, a client can start with 100 litres, 200 litres or even 1,000 litres on this system,” Barta explains.
Barta knows well the art and science of craft production. Until he started with Research & Innovation, he was the Lead Brewer for six years at the Niagara College Teaching Brewery, training future brewmasters how to use a pilot brewing system for their hoppy creations.
He had no idea there was another pilot system on campus outside of the brewery, so when the Pilot Plant Production Specialist job was posted – an opening he discovered while helping a family member’s job search – he realized he checked all the boxes.
He met each of the top criteria and achieved that elusive purple squirrel status for having precisely the right qualifications for the gig.
That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a learning curve since Barta started his new job in May. Take the ultra-high temperature pasteurizer/homegenizer he uses that reaches 3,500 units of pressure (PSI) compared to the usual 15 PSI he was accustomed to working with at the teaching brewery. Barta has been “reading manuals, manuals and manuals” to learn how to safely operate it. There are 300 pages of in-depth instructions to get familiar with the tool for good reason.
“One thing I love about Research & Innovation is there just seems to be a lot of growth in this field.”
“The one piece of equipment that makes me nervous is the homogenizer,” Barta says with a laugh. “I say to my students (jokingly), if something goes wrong, leave the building because it may take half the building with it.”
Still, becoming a master of the homogenizer means being able to test out potential products made with dairy or dairy substitutes. The machine could help with making the next big thing in baby food, too, for example.
It’s not beer, but any product Barta helps develop still requires the same creativity demanded by a crowd-pleasing brew. That’s the best part of the job, he says.
Barta and the FBIC team can work with clients, coming up with a list of ingredients and, with the help of students, turn those parts into a potentially viable product. Barta doesn’t get discouraged if a pilot project isn’t perfect on the first try. He’s currently on the third trial for one product and loving every moment of its evolution with input from the client.
“With every step, there has been improvement and that fuels your energy,” he said.
So does travelling when Barta has time away from the office, especially when it involves food and beer. Spoiler alert: It usually does, whether it’s close to home on Bruce Trail hikes followed by winery lunches with his wife, Helen, or something farther afield.
One of his most memorable trips was spending six weeks in New Zealand. Brewing beer at Weihenstephan at the Technical University of Munich ranks up there, too.
“Every place is so different. You can go to a remote village in Mexico and it’s so vastly different than resorts and that sort of thing,” Barta says. “Then it’s ‘Hey, let’s go to Germany and check out the beer.’”
His favourite suds to sip are pilsners, which he might try making on his own now that the home brewing that led him to the College in the first place can be a hobby again rather than a continuation of his day job.
“Give me (a pilsner) made with precision and executed perfectly and I’m happy, happy,” Barta says.
Much like he is in his new position, where he’s busy getting up to speed, moving smaller projects forward and getting bigger projects going.
“One thing I love about Research & Innovation is there just seems to be a lot of growth in this field,” he says. “People said (when I applied for this job), there’s a lot of potential there, a lot of growth. They recommended I do it. It’s a bit of a change but it means that I can stay with Niagara College.”