With a background in botany, biochemistry and plant pathology, Kelly Byer did not set out to become Research & Innovation’s resident beer expert. Nor did she expect to put Niagara College on the provincial map for its hops and craft beer analysis expertise.
“It’s been something of an unplanned perfect fit for me,” says the lab technologist at the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre.
Unplanned because prior to arriving here in the fall of 2016 to manage R&I’s four research labs – facilities which allow students to explore such areas of food science as microbiology, chemistry, sensory analysis, and shelf-life testing – she couldn’t have imagined standing in a hop yard gathering cones for analysis or conducting sensory testing on hundreds of craft brews, all to help both industries thrive.
Perfectly fitting, thanks to her diverse training throughout her education and career that she now taps into and imparts on the students she mentors. Kelly holds a Biology degree (Hon), with a minor in Biochemistry from the University of Guelph (U of G) and says by working in biological weed control, first for U of G and then at Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada, she laid the multidisciplinary groundwork for her current role.
“While biological weed control is a small niche in plant pathology, it’s also weed science, it’s mycology, it’s agronomy and it’s chemistry,” says Kelly, who is also experienced in compliance, quality, and food safety programs, having HACCP and SQF certifications.
The varied knowledge base acquired throughout her career is something on which she thrives. “I absolutely love learning new things. I am never bored and I always think the day you stop learning is the day you start dying.”
At the CFWI Innovation Centre, it didn’t take long to find herself immersed in the relatively new world of hops – a delicate green cone full of resins, and the plant part responsible for lending beer its bitterness, flavour, and aroma.
During the first full harvest of the College’s acre-and-a-half hop yard in 2017, Kelly led a team that tested a dozen varieties of hops to determine performance, and harvest optimization, to maximize the flavour compounds and their potential revenue from each crop.
“I absolutely love learning new things. I am never bored and I always think the day you stop learning is the day you start dying.”
She then worked with the Ontario Hop Growers Association (OHGA) to institute benchmarks for the hop market and prepared an annual report for the association to assess the performance of different cultivars over growing seasons.
Niagara College is also one of the only analytical labs in Ontario to provide the required hop testing for the hops and craft beer industry and it keeps her labs busy during hop season (mid-August to mid-October).
She recalls an interesting project that got her more intimately involved in the actual brewing process of beer. The industry partner, Vines to Vintages, a supplier of products and analysis to wineries across Canada and the United States, wanted to test wine yeast strain performance for beer production. They approached the CFWI Innovation Centre to help with specialized analysis so they could develop their market share within the Ontario brewing industry.
“We had a fantastic student from the Brewmaster program, who ended up being my beer professor,” she says.
Ever curious, she continued to soak up everything she could about the fermented froth – from expert faculty and staff – about the microbiology, the flavour maturation, and yeast properties and management. An ardent believer in experiential learning, she made the most of the applied research projects she took on.
One of those large-scale projects involved helping the craft brewing industry in the province by reviewing their product for quality and consistency. The research saw her purchasing 1,000 cans of craft beer last summer and her team analyzing the quality attributes of close to 100 different craft beers, from more than 50 Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB) members.
She utilized the leading edge equipment at the CFWI Innovation Centre labs – one of the very few labs where the craft beer industry can get their brew analyzed – and also the expert assistance from program faculty at the College’s Teaching Brewery, and students from the Brewmaster program for the blind sensory trials.
“I loved seeing the synergy of helping the individual brewers, while at the same time helping the entire craft beer industry,” she notes. “If you only help individuals and the industry isn’t strong, I fundamentally believe that it’s going to be a lot harder to succeed in an industry that’s failing.”
She then presented her findings at the OCB annual conference, in a report called the “Ontario Craft Beer Quality Review,” to serve as a model to the industry.
Around the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus and in the social media domain, Kelly is also well known for her mouth-watering posts and her hashtag #BestJobEver, most notably capturing the appetizing food and beverage items that end up on her desk on a daily basis. Like the strawberry drizzled croissant by a student baker – which she describes as the absolute best she has ever tasted; or the cider made from root vegetables, or hard candies made from real fruit.
“It really is amazing to see this innovation from the students,” she says, adding the CFWI Innovation Centre works with the College’s resources, such as its commercial kitchens, brewery and hop yard and winery and vineyard.
The most memorable item to arrive in her office? Probably the pasta sauce made with real cricket flour, she says.
Still, when getting serious about the truly best part of her job, Kelly is overcome with emotion in speaking about the students. “It’s such an amazing team and I just love watching them grow and see their innovations come to life.”
These days, she’s grateful to interact with students in three different ways: In her role managing the labs and engaging in the varied applied research projects and technical services; as a part-time academic teacher in her plant pathology class and now as a student herself – she’s on the final lap for her Master Tasters Certificate in Wine, offered at the College, and which includes four core wine sensory courses and an elective.
“It’s fascinating how well you can train your palate,” she says, noting she’s happy to have another tool to help with research projects.
As for her passion for applied learning, Kelly is taking it to the streets this summer for a personal project. After concluding she doesn’t take advantage of the wonderful sites and beauty of Niagara, she’s embarking on a social media sojourn – accompanied by her two Miniature Schnauzers – from her hometown Fort Erie and will walk segments of the Niagara Parkway, from Old Fort Erie to Old Fort Niagara and will document and share her observations. Watch for the hashtag: #FortToFort.