Making her mark in the craft beer industry

Sarah Polkinghorne is a 2016 graduate of Niagara College’s Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management Program and was a research assistant with the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre from October 2015 until December 2016. Sarah was hired in July 2020 as the head brewer with Black Kettle Brewing in North Vancouver, B.C.

As one of only a handful of female brewmasters in B.C., Sarah has received much media attention this past fall: She was featured in North Shore News, and Vancouver Is Awesome, which led to a CBC Radio & TV story. She also landed the cover of The Georgia Straight, Vancouver’s weekly lifestyle magazine, and articles in Brewers Journal and Beer Me BC.

Tell us about where you work:

Black Kettle Brewing is a brewery, a bottle shop, and a communal hub that has been creating and pouring brews in North Vancouver since 2014.

What were you doing before that, after graduating?

After graduating, I worked in quality assurance and as a brewer at Foamers’ Folly Brewing from January 2017 to March 2020.

Describe your role and what you like about it:

As head brewer, I am in charge of creating and brewing all beers, packaging, creative design of labels, quality assurance, and general brewery operations. I created the recipes and helped design the new labels for our line of canned beers that we released in May 2021.

How has your experience with Research & Innovation helped prepare you for your current role?

It helped me expand my knowledge of quality assurance testing by allowing me to research various quality assurance testing techniques – and do more hands-on testing that I had not done previously.

A memorable applied research project during your time at R&I?

I was the research assistant for the Craft Brewers Shelf-Life Reference Manual project. I learned how to monitor beer stability by doing flavour analysis and how to identify biological and non-biological products found in beer under a microscope and how each affects the beer over time.

You initially earned a chemistry degree from the University of Victoria; what then led you to Niagara College?

After graduating from the University of Victoria, I worked at Northam Beverages as a quality assurance technician, doing analytical testing on all their beers, ciders and coolers. This led me to become fascinated by brewing, and I began brewing my own beer at home. After a year of working there, my interest became a passion, and I decided I wanted to become a brewer and applied and was accepted to Niagara College’s Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management Program.

Most memorable experience at NC?

While taking the Brewmaster program, I was able to travel to Freising, Germany for one week with the Be World Ready program and visited some of the world’s oldest breweries, as well as global suppliers of grains and equipment. This included visiting the longest operating brewery, Weihenstephan, malt supplier Weyermann Malts and Weltenburger Kloster Monastery. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip to see the behind-the-scenes of such important places in brewing history.

Is there a particular mentor at either R&I or a faculty member who influenced you?

Dr. Dirk Bendiak was the project lead for the Craft Beer Shelf-Life Manual. He taught me techniques for beer analysis than I hadn’t known before and how important shelf stability is in the craft beer industry.

What advice would you impart to current research students or future alumni?

Follow your passion. You never know where it will lead you. When I studied chemistry, I never thought I would wind up becoming a brewer, but that is where life led me and it’s been a great adventure.

After being in the workforce, what have you learned?

Hard work and a willingness to go after what you want, even if it’s far away or completely different from what you are doing, will result in a great career.

Sarah Polkinghorne brewed a single malt and single hop hazy IPA and donated $1 from every pint sold for the Pink Boots Society, a non-profit supporting women in brewing.

Proudest achievement since graduating?

Increasing female representation in the brewing industry by joining the only 7.5 percent of female head brewers.

Tell us more about how you are collaborating to support women in the beer industry.

I am a member of the Pink Boots Society, a non-profit organization that supports women working in the brewing industry. They exist to ASSIST, INSPIRE, and ENCOURAGE women beer professionals through EDUCATION. I brewed a single malt and single hop hazy IPA [India Pale Ale] using the Pink Boots Hop blend named “S.M.A.S.H the Patriarchy” with $1 from every pint sold going to the society, and raised $1,645.

You received a lot of media attention this past spring. What has that experience been like?

The media attention has been unexpected. It started when I posted on Black Kettles’ Instagram page about the Pink Boots Society fundraiser. This led to an article about me in the North Shore News, then a radio and news interviews with CBC and then a front-page picture and article in the Georgia Straight. I’m not very comfortable giving interviews and being photographed, but it has been great to showcase women in brewing, bringing attention to the Pink Boots Society and to Black Kettle, so it’s been worth it!

Interests outside of work?

In my spare time, I play soccer, softball, travel and visit all the wonderful breweries the world has to offer.

If you could have a billboard message seen by many, what would it say?

Believe in yourself, and it will all work out in the end.