Scientist turned brewmaster helps shape beer culture

Niagara College professor and notable brewmaster Adrian Popowycz is a true believer in the esprit de corps that binds the craft brewing industry. His is an enthusiasm for camaraderie he received at the beginning of his brewing career some 15 years ago.

Likewise, he has worked tirelessly to foster knowledge among the collaborative culture, with a strong regard for the quality of the brew in order to support the craft industry as a whole.

“All ships rise with the tide… while it’s cliché, it’s true,” says Popowycz. “If we don’t all try to make the best beers that we can, the wind can get taken out of the sails (and sales) really easily.”

As a scientist (he has a BSc in chemistry and a MSc in organic chemistry), the technical attributes central in producing a consistently quality product are his mastery. And it’s these standards of excellence that he imparts to his students in NC’s Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program.

“I always joke with the students that everyone can make a great beer once; to do it consistently is another thing.”

The multi-award-winning brewer was one of the College brewing program’s earliest champions, serving as the inaugural chair of the NC’s Professional Advisory Committee (PAC). He was also one of the first chairs of the Technical Committee for the Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB), an organization that represents more than 100 small, independent, and traditional brewers in the province.

While working as a brewmaster in the Ontario craft industry, Popowycz was instrumental in advocating for quality and technical issues prior to arriving at the College in 2017 when he accepted a faculty position.

He has also played an important role in increasing brewing quality as a research lead with the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre, part of the award-winning Research & Innovation division at NC.

To this day, Popowycz remembers the taste of his first beer, some four decades ago. The crispness of the malts, subtle fruitiness of esters, bitter finish and a clean aftertaste that left him wanting another sip.

“I got to the point where I started to re-evaluate what I really wanted to do.”

Everything about the brew captivated both his scientific and creative sides. He just knew he wanted to be part of that world. But, alas, there was no path – or craft beer industry – to that world at the time. With a head for science and palate for hops, he experimented with home brewing.

Popowycz then followed a chemical science path, a career that would take him far from beer.

Meanwhile, during his years at the University of Montreal during the late 1980s and early ’90s, some great early microbreweries had hit the scene, he remembers. Yet he stayed committed to his path in chemistry and, ultimately, a lucrative and interesting career in the biotechnology field.

After graduating, and with a thesis in what he describes as “glow in the dark Mr. Bubble,” Popowycz ended up at the California headquarters of a billion-dollar pioneer biotechnology company. At the time, it was the world’s leading manufacturer of instruments used to analyze DNA, and even supplied a sequencing machine used by the Human Genome Project (the global project to map all the genes in the entire human DNA genome).

Armed with his chemistry training, he was delivering highly technical presentations to other scientists and prospective clients of the biotechnology instrumentation. He was even tapped to give a talk at Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) to a group of rocket scientists who were looking at equipment from different instrumentation companies to help detect life on the planet Mars.

“It was all very humbling,” he recalls. “These are the same people talking on behalf of NASA on the Discovery Channel!.”

He rose rapidly through company ranks, in sales, busting quotas with record numbers.

Still, he moved to a few other small biotechnology companies, where he amassed experience with business development and management. All the while, Popowycz found himself immersed in the burgeoning beer scene in SoCal (Southern California).

“There was so much good craft beer going on, so I was enjoying some good beer, and visiting breweries,” he says, adding that the bug from his youth was pulling at him.

“I got to the point where I started to re-evaluate what I really wanted to do.”

And so, at 40 years old, he packed up and left the beach for Berlin, Germany and home to one of the world’s oldest and best beer schools. The renowned Versuchs- und Lehranstalt für Brauerei in Berlin (VLB), translated means “research and teaching institute for breweries,” was founded in 1883.

The school’s Technical University Berlin (TUB) offered an accelerated one-year certified brewmaster program, in English.

While he roomed in a frat house, Popowycz took his beer education very seriously. And it’s an experience there he describes as “the best year” of his life.

Albeit modest about graduating with the highest marks of any class at the time, he describes his fortune as having the opportunity to study under the renowned professor, the late Karl Wackerbauer, PhD.

 “He was one of those key people in brewing science and education,” he says. “I used to joke that he has probably forgotten more than I’ll ever know.”

Even now, Popowycz remains one of only a handful of VLB graduates in Ontario.

“We’re having an impact on brewing culture at the College. So we have to help shape that culture.”

It was also at VLB that he says shaped his principles surrounding the camaraderie that exists in the industry. Brewers will always help other brewers.

He took this maxim with him as he made a respected name for himself in Ontario’s craft beer industry. He arrived in 2004 to Toronto’s Black Oak Brewing as brewmaster and was involved in many beer “firsts.”

After a stint with Great Lakes Brewing, Popowycz served as brewmaster and director of operations for Cool Beer Brewing before heading to Niagara College.

While he’s also a coordinator of NC’s brewing program, Popowycz teaches many of the technical and management courses on the roster.

“It’s what’s fun for me in terms of bringing in a lot of that stuff you can’t learn from the books – the real-life experience that hopefully, you can transmit,” he says.

“We’re having an impact on brewing culture at the College. So we have to help shape that culture,” he says, adding that this culture of cohesion only makes sense because it helps the entire industry grow.

While he has worked in the relatively small industry of craft beer (with approximately 300 breweries in the province), Popowycz is quick to point out he is not biased towards a brewery’s size.

“It doesn’t matter what size you are; we’re brewers… I’m brewery focused,” he explains. “To me, it’s all brewing, whether large-scale or not. I’ve never looked at it differently.”

In his work with the Research & Innovation division, Popowycz brings his technical insight to each project. Last year he was able to consult on a large-scale project – managed by Kelly Byer, lab technologist at the CFWI Innovation Centre – that saw a review of 1,000 craft beers for quality and consistency for some 50 members of the OCB.

“It doesn’t matter what size you are; we’re brewers… I’m brewery focused,” he explains. “To me, it’s all brewing, whether large-scale or not. I’ve never looked at it differently.”

The analysis was presented by Byer at the OCB annual conference, in a report called “The Ontario Craft Beer Quality Review,” to serve as a model to the industry.

Given his role as chair of the OCB’s Technical Committee, Popowycz was able to act as an ambassador and liaison between the College and the brewers’ association.

As a cornerstone, he always stresses the significance of quality in the industry, especially as the industry, with advances in technology, continues to evolve.

“In some ways, it’s really different now than it was before, it was more cowboy at the time – Wild West,” he explains. “There’s still a lot of that creativity going around, but because it’s grown so much, the expectations – from consumers and even government – of quality and the importance of documentation and good manufacturing practices are even more critical.”

 “I like that these projects are practical…it’s not an ephemeral exercise,” he says. “I also like that the intellectual property flows back to the customer. That’s a big deal from having been from organizations that value IP… to me, it’s really important.”

The framework for the projects within Research & Innovation, he says, offers students valuable experience to understand these quality standards, while also working with real deadlines and dealing directly with industry partners.

 “I like that these projects are practical…it’s not an ephemeral exercise,” he says. “I also like that the intellectual property flows back to the customer. That’s a big deal from having been from organizations that value IP… to me, it’s really important.”

Currently, he’s putting his technical prowess to the test during an applied research project, managed by the CFWI Innovation Centre, to develop a gluten-free beer for an industry partner.

“There are very few gluten-free beers around, so it’s extremely exciting,” he says. “But it’s also a big challenge because fundamentally, a lot of your options for making this don’t work as well as barley.”

“It takes a particular mindset and inner peace to do research because things don’t work all the time. This type of perseverance pays off. It  teaches you a temperament and also what you’re capable of, and what your limits are.”

Barley, as a gluten source, adds to the palatable texture and mouthfeel, so it’s difficult to replace and has technical hurdles to overcome. “We’re trying to find a way to make something that tastes really nice, tastes like beer.

“There’s also scale-up, which provides further challenges,” he notes. “We’re making good headway on this, and I’m pretty excited.”

In working on these research-based projects, Popowycz also gets a certain type of satisfaction, separate from his role as a professor. And it’s a field for which he’s aptly suited.

“It takes a particular mindset and inner peace to do research because things don’t work all the time. This type of perseverance pays off,” he muses. “It teaches you a temperament and also what you’re capable of, and what your limits are.”

Given his journey thus far, it’s highly likely there’s not many limits ahead.

Scientist turned brewmaster helps shape beer culture was last modified: December 18th, 2019 by cms007ad