The journey continues to boost craft beer competitiveness across the country

When you walk down the beer aisles at the LCBO, there always seems to be a new craft brewery option available at your fingertips.

The industry has, and is still, growing quickly. With growth means more products. With more products comes a need for continued consistency and quality.

That’s where the Craft Brewery Quality Project comes in. We introduced our readers to the program back in December 2022. Fast forward to today, and we’re going to fill you in on what’s been going on behind-the-scenes with the program and what the future holds.

Back in 2018, the Food & Beverage Innovation Centre (FBIC, formerly known as the Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre) undertook an Ontario Craft Brewery Quality Review, examining 173 craft beers from 27 styles at two-points-in-time, to evaluate basic analytics and quality. The results highlighted the need for in-place quality programming at craft breweries. 

Making a consistent high-quality beer is more important than ever in this climate of increasing inflationary and supply chain cost issues especially for smaller-scale craft breweries.

The Craft Brewery Quality Project idea started at Niagara College (NC), and brings together partners from three provinces, including Durham College, Collège Communautaire du Nouveau-Brunswick’s CCNB-INNOV, and Olds College from Alberta. The project goal is to assist the domestic craft brewing industry with tackling a long-standing and well-recognized challenge of improving quality assurance and control measures in small- and medium-sized breweries.

“Niagara College has a long history of working in partnership with the craft beer industry on talent development and innovation supports, so it only made sense to look at ways we could expand the scope to include more partners for greater benefits to our producers and consumers alike,” said Lyndon Ashton, Associate Director, FBIC.

“It’s exciting to see how far we’ve come with our applied research and industry partners, and hard to believe we’re at the mid-point of the two-year pilot project. We’re grateful that our funder, NSERC, shared our collective vision of tackling a well-recognized and long-standing challenge for industry, as this level and breadth of activity wasn’t possible in the past,” noted Lyndon.

Already underway, the college partners are creating a Craft Brewery Quality Program, that is being piloted across the country with industry experts, brewers, and students.

“The program is going very well. We have great communication with our college partners and breweries and are creating a one-of-a-kind program that will truly fit the needs of Canadian craft breweries,” said Kristine Canniff, Research Program Manager, FBIC.

The project team at FBIC, led by Adrian Popowycz, Brewmaster and NC professor, and Kelly Byer, Research Lab Technologist, as well as other staff experts and student research assistants, kicked things off in the new year by visiting the four breweries that are partnering with NC in the program.

The breweries NC is working with in Ontario are Bench Brewing, Clifford Brewing Co., Imperial City Brew House, and Shawn & Ed Brewing Co.

Last fall the team conducted first visits to the breweries and collected documents and information. From there, the team then reviewed documents and data and made customized quality programs for each brewery. Then in March they visited each brewery for two to three days each to help implement their new programs.

The breweries are now in the thick of a six-month implementation period. Let’s hear from those four breweries to see how things are going for them.

“We have great communication with our college partners and breweries and are creating a one-of-a-kind program that will truly fit the needs of Canadian craft breweries.”  – Kristine Canniff, Research Program Manager, Food & Beverage Innovation Centre

Ontario craft brewery perspectives

Bench Brewing

Kaitlin Vandenbosch, Director of Brewing & Beverage Operations, started at Bench Brewing at the perfect time.

A month into Bench Brewing getting word they would be participating in the Craft Brewery Quality Program, Kaitlin joined the team, and she already knew part of her role was going to be working on quality improvements. She had already started updating how they were collecting data, overhauling documentation, making it easier to analyze it. So being part of the program simultaneously was a real benefit.

“Since we started, we have a whole bunch of information now and I’m really looking forward to the next phase of this project, because that is really where we start to implement things that have been recommended through all of the work NC has done with the program,” said Kaitlin.

Due in part to the Craft Brewery Quality Program and the growth the brewery is experiencing, they’ve also hired Tyler Anstey, a co-op student from NC’s Culinary Innovation and Food Technology Program, who starts in May. He will be a quality brewing assistant, working in the lab, helping with this program.

“Working with NC has been great, we have a relationship with the key contacts Kelly and Adrian, and everyone knows everyone from past jobs or school. For us, we’re looking forward to meeting with NC in the next few weeks to determine what we can get done between now and September,” said Kaitlin.

At the top of the priority list for Bench Brewing are the themes of traceability, consistency, and repeatability.

“In my career, I’ve participated in internal quality audits completed in different ways, but I would say the approach that Niagara College is taking has been tailored to each brewery, which has been good,” said Kaitlin. “It’s quite comprehensive and there’s more of a technical brewing focus,” said Kaitlin.


Clifford Brewing Co.

Brad Clifford, Founder of Clifford Brewing Co., knows his brewery is in a bit of a unique spot.

“For us, we’re a small craft brewery that’s on the cusp of becoming a larger one. We brew over a dozen of our own brands regularly, but we also do some contract brewing for other breweries, so that’s another reason why quality is so important. It’s important to us and our clients,” said Brad.

For many breweries the size of Clifford Brewing Co., it’s not that they didn’t have procedures in place, it was more the fact that they hadn’t been as consistent as they would have liked with documentation.

This program allows small- and medium-sized breweries to tap into the College’s labs and staff resources, to have things checked that they simply don’t have the facilities or time to do.

“We’re at the stage now where we’re trying to write up a lot of the Standard Operating Policies for the brewing and cleaning practices,” noted Brad.

They are also working with a friend of the brewery who is developing a brewery management software. It’s come a long way and will really help them with traceability.

This traceability allows them to be confident in their work and if any regulatory bodies need information, they will know that they have the information readily available, down to the latest grain they purchased last week, for example.

Brad’s experience with NC has been a positive one. “We’ve already learned a lot and the attitude from Adrian (Popowycz) and Kelly (Byer) is that we were already doing a good job, but they are coming at it from the perspective of just helping us work on updating the documentation to make it strong and thorough,” said Brad.

At the end of the program, Brad’s best-case scenario is to get all their documents ready and have their brewery management software completely up and running. Together, those things will support improved quality, traceability, and make the final product for consumers even more delicious.


Imperial City Brew House

Imperial City Brew House was introduced to this program through their membership of the Ontario Craft Brewers Association.

“Niagara College, and the team Adrian and Kelly have assembled, have a great reputation in the industry and we knew they have a high standard of work,” said Kyle Blandford, Co-Founder, Imperial City Brew House.

After filling out an application to participate in the Craft Brewery Quality Program, Kyle said the team was thrilled to be selected as 1 of 4 breweries in Ontario. “We were really happy when we found out that we would get to participate in this program,” he stated. “We are honoured to attach our reputation with Niagara College.”

At the latest brewery visit with the NC team, they hit several milestones, including Imperial City Brew House celebrating three years in business, plus they hired on their first full-time brewer.

“It’s almost poetic to have a fresh, clean slate with our new brewer and having the NC team working with us to implement new quality standards, improved SOPs, which in the end, produces an even better-quality product for our consumers,” said Kyle.

Since the team at Imperial City Brew House started as homebrewers and might have a bit less industry experience than the other guys, Kyle is appreciative of the judgment-free personalities of Adrian and Kelly.

“The lines of communications have been super strong, and it’s been great to have them (Adrian and Kelly) share their experiences and knowledge because it helps us take our product to an even stronger level,” he said.

At the end of the project, Imperial City Brew House is looking forward to having a solid foundational system in place for improved quality.


Shawn & Ed Brewing Company

When you’re a certain size brewery, you don’t always have budget for full-time lab staff or all the toys and whistles. At Shawn & Ed, they are unique because they have some equipment, and a part-time lab staff member. But there’s room for improvement, so getting to be involved in this program was a perfect way to add to what they were doing.

“It’s a no-brainer for us that quality never goes away. We’re in the midst of some interesting changes right now so this craft beer quality program was a good choice for us to participate in,” said Rob Creighton, Brewer at Shawn & Edge Brewing Company.

They want to know more about improving traceability, packaging quality, and more.

“We really want it all and we hope at the end its going to be a perfect package,” said Rob Creighton, Brewer at Shawn & Ed Brewing Company.

His colleague, Juan Carlos, an NC grad from the Brewmaster program, shared that the partnership with Adrian and Kelly has been positive. “Our experience so far has been helpful. We’ve had great communication with them, and this program is a good opportunity for networking and connecting with our peers,” said Juan.


Next steps for the program

Over the next six months, bi-weekly meetings are set up between the FBIC project team and with each partner brewery to continue to monitor implementation, support them, and provide mentorship. The NC project team is always available to answer questions from the breweries to help them succeed.

Once implementation is done, the project team will go back to each brewery and perform an audit to assess the success level of the program. Analytical testing at key points during the project are what they will use at the end to gauge the effectiveness of the standards.

The value to the breweries at the end of the project will be a thorough customized Craft Brewery Quality Program that they can use in their facility as the standard for consistency and traceability.

Alongside the benefit for the breweries, students are also getting training alongside industry partners, exemplifying work-integrated learning, and capacity building for the businesses.

This program will enhance craft breweries’ quality and consistency, which will lead to improved consumer confidence, and hopefully increased sales and access to new markets.

For associations like the Ontario Craft Brewers Association (OCB), they will get a general program that can be customized for their members. There’s even hope that the program could be adopted by other provinces or go completely canada-wide.

The future is exciting, as the Craft Brewery Quality Program has the potential to be the craft beer industry standard.

This project has been made possible by an investment of $1,789,330 million over two years from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), in the Applied Research and Technology Partnership (ARTP) program.