Brewing up a flavourful storm
by Gary Francoeur
Call it destiny, blind luck or strange coincidence. But Charles Bierbrier, BA’98, believes that he was meant to brew beer for a living.
His family name, after all, derives from the German word meaning “beer brewer.” And when he was 17 years old, Bierbrier serendipitously stumbled upon a beer-brewing kit in a store, which he promptly bought to start crafting his own ale on evenings and weekends.
“I thought it was the coolest thing, and I knew at that moment that I wanted to own a microbrewery one day,” he recalls.
For whatever reason, Bierbrier tried to dismiss his calling. He earned an economics degree from McGill and an MBA from Concordia University, and went to work in the finance industry. But still his dream beckoned, pulled, seduced. He found himself travelling to beer conferences on his vacations.
So in 2005, he succumbed to temptation, quit his job at the National Bank of Canada and set off to turn his dream into a reality. He took a course to become a master brewer, rented a warehouse on Montreal’s Guy Street and stocked it with distillery equipment he bought from a company in Prince Edward Island.
When Bierbrier Brewing, Inc. opened for business, it was strictly a one-man operation: with Bierbrier himself making the beer in the morning, handling deliveries in the afternoon and securing new customers in the evening. He made his first sale to a Chinese restaurant in Westmount and then expanded his clientele to include several of the city’s most popular bars and Irish pubs.
“People thought I was crazy to leave a good-paying job with a big office to sit in an empty warehouse with a folding beach chair and a telephone,” he says. “But I was determined to make it work.”
And work it has. Today, the company’s premium beer is a hit with beer enthusiasts and is available in many high-end establishments throughout the city, across the province and as far away as Alberta. Bierbrier even brews a custom-made pilsner lager created exclusively for Joe Beef, the fabled Little Burgundy restaurant that has drawn acclaim from foodies across the globe.
“There’s been a lot of growth over the last eight years and we still have a long way to go, but it’s all coming together,” says Bierbrier. “It’s been a wild and amazing ride.”
Also tapping into success in the beer industry is David Brophy, BA’84, the master brewer at McAuslan Brewing, Quebec’s leading microbrewery.
Brophy has been with McAuslan since its first barrel was brewed in February 1989, a time when craft beer was virtually non-existent in Montreal. Learning the intricacies of the trade from company cofounder Ellen Bounsall, a biologist turned brew master, he has quenched many a thirst over the years. If you’ve ever tipped back a cold pint of St-Ambroise or Griffon, chances are you’ve enjoyed the fruits of Brophy’s labour.
The secret to McAuslan’s success? It all boils down to consistency, Brophy explains.
“You’re really only as good as your last brew,” he says. “Consumers know what our beer should taste like and they expect the same steady flavours each and every time they have the product. You can’t rest on your laurels.”
There’s been no shortage of laurels. McAuslan’s offerings – which range from a sprightly sweet apricot wheat ale to a sternly robust oatmeal stout – regularly earn gold medals at the annual Canadian Brewery Awards.
Brophy and his team produce more than 35,000 litres of beer each day – that’s the equivalent of 611 cases of 24 or 14,664 standard beer bottles. It’s a tremendous task but one that he says is necessary to keep up with demand.
Brophy and Bierbrier are among a surprising number of McGill graduates who are playing leading roles in the beer industry. Others include Nathaniel Davis, BSc’98, director of innovation at Anheuser-Busch, the world’s largest brewer, and a member of the Knighthood of the Brewers’ Mash Staff, the Belgian brewers’ guild; Mirella Amato, BMus’98, founder of the Toronto-based Beerology consulting firm and North America’s first female master cicerone – the equivalent of a wine sommelier; and Philippe Jaar, BEng’96, vice-president and director of Les Brasseurs RJ, one of Quebec’s oldest and biggest craft breweries and the new owners of McAuslan Brewing.
“Most people don’t understand how much work goes into the production of good beer,” Brophy explains. “But I love what I do and go home each night with a sense of pride knowing that I make a quality product people enjoy. After all, who doesn’t like a cold beer?”
There are plenty of satisfied customers who will happily drink to that.