The nature of work and what it means to achieve your dream job is changing. In this series, we dive into some of the most aspirational jobs coveted by a new generation.
Andrew Sookram isn’t just living the dream.
He’s working it.
Sookram has been brewing up his dream job over the last several years, a pursuit that culminated in running his own craft brewery in Winnipeg.
“Two years in, and I still have to pinch myself,” says Sookram, president and CEO of Sookram’s Brewing Company.
It started as a hobby, when Sookram was a 9-to-5 office worker who liked to do some home brewing on the side. Concoctions he dreamed up back then, such as Desert Island (an India pale ale) and Cosmos (a dry-hopped sour), are now the microbrewery’s flagship beers, a fact he says still amazes him.
“I am standing in a tap room, [a moment] that I never imagined would really happen,” Sookram says. “It’s still crazy to me; I cannot wrap my brain around it most days.”
As a brewer, Sookram is working in a vocation many beer-worshiping Canadians daydream about while toiling away in their cubicles (or, these days, in their makeshift home offices). It’s the kind of career that may not have seemed viable in the past, but as the needs of workers change, particularly among millennials and Gen Z, their aspirational jobs are also changing. And that’s turning side hustles into main gigs.
Brewers from every walk of life
A 2018 Ipsos poll revealed that young Canadians have a strong entrepreneurial spirit: 60 per cent of respondents aged 24-35 and 67 per cent of respondents aged 18-24 said they had thought about owning their own business. Also, those under 35 were more likely than older respondents to be doing entrepreneurial activities such as making money from a passion project or taking on a paid side hustle.
For a new generation of beer lovers eager to be their own boss, a career as a brewer or brewmaster is a way to do what they enjoy while making a profit. And many, like Sookram, are leaving high-paying jobs to pursue their passion.
“It’s unbelievable the career changes people make to come and brew,” says Craig Youdale, dean of the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College, which is home to Canada’s longest-running brewmaster program. “We get every walk of life, from doctors and lawyers to mechanics and chefs to accountants and investment bankers.”
The highly sought-after program at Niagara College, located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., graduates about 80 students annually, with an employment success rate of “close to 100 per cent,” Youdale says. Graduates might work for a major beer company such as Labatt Brewing Company or run their own microbrewery, like Sookram.
While the starting salary for a brewer is about $40,000, Youdale says, income can easily exceed six figures for head brewers and beer-preneurs behind a successful microbrewery.
But for most people in the program, “the mindset is that the dollars and cents are not their first priority,” Youdale says. “We see people who come from jobs making a lot more than they would as a brewer.”
Peter Johnston-Berresford, coordinator of the brewmaster program at Olds College in Alberta, says that while most graduates jump into brewing roles, others find ancillary jobs in the industry.
“There are opportunities galore, and they don’t all necessarily tie you to a brewhouse,” Johnston-Berresford says. “Some people are trained to be brewers but still suck at it, so they find jobs in sales, as a brewery owner, marketing or quality control.”
Growth in the craft beer space
The beer industry is fertile ground for a career, says Luke Chapman, interim president of Beer Canada, an organization that represents beer producers. That’s despite the fact that beer consumption nationally has fallen since 2015.
“On a volume basis, sales have declined by about 5.7 per cent over the last five years,” Chapman says, citing 2020 figures. “But this is all happening at a time when the number of breweries has grown.”
Canada has about 1,100 breweries, employing more than 15,000 people, Mr. Chapman says. And most growth, according to a federal government report, has been in the craft-beer space.
From 2017 to 2018, for example, the number of breweries grew by almost 22 per cent, while craft beer sales between 2014 and 2019 doubled to $1.9-billion. That’s still a sliver of the approximately $20-billion of annual beer sales in Canada.
Sookram says the growth opportunity in beer is mostly for people who are seeking a niche as a craft brewer.
“It may seem like as craft brewers, we’re trying to fight for each other’s pie, but really that’s not the case,” he explains. “We’re fighting for a piece of the larger pie.”
Morgan Wielgosz recently launched a microbrewery in Winnipeg with her spouse. Called Good Neighbour Brewing, the business is the end goal of a decade of experience that began as a volunteer at the Amsterdam Brewing Company in Toronto.
“I had started home brewing after graduating with a science degree, and I had this ‘aha’ moment,” she says. Calling brewing part chemistry, microbiology and art, Wielgosz says she was hooked immediately.
She gained on-the-job experience while taking online courses from the Siebel Institution of Technology in Chicago, one of the world’s leading programs. Eventually, she came to Winnipeg to work as the head brewer for another craft brewery before launching Good Neighbour.
“It’s quite physical, labour-intensive work,” she notes. “But producing this product that you have dreamt up and other people enjoy is pretty satisfying.”
Sookram can certainly raise a cold one to that. Every compliment he gets about his beer is vindication, he says.
“It’s very humbling, and it’s also very cool.”