Great beer, down to a science

Meet the Newfoundland grad who turned in her stethoscope for a lab coat en route to becoming Saskatchewan’s newest brewmaster. 

By Joanne Paulson. 

Amanda Butt is in the ‘party room’ at Saskatoon’s Great Western Brewing Co., sipping a fresh batch of beer out of a small glass sleeve. She wrinkles her nose, and notes this beer is young; she won’t allow anyone outside the testing team to even take a sniff. Not before it’s perfect.

Butt took the helm as brewmaster after only two weeks learning the ropes. Her pride in the brand, however, was fully in place the minute she walked through the door.

In brewing circles, Great Western’s history is a story of legends — how 16 employees bought the company from Carling O’Keefe in 1989, when the beer company merged with Molson and the plant was slated for closure. Great Western has been a revered local institution ever since.

“When I heard it, I thought the story was super cool,” recounts Butt. “I left ‘big beer’ to get into the craft beer scene; and then to hear about a group of 16 folks who were like, screw it, we’re buying the brewery and we’re going to keep it open — that’s cool, right?”

Another draw was the opportunity to learn from one of the best.

Vivian Jones, or Viv as he is affectionately referred to by staff, spent a decade as brewmaster at Great Western, capping a 50-year career in the business. He was also Butt’s mentor for the first couple weeks on the job.

“How do you say no to mentorship from someone who has been in the industry for longer than you have been alive?” asks Butt. “There are processes in modern breweries we do every day that he helped create and perfect. It’s incredible. You have to say yes to an opportunity like that.”

So she did. Now settled in Saskatoon alongside her family, Butt is a long way from home. Born in Grand Falls, NL, Butt studied pre-medicine at Memorial University in St. John’s, but quickly realized the profession was not in her future.

Instead, she switched to biochemistry, with no clear idea of the types of jobs the degree could land her. She found the field fascinating, yet the notion of sitting in a lab behind a microscope for the rest of her life was woefully unappealing.

Fortunately, fate — or, more specifically, a professor — intervened.

Butt was part of a group of soon-to-be graduates taking a bridging course. In its final days, the professor queried students what they planned to do with their education.

“He stopped and asked us, ‘Why is no one going into beer?’” says Butt. “In truth, I didn’t think it was an option. I enjoy beer, but I never really considered who made it. I guess you could say it all started there.”

Inspired, Butt volunteered at a local brewery, and went on to obtain her master’s degree in science, specializing in brewing and distilling, from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland.

She returned to Canada and landed with Labatt, before relocating to Boston to try her hand with a smaller enterprise. Then, she saw the posting for Great Western.

Her path has been anything but expected. And while she credits her degree in biochemistry as the launching pad for her career, Butt maintains there was much more to learn on the road to becoming brewmaster.

“I don’t think I could rely just on biochemistry to be successful,” she says. I don’t think I could have just relied on the master’s degree, either. It has taken a lot of experience and on-the-job learning to gain the insight and know-how to be successful steering the development of a new beer — or an entire brewery, for that matter.

“You need to know about yeast fermentation, and enzymatic reactions and activity. You need to know about food science. You need to understand a bit of engineering and process technology. And then you need to understand how to perform tests and make decisions based on the results.”

There’s the artistic element, too.

“Beer is incredibly complex and unstable,” she points out. “It’s not like wine or spirits, where you can put it on a shelf and it stays the same. A lot of factors impact mouth feel, flavour, and aroma. Intuitively creating recipes and knowing what will work together and discovering what won’t — there’s an art to it that drew me in. It’s not only about science.”

Nevertheless, Butt routinely finds herself in the minority. Despite comprising more than half of the national workforce, less than a quarter of Canadians in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers are female. That percentage drops significantly for brewmasters.

It’s not an issue, though, Butt spends much time focusing on. For her, it’s all about pursuing individual passion.

“I grew up in science. My grandfather is an engineer; my father is a funeral director. We were raised in that world, so it felt very natural to continue that type of education.

“And it’s becoming more popular. Tech Girls Canada, for instance, wasn’t around in my day, but they do great work. I don’t think young people in particular understand what they can do — what kinds of jobs are out there, what kinds of fields are out there to have a career in. Exposing people to those opportunities generates interest.”

Anne Neufeld agrees wholeheartedly.

The provost and vice president of academic at Saskatchewan Polytechnic — and the first woman to hold those posts — has taken a personal interest in supporting girls and women interested in STEM careers.

“Part of it is connecting girls and young women to role models in the fields they’d like to pursue,” she explains. “We need to get better at that, and do it well at a younger age.”

The college’s Women in Trades and Technology program, in place since 1991, or its Girls Exploring Trades and Technology camps, focused on students in grades six through eight, have proven to be important tools in that improvement. The latter has reached more than 3,500 youth across the province alone, providing experiential learning opportunities in laboratory and workshop-style environments.

There’s no doubt the landscape is changing — albeit slower than many would like.

Accelerating that shift, says Neufeld, will require businesses and organizations to deepen their understanding of the role diversity plays in workforce performance.

“When we look at science jobs, there is some evidence that women and men will approach solving problems in a slightly different fashion,” she adds. “I think that can only be beneficial when we have as many perspectives and backgrounds as possible. It’s just going to make the scientific community that much stronger.”

Neufeld feels Saskatchewan Polytechnic and, by extension, post-secondary institutions across Canada can serve as catalysts.

“Our role is to show what the career has to offer, and to remove barriers to their advancement into these STEM careers,” she says. “It’s about these young people following their dreams. When people follow their passion, they will be committed employees, they will be very dedicated, and they will make a very significant contribution.”

We can all cheers to that.