Written by: Lisa Gedak
Disney’s animated feature The Lion King propelled the phrase Hakuna Matata – loosely translated as “no worries” into becoming a household slogan and a catchy sing-along song that millions of people are familiar with. Jon Howe from KPU’s brewing and brewery operations program is not just familiar with this motto but has incorporated it as a fundamental part of his teaching philosophy. He frequently expresses this mantra to his lab students, who can often fear failure. The brewery lab being a safe space for students to fail, to try again, and to ultimately triumph is only a part of the reason that Jon is worthy of being recognized for teaching excellence. “students are commonly worried that the beer may not turn out or may be contaminated, but in the end, it’s just a beer, make a mistake and dump it down the drain,” Jon explains. His relaxed position stems from the fact that there are no mistakes in the lab that are life-threatening and that students are only brewing small batches “This is the environment to make mistakes, we are only making 200litres of beer at a time, not 1000litres. Make a mistake here; learn about it, become a better brewer, and a better employee in general”. By embracing failure as an opportunity to learn, Jon is providing students with the freedom to rise above their mistakes and to further develop analytical and problem-solving skills in a safe and controlled environment.
Jon’s brewing career has come full circle from KPU student to KPU faculty. He started his learning journey as a KPU student in 2008 by enrolling in some general science courses to explore what he wanted to do in life, with the only thing he was sure of being his love for science. Jon then went on to UBC and completed his degree in biology and chemistry; nevertheless, it was an elective that sparked his passion for brewing and led him back to KPU. Introduced to the science related to fermentation, Jon was inspired to begin brewing beer in his basement. In 2016, he discovered that KPU was offering a diploma in brewing, and he enrolled as a student. By the end of his first year, he was hired by Bomber Brewing, where he has maintained industry connections ever since. By his second year, a teaching opportunity came up at the end of summer and he was encouraged to apply; the rest is history. Stepping into a teaching role as a current student had its challenges, and he quickly learned about classroom management as many of his new students were previously his classmates and friends “I was now teaching fellow students and had to create a professional line with my peers” but once Jon established his role as the facilitator, the teaching came naturally. Being able to teach in what he calls a “hands-on-stuff” learning environment allows him to direct his energy into where his passion lies. Most importantly, the advantage of moving from student to teacher, and knowing what students are expecting allows him to excel in his practice, though Jon acknowledges that as an active practitioner, the learning will never end.
That continuous learning includes a considerable variety of professional development opportunities in the craft beer community. Jon and his colleagues regularly attend conferences and industry events where he learns about innovations in brewing from brew masters and experts. He also spends significant time reading industry magazines and listening to podcasts to stay abreast of new practices in the field; he notes, however, that his favorite experiences include the students he teaches. The program provides opportunities for experiential field trips that are more than merely brewery tours “we go to Central City in Surrey, because not only do they have an absolutely enormous brewing facility, but they also have a high-quality microbiology lab, barrel-aging program, and state-of-the-art technology. We will go to steel manufacturing plants to see how the equipment is made. Last March, we took a group of students by bus to a Victoria brewery and distillery that had just opened, and we toured a brewery where they are malting their own grain” he boasts, his passion bubbling to the surface. It is important to Jon that all steps of the brewing process are experienced by the students, including cleaning and sterilizing, tasting, making, and marketing “students go through all aspects of brewing, and the most fundamental parts are sensory, they are tasting beer right from day one, and they often say ‘eww’ after the first tasting as it doesn’t taste like beer, it tastes like sweet, sticky, sugar water. Over the weeks, they taste it daily. Seeing how the beer is over time allows them to identify when problems occur and use critical thinking to identify when the beer spoils. Near the end, they can see how the beer has evolved over time” Jon provides three samples for students to taste for them to hone this sensory skill, with two being a correct recipe and one is that is contaminated. By asking students to identify the contaminated sample, they are immersed in their learning and can learn those sensory skills so important to the brewing process. This exercise may seem like an individual activity, but it is a crucial step in becoming a part of a collaborative brewing team in the lab.
Jon fosters collaboration in the lab by overseeing six teams of two who are working with the same ingredients in pairs, which, when combined, become a part of the larger batch. This requires teamwork and collaboration “everyone is helping each other out. They must strategize between the teams – if the equipment isn’t clean, it could contaminate the whole batch, if one team is falling behind the next team will jump in to clean it” Jon values this collaborative approach and notes that the industry is collaborative by nature “craft brewing is unlike other industries, for example, if you have two coffee shops that open across the street from one another, one may go out of business. It is the opposite for craft breweries; you’ve got brewer’s row in Port Moody and what they are trying to create in Langley loop where breweries are all within a 2km radius. When you get all of these breweries together, not only are they not putting each other out of business, they become a destination for people to visit” He notes that the KPU brewing and brewery operations program has become a part of this craft beer community and has had several collaborative partnerships with local breweries, radio stations, and recently partnered with the Surrey firefighters. All these symbiotic community relationships hold many benefits. One such benefit is the feedback received from industry experts that Jon and the team find crucial to improving practices and procedures.
Jon knows the feedback from industry is invaluable “in 2017 we won a single award, got some feedback, in 2018 we submitted more samples, took that feedback to heart and looked at feedback from previous years and said let’s see how we can take the criticism and make it better. The next time we entered we did much better” he emphasizes that providing feedback to his students is a crucial part of the teaching and learning process , but knows that students need to learn how to accept it and not take it personally “you can’t take it to heart – if I say the beer you made is bitter, don’t get all defensive, don’t be offended, learn from it and dial down the bitterness the next time” Jon ascertains that by the end of the program students see the positives in receiving feedback, and for Jon and his colleagues, the feedback from industry and experts in recent weeks has been extremely positive.
This past October, 121 breweries competed at the BC Brewery awards, and KPU won the coveted ‘Brewery of the Year Award”, an incredible feat considering the brewery has only been in business since 2014. Jon acknowledges that this prestigious award has drawn some media attention and hopes this award “puts us on the map.” Jon strongly feels that this type of recognition “gives the program credibility and puts value on our KPU students. Previously before 2014, there wasn’t formal education, and people are definitely starting to realize that if they hire from KPU, they will get significantly more value out of the hire as our grads have the science of the brewing, the sales knowledge, and marketing experience. This approach ensures our grads our prepared for management positions.”
Jon feels fortunate to be teaching at KPU where the student has become the instructor “I thoroughly enjoy this job; I am always learning new things, and I love the environment.” Without question, his students will always be learning new things and loving the environment as his enthusiasm and expertise are critical components in the recipe for student success in the lab and beyond “our grads are in demand, anyone who wants a job gets a job, recruiters want to hire our students before they have even graduated” Sounds like grads who learn from this example of teaching excellence have “no worries” – Hakuna Matata Jon; Hakuna Matata.
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