Matthew Little has built a successful career thinking about beer.
The final pour may be what matters most to many people, but not for Little. He spends his day giving all the steps that lead up to that moment the care and attention they deserve. Little isn’t a bartender, a beer sommelier, or bar owner — he’s an engineer. Equipped with a degree from McMaster Engineering, Little has built a successful career in the brewing industry.
For Little, the path from student to brewmaster began on McMaster’s main campus – literally, as campus ambassadors of Labatt Brewing Company would market career opportunities to students and caught his attention. Joining the ranks as a campus ambassador in his fourth year of his Bachelor of Materials Engineering degree, Little got his first taste of the industry.
“It was my involvement as a Labatt ambassador that sparked my interest in exploring how I could use my engineering skills in the beer industry,” says Little. “I didn’t have a good sense of all the potential career options out there for engineers until that point.” His undergrad experiences and a lot of hard work paid off, as Little was hired for a role at the Labatt brewery in Edmonton after graduating in 2012.
This began a decade-plus career in the brewing industry, including roles at Labatt, Steam Whistle Brewing and the Ball Corporation, where Little is currently Plant Manager at its Greater Toronto Area location.
With a career that has spanned multiple opportunities across the country, Little has firsthand knowledge of the challenges and opportunities that engineers can expect in the brewing industry.
Engineering a good brew
“Something you hear a lot in the industry is that brewing is a blend of art and science,” says Little. “There’s art to recipe design and creating combinations of flavours that will work well with your grains and hops.”
The science of brewing is where Little thrives. The basics of the alcohol brewing process have remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years. Ingredients such as barley and yeast are combined in water and allowed to ferment over time, resulting in beer. While it may sound straightforward, according to Little, the minute variables in the process pose a particular challenge for engineers.
“Your ingredients are always changing,” Little explains. “Every year, there’s a different crop of barley, and that barley will have a slightly different profile than the year before. The variance in the ingredients really determines your output and can be a big issue that you have to understand and adjust for.”
Even the water can have the same variances and requires skilled engineers to adapt the process. “A Budweiser in BC needs to taste the same as a Budweiser in Halifax. But they’re being made in different breweries that use different water supplies,” explains Little. “There’s a lot of work that goes into water treatment, quality testing of every water ingredient and making sure that we’re being consistent.”
Engineers must always be working to refine the process to guarantee a consistent product.
A growing industry presents new opportunities
Going from graduation to a job at a brewery may not be every new engineer’s career plan, but perhaps it should be, says Little. “There are definitely opportunities because the number of breweries has skyrocketed,” he says.
The key for fellow engineers seeking to break into the industry, according to Little, is to think beyond the traditional definition of an engineering role. “Go and learn the brewing process, be a brewer, work on the packaging lines, and really get a feel for what their challenges are from all sides of the business,” he explains.
Despite the basics of the brewing process remaining unchanged for centuries, innovation is a priority in the industry, particularly when it comes to sustainability.
“One of the principles of many brewing companies is never being satisfied with results,” Little says. “We ask questions like, ‘can we be more efficient? Can we use less water? Can we reduce waste?”
In addition to the environmental and ethical responsibilities that come with implementing more sustainable practices, Little is quick to point out another strong motivation for these companies to reduce waste and improve efficiency: cost.
“If you could save one per cent of your waste at a Labatt brewery, that’s worth millions of dollars. Utilities are a big cost, too. If you can reduce your water, or reduce your electricity or your gas usage, it’s great for the bottom line of the company,” explains Little.
He points to innovations in equipment and sensors that collect and monitor an array of data to analyze to find efficiencies and stay ahead in the market. “Breweries don’t want to be second in line when new technology rolls out. They’re looking for qualified people with a mindset geared toward solutions and using technology to push forward.”
Beer sales and problem-solving spike during pandemic
No other period during Little’s career was more challenging than during the pandemic. He had just started a new position with Steam Whistle Brewing in Toronto when the pandemic was declared. Like all other businesses, the brewery was deeply impacted in its operations, not only because of additional health and safety mandates, but due to skyrocketing demand of alcohol.
“Our demand went through the roof,” says Little, who recalls the need for a new delivery program and lineups of people waiting to buy a six pack. “I credit the transferable skills from my engineering degree to be able to respond to diverse circumstances. It was definitely an interesting time in my career.”
While the beer industry may not have been the career Little envisioned when he stepped onto McMaster’s campus, it is one that he has found to be exciting and fulfilling.
Combining a love of beer and engineering, Little has charted his own path to a rewarding career that satisfies a thirst for problem-solving and innovating.