German engineer uses PhD to brew award-winning beers in southern Alberta

A southern Alberta man has no regrets about making the jump from stem cell engineering to starting his own brewery, and it's not as far a leap as some might think.

Growing cells is growing cells, whether they're stem cells or yeast cells, says Jochen Fahr

Jochen Fahr took the skills his PhD training cultivated in him and applied them to solve a problem he saw in Alberta: a lack of delicious, authentic German beer. (CBC)

A southern Alberta man has no regrets about making the jump from stem cell engineering to starting his own brewery, and it's not as far a leap as some might think.

Jochen Fahr will recount his unconventional career trajectory — from earning his PhD in biomedical engineering and working in medical and industrial fields, to starting his own award-winning beer business in Turner Valley — at the Alberta Biomedical Engineering Conference this weekend in Banff.

As he'll tell the crowd there, growing cells is growing cells, whether they're stem cells or yeast cells. 

"The principles are really the same," Fahr told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"One is regenerative medicine; the other is degenerative medicine," he said.

A strong tradition and appreciation of German beer has always flowed through Fahr's veins, which is why he was so disappointed with the quality of German beer available to him in Alberta when he first moved here.

Fahr grew up immersed in brewing and agricultural techniques in a small village in Germany, where his father worked at a brewery. By the time he was waist-high, he was riding around on beer trucks, helping his dad with deliveries.

So when he came to Alberta in 2008 for his undergraduate studies, it didn't take long for him to take matters into his own hands.

"Even the beers that they imported from Germany, to me, didn't taste fresh. They didn't taste right. So I started home brewing and put my undergrad degree to use," he said.

Homebrew success

Fahr began entering his homebrewed beer in competitions, and, to his surprise, he started winning.

In 2013, he and his then fiancee, Heather, were deep in the midst of wedding planning when he entered the Russell Brewing's Golden Stag Home Brewing Contest in B.C.

His entry, a German wheat ale titled "Maybe the Wedding Beer," took home the grand prize that year, so he renamed it "Definitely the Wedding Beer," he said.

True to form, he served it at his wedding reception. It was a hit there, too.

Authentic German beer

In many ways, Fahr's brewing journey has been a return to his roots. Rather than explore boutique craft brewing, he specializes in authentic German beers, like hefeweizens, dunkelweizens and pilsners. 

And his brews have found international success. At the 2019 World Beer Awards in London, his hefeweizen won best in Canada and his pilsner won silver in Canada. 

Fahr said part of why he picked Turner Valley as his brewing base is because it reminds him of the 300-resident village where he grew up in Germany, in the foothills of the Alps.

"You can take a boy out of the small town, but you cannot take the small town out of a boy, and politics in small towns are the same whether you're in Canada or in Germany."

Fahr said it took him just eight days to get a development permit for his brewery, called Brauerie Fahr, and Turner Valley's mayor actually introduced him to his current landowner.

"To me, it's a whole matter of community, and the way the town embraced it, and the way the town council also embraced it … they could have given me a lot more roadblocks than they actually did," he said.

Translatable skills

Fahr has no regrets about his decision to launch his own beer business.

"I'm a lot happier. I keep saying PhD stands for 'Press here, dummy' or 'permanent head damage' from banging your head against the wall, trying to solve a problem nobody knew existed before," he said, laughing.

But that's more a criticism of the abstract nature of many PhD theses, and not a criticism of the academic training itself, he said.

In fact, Fahr recognizes that his rigorous doctorate program equipped him to be able to succeed as an entrepreneur.

"What you get is a skill set of complex problem solving, and being creative in finding solutions," he said.

And that's what his advice is going to be when he speaks in Banff this weekend.

"Just try and be flexible. You don't have to stay in your field. What you learn from that degree in engineering is problem solving, building stuff, coming up with solutions, and it's really beneficial in all other things."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


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