A degree in booze at Niagara Falls Culinary Institute
Photos by kc kratt
“I’m going to college to study beer.” While that might sound like a punchline, at the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute (NFCI), studying beer—or wine or spirits—is no joke. Instead, it is the first step toward a promising career in a rapidly expanding industry in Western New York.
When NFCI opened its doors in 2012, it offered a single program in winery operations, which used a multifaceted training approach to teach record-keeping, licensure, production, and marketing. According to Mark Mistriner, the Hospitality, Tourism, and Culinary Arts Division Chair at NFCI, at the time, that was the only program that was really needed: “We wanted to offer an all-encompassing degree at first because most wineries on the Niagara Wine Trail were family-owned and didn’t have a place for a specific type of employee, like a viticulturist or enologist.”
However, the Niagara Escarpment wine region is one of the fastest growing regions in the United States. That growth has spurred wineries to hire more employees and NFCI to broaden its offerings, which now include programs specific in viticulture (the growing and harvesting of grapes) and enology (the making of wine itself).
“We’re hoping to stay ahead of the curve by having employees ready to meet the demands as they happen,” Mistriner says of the two new programs. He believes that, because the school is a county entity, it’s important that NFCI meet the needs of employers in the region.
To that end, the school is doing more than just expanding its wine programs. It ’s also recently introduced programs that address both the growing brewery and distillery industries in Western New York. According to Lockhouse distiller Cory Muscato, who helped create NFCI’s Distillery Operations curriculum, these programs were created with the overwhelming support of the craft beverage community. A group of about twenty distillers, brewers, and malters from Western New York formed an advisory committee to shape the programs so that they would best meet the needs of the burgeoning industries.
Matt Redpath of Woodcock Brothers Brewery teaches courses at NFCI and explains that the explosion of new breweries on the scene in the past few years has a lot to do with the industry regulations being redesigned to accommodate smaller breweries, as well as the application processes being streamlined. According to Redpath, the reason there were previously only a handful of breweries operating in the area was because so many were stuck in the planning stage. Both the New York State Liquor Authority and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau had complicated and overlapping requirements that kept businesses from opening. Now, the cryptic regulations have been redesigned with small breweries in mind, and it’s become easier to get breweries from concept to reality.
Muscato, who is president of the New York State Distillers Guild, also adds that, over the past few years, the state has become the “poster child” for alcoholic beverage reform, and that other states now look to New York with regard to taxation and licensing laws. He admits that there is still some work to be done, but points to laws such as the Craft New York Act and the Farm Cidery Law as proof of forward momentum. These and other laws have helped to increase production caps, reduce costs, eliminate duplicate paperwork, and allocate more funds for regional advertising. All of this legislation has helped grow the beverage industries, not only in Buffalo and Western New York, but across the entire state.
And now that these breweries and distilleries are finally able to open, Western New York is facing a bit of a conundrum: the workforce needed for these growing establishments doesn’t exist in the area, and many of the new locations are being forced to go out of state to find staff. Redpath believes that as the school’s programs grow and evolve, they will significantly contribute to labor needs. Even if the programs are initially designed to provide students with access to entry level jobs, he believes that as the industry moves forward, NFCI graduates will move with it. In addition to jobs in wineries, breweries, or distilleries, the school’s programs also give students the knowledge they need to take on jobs as distributors or sales reps.
NFCI instructor Kurt Guba, who is also the sommelier for the school’s fine dining restaurant, Savor, points out that while some of the school’s students have gone on to open their own wineries, like Zack Klug’s Liten Buffel, others are nontraditional students who are interested in lifelong learning. Their contributions to the industry may be more subtle. “They influence the marketplace by influencing their friends,” Guba says. “They influence purchasing choices of retailers and distributers by having more disposable income. It’s still huge.”
The school’s position as a community college, instead of a traditional four-year culinary school, allows for a more varied student body.
Nontraditional students include those who have completed military service, those looking to get into a second career, and those interested in retirement jobs. The instructors feel that the variety adds to the dynamic of the student body.
While the school’s graduates have only been in the workforce for a handful of years, Guba believes that they are already elevating the level of conversation when it comes to their various specialties. Calling some of his former students genuine movers and shakers on the local wine scene, he notes that they are already working as wine makers and cellar masters. “I think you’d be surprised by the impact we’ve had already,” he says.
In the areas of spirits and beer, which are not as established as wine, there are some growing pains. Muscato speaks of the extra stigma associated with hard liquor since Prohibition, which still manifests itself in the form of extra taxes, higher fees, and stricter licensing. According to him, temperance is still “alive and well” in this country, which can make for an uphill battle sometimes. He notes that these challenges result in different marketing and educational strategies, which turn out to be more communal and grassroots.
Redpath wishes people would be more patient with new breweries. The process of setting up a new one is exceedingly complex, he says, and it can take a bit of time and adjustment to get everything just right. He hates to see new breweries getting poor reviews on Yelp or Google because they can tank a new place before it has a chance to become established.
Even Guba, who deals with the most established of all the beverages—wine—is concerned about an issue that was stalling the beverage’s growth a bit. Local wines are still underrepresented in area restaurants. He’s hoping that the wines will start to have better advocates, something Mestriner thinks will happen as more of the Culinary Arts students begin to take classes from the craft beverage curriculum as electives.
The Niagara Falls Culinary Institute may have started out primarily focused on the creation of food, with a single program dedicated to beverages, but food and drink have gone hand in hand for millennia. NFCI now has a handful of options under its Craft Beverage programs umbrella, and successful graduates are taking their places in wineries, breweries, and distilleries throughout the region.
Erin Maynard is a writer and editor who has lived in Buffalo since 2009.