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Hops and dreams: these U of T alumni use their chemical engineering know-how to brew better beer

U of T alumni-turned-brewers Matthew Reiner and Mohan Pandit were thrilled to share their beer with patrons at Hart House's beer festival (Photo by Romi Levine)

Matthew Reiner, Chris Ristevski and Mohan Pandit met on their first day at the University of Toronto, surrounded by a sea of purple-painted first-year engineers.

The trio stuck together through school and, after graduating as chemical engineers from the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, travelled to Europe where they sampled countless styles of beer. Reiner and Ristevski were even groomsmen at Pandit’s wedding.

But the ultimate test of their friendship was opening a brewery.

“Working with three close friends of yours you have to tread very carefully and figure out how you can maintain your friendship while being effective business partners,” says Pandit.

They opened Rorschach Brewing Company this spring in Leslieville. On Thursday, they returned to their alma mater to show off their new brews in their first Hart House Craft Beer Festival.

U of T News spoke with Reiner and Pandit about engineering beer.  

How did you become interested in brewing beer?

MR: When we were at U of T we discovered there had previously been a course on brewing – a process course. It was cancelled years before we started but it put the spark in our mind to be able to try to figure things out ourselves. So we did, in my parents' basement. 

MP: When I got married in 2014, these guys were my groomsmen and Matt showed up at my wedding and surprised me with an apricot wheat beer he aged on pounds of apricots for three months. Everyone was like, 'Wow, this beer is incredible,' so a couple months later we sat down at a bar in Leslieville and were like, 'So, that beer was really good, why don't we do something,' and that's when we started looking in earnest and starting a business plan.

How has your knowledge of chemical engineering helped you to brew beer?

MR: I think it's everything – it's the foundation to be able to understand all the processes. Our thesis course was in plant design, and now we designed a plant essentially – a brewery. It's the foundation for understanding everything, being able to read detailed brewing texts and being able to pick it up quickly, being able to apply that to brewing on a small scale and then transitioning that to a larger scale – it's all the foundation.

MP: We had never worked in a brewery or a restaurant before and when we were going about the process to open this place up, there are so many problems that have to be solved. The foundation training that Matt talks about was about how you can compartmentalize problems and then solve them individually and eventually you tackle the whole picture. That discipline made us feel somewhat comfortable doing something we've never done before. 

What's behind the name of your brewery?

MR: The name comes from the Rorschach inkblot test – the psychological test – and it's mirrored in our logo.

The idea is that food and drink are very subjective and people taste things differently. Beer and food has a quantifiable concentration of flavour and aroma compounds – it is an absolute thing but we perceive it differently when we try it. If we're drinking a beer, I might perceive pineapple and you might taste grapefruit. 

What kind of beers do you brew?

MR: We do a lot of different things, mostly within two styles: hoppy beer-style IPAs and pale ales and pilsner. We also focus on Belgian style beers, mixed fermentation beers, saisons.

We just came from the brewery where we were kegging our pina colada IPA. We've only brewed the same beer twice. 

What is it like coming back to U of T for Hart House's Beer Fest to share your beer with the community?

MP: For all of us, we loved the entire experience at U of T. I met these guys on the first day and we've had all these experiences together. It's nice to be back – and we want to spend a lot more time here and be involved with U of T.

We always joke about at some point teaching a course in chemical engineering on brewing and process management. 

Read about U of T's beer expert, Professor Jeffrey Pilcher