A Tale of Three Brewers
If Mickey Finn’s Brewery ever invites its brewing alumni back to Libertyville, IL, for a reunion, one can only guess how many brewers there will be. And will they all have as much in common as the first three, including the fact that they have all won Great American Beer Festival medals in the German Style Wheat Ale category?
Once they’ve all had a few beers, maybe Chris Swersey (the first to brew at Mickey Finn’s) will talk the group into taking a whitewater rafting tour in Idaho with his company, Silver Cloud Expeditions. Or perhaps Ryan Ashley (first Swersey’s assistant, then the head brewer) will invite everybody to his Unlikely Cowboy Restaurant and Brewery in Scottsdale, AZ.
If they don’t already know, they will surely learn that brewers move on. “I always knew that I wanted to do my own thing,” said Ashley. “Anybody who is passionate about beer has to have that in the back of their mind.”
Ashley was basically an avid homebrewer when Mickey Finn’s opened. “We learned and did it by the seat of our pants,” Ashley said.
Because they were in suburban Chicago, Swersey and Ashley had access to training at the Siebel Institute of Technology. They also conducted some on-site brewpub training for Siebel students, expanding the network of brewers they knew and getting a look at the growing industry through many sets of eyes. “I’ve got a library of business plans,” Ashley said.
Ashley went to Munich to take a Bavarian brewing seminar at the well-known Doemens Academy and completed a five-month distance learning class from UC-Davis. In addition to taking courses at Siebel, Swersey earned a scholarship for an MBA technology course on bottling. “You never know when you’ll use the education you have the opportunity to get,” Swersey said.
He used the information not when he was brewing but after he moved to a different career that included brewery consulting work. “It’s a young man’s sport,” said Swersey, who is 37. “I knew I wasn’t going to be an operational brewer forever. I thought I’d be brewing longer, but the opportunity was there.”
Swersey went from Mickey Finn’s to the Miller Brewing-owned Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. After training in Milwaukee, he opened Leinenkugel’s Ballyard Brewery beside the new baseball stadium in Phoenix. “I had the best job at Miller Brewing, my own fully steam-powered brewery, and all the freedom in the world,” he said.
Then a friend called to say he was selling his rafting business in Idaho. “It’s something my wife and I had an eye on doing 10 years from now. We didn’t want to look at each other, down the road, and wonder if we should have done it,” he said.
Swersey continues to do consulting work for a variety of breweries and also oversees the judging for the World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival competitions conducted by the Institute for Brewing Studies.
Ashley knows that when the Unlikely Cowboy opens, probably in June, public relations will once again be an important part of his job. He’ll be tactful when a customer says, “Boy, what a great job! You must be drunk all day, right?”
“It is a great job,” said Ashley, who fondly remembers summers hanging out at work with his grandfather, a 39-year veteran of Miller Brewing in Milwaukee. “It’s hard work, it’s sweaty, a lot of lifting, but it’s rewarding if you are in it for the right reasons.”
When Ashley hired Luke Kazmierski, he knew that he wouldn’t be working at Mickey Finn’s forever, and he wanted to leave the brewery in good hands. “I was looking for somebody young, hungry and ready to work his ass off,” Ashley said. “He had a biology background and was meticulous.” Kazmierski, 27, had a pretty good job at Abbott Labs, but he couldn’t resist.
“It is physical, but I think I can handle it for quite some time,” said Kazmierski, who officially became head brewer in August and celebrated by winning two GABF gold medals less than two months later. “Fifteen years from now, I could possibly see opening up my own place, or maybe being someplace bigger overseeing other brewers.”
It’s going to be quite a reunion.