All About Beer Magazine - Volume 23, Issue 3
July 1, 2002 By

Dan Carey knew early on that he wanted to be a professional brewer when he grew up. He remembers family car camping trips from their San Francisco home north to Victoria, BC. They would stop at the Olympia Brewery in Tumwater, WA, an expansive lakeside red brick brewery with church-like windows. Inside, the glistening equipment, particularly the giant copper kettles, made a lasting impression on Carey.

“It had a romantic feel,” he said. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve appreciated the Old World style, things that were European.”

He also liked beer. “Even when I was young, I liked the taste,” he said. “Coors or Lucky Lager, you couldn’t beat it.”

When others say they studied beer in college, they are usually talking about Friday nights in the bars or Saturday afternoons around a keg. When Carey studied beer at the University of California at Davis, he earned a degree in brewing science and served his first internship shoveling out the mash tun at River City Brewing in Sacramento.

By the time he and his wife, Deborah, founded the New Glarus Brewing Co. in 1993, he had worked for three years at a microbrewery in Montana; interned at Ayinger Brewery in Bavaria; been valedictorian of a 13-week Siebel Institute Course in Brewing Science and Technology; installed dozens of small breweries for equipment maker J. V. Northwest; and spent three years as brewing supervisor at Anheuser-Busch’s Fort Collins, CO, plant. He also took and passed the Diploma Master Brewer Examination at the Institute of Brewing in London, becoming the first American in 19 years to do so.

A little more than three years after New Glarus began selling beer, Carey went to Germany and bought a used but classic European brew house–complete with glistening copper kettles–that he uses today.

Few brewers in the United States are focused as early as Carey on their eventual careers. But some may have more in common with him than others. Take, for instance, the individuals who ask the question every professional brewer is destined to answer hundreds of times: “How do I become a brewer?”

Hard Work If You Can Get It

“I’m amazed when guys 50 years old tell me, ‘I want to retire; this is going to be my retirement business,'” said Brock Wagner, owner of Saint Arnold Brewing Co. in Houston. “The first thing I do it try to talk them out of it–not because I’m trying to discourage potential competition, but because I don’t think they know what they are getting into.”

Wagner worked in investment banking before he and Kevin Bartol started Saint Arnold in 1994. “There are high startup costs, high ongoing capital costs. It’s low margin, and it’s a very, very competitive business,” he said.

He could have added that in the Houston area, where Saint Arnold is located, 14 brewpubs have opened since Texas legalized them in 1994. Just one is still operating.

“From the business standpoint, brewing really doesn’t make sense to do. Having said that, you do it because you love it.”

Talk to a dozen brewers and you’ll get a dozen stories about how they ended up in rubber boots. When they talk about why, they sound much like Wagner. “I think it is the best industry there is,” said Chris Swersey, a former pub brewer who now leads outdoor expeditions in Idaho. “There are no better people in the world than brewers.”

“Some people have the bug,” said Carey. “I like watching the clarity of beer coming out of the filter.”

That’s not something that people who ask him the “how do I?” question have usually thought about. “I don’t understand what people think being a brewer is,” Carey said. “Brewing is very much a glorified janitor’s job. Brewers mainly clean. It’s hard work, its backbreaking, it’s hot, it’s cold.

“It’s not a bunch of monks in the cellar drinking beer–somebody has to make the beer.”

For those still interested, Carey provides a list of schools–in the United States, that means Siebel Institute, Alltech Institute, the American Breweries Guild, or undergraduate studies at a university that offers fermentation sciences–and suggests the would-be brewer contact the Institute for Brewing Studies (IBS) in Boulder, CO.

What do brewers earn? In an IBS survey last year, brewpubs reported that they pay head brewers $37,700 on average, with those producing more than 1,500 barrels paying $43,400. Staff, or assistant brewers, are most often paid by the hour, earning from $9.10 at smaller pubs to $10.90 at those brewing more than 1,500 barrels a year.

American Brewers Guild owner Steve Parkes said that about 85 percent of those who graduate from the guild get jobs right out of the school. As well as homebrewing experience, he requires that those enrolling have some science (math or chemistry) background. Sometimes, candidates must take a college course or two before beginning at the guild.

“You can teach yourself a lot of what you need to know to brew,” said Parkes, who is understandably biased, “but there’s no emphasis on what you need to do as a brewer.”

Those chores vary from job to job but include everything from recipe formulation to filling out tax paperwork to supervising hourly employees to working with the chef at beer dinners. “The glamorous part is actually getting to make the beer and see people drink it,” said Todd Ashman of Flossmoor Station Brewing in Flossmoor, IL.

“You have to be a sociable person; you have to be willing to talk to the customers,” he said. “You have to be approachable, and sometimes you have to go out and do the approaching if you want to sell your beer.”

Hands-on Learning

A key element of the brewers guild curriculum is its apprenticeship program. Students spend five weeks working at established microbreweries and brewpubs across the country. Apprenticeship has always been a vital part of learning brewing. Doemen’s Academy in Germany requires that students spend one year in five in their program working as an intern.

“That’s still the way people learn to brew craft beer,” said John Isenhour, a former pub brewer who is director for information technology, research and development for North Carolina State University Libraries. His doctoral thesis dealt, in part, with how brewers have communicated with each other since written records were kept.

Before the Industrial Revolution and widespread use of scientific tools such as the thermometer, some knowledge could only be passed directly from brewer to brewer. “For you to understand it, you had to be there and experience it with him,” Isenhour said. “He’d say, ‘You do this when a mash bites smartly on your finger.’ You had to be there the first time to know what that meant.”

When Isenhour was working on his doctorate at the University of Illinois and brewing beer for Joe’s Brewery in Champaign, would-be brewers would offer to work for the experience. “The problem is that you spend as much time training the person as he or she could save you. Brewing requires too much knowledge to walk in and start doing,” he said.

There was a time, in the mid-1990s, when a brewery or brewpub opened almost every day of the year, that brewers had to learn right on the job. “The industry is full of those success stories,” Parkes said. “Now I think there is more at stake for brewery owners.”

Chuck Skypeck understands this. Skypeck, now chairman of the IBS Board of Advisers, didn’t have any formal training when Boscos Brewing Co. opened the first of its three brewery-restaurants in 1992. He relied on what he had read, his homebrewing experience, and a lot of networking with other brewers.

“The opportunities are so much different now than they were then,” he said. “There are certainly people who are still opening and having success, but (.” The first Boscos opened in Germantown, TN, hardly a beer Mecca, but Skypeck soon was brewing a classic “flaming stone” beer and serving cask-conditioned beer (with customers serving as cellar men and women).

“I’ve learned a lot about how to be successful in terms of brewing particular things,” said Skypeck, who moved to Nashville to open the second Boscos pub and back to Memphis to start the third. “How to expand our customers’ flavor profile.”

He recently hired a new brewer. It was a tough decision because there was more than one qualified candidate. “Basically, I made it based on practical experience,” he said.

Engineers and Farmers

Mark Matheson has more formal training, having graduated with a degree in fermentation science from UC-Davis. In an average work week, he puts in about two days making beer at Turtle Mountain Brewing Co. in Rio Rancho, NM. Two days a week, he commutes an hour-plus (one way) to make wine at Santa Fe Vineyards; and one or two days a week, he works at Anderson Valley vineyards in Albuquerque.

“In brewing and making wine, anything you do is experience–‘have you seen it before?'” Matheson said. “Whether it is wine or beer, I think you have to do it about 10 years to get a grasp. I’ve gotten to that point with wine, and I hope I’m getting there with beer.”

Matheson managed to grab a coveted spot in one of Dr. Michael Lewis’s popular beer courses when he was at UC-Davis, but stuck primarily to wine making until becoming the first brewer at Assets Brewing Co. in Albuquerque in 1993. That company expanded into fabricating, and Matheson installed breweries across the nation for Liquid Assets. He left Assets in 1998.

He may actually spend parts of six days each week at Turtle Mountain. “We’ve got sodas, and you might have to get those hooked up,” he said. “You see how the beers are going out, because you have to be thinking a couple of months ahead on what you’ll be making. We’ve got a small malt room, so it’s pretty much just-in-time inventory.”

He brewed about 725 barrels of beer in 2001. “I do a lot of multi-tasking,” he said. “When I come in, I may start a brew, then transfer beer, then get back to the mash, then clean some lines or kegs.”

Matheson is familiar with the old saying that farmers make wine and engineers make beer, but he sees science playing an increasing role in the former. “The rate of innovation in wine is staggering,” he said. “Especially among the big guys. With brewing, at least at the craft level, you feel like you are staying closer to the basics.”

Breweries don’t come bigger than Anheuser-Busch, where change is constant. Brewers at 12 operations across the United States constantly work to improve the production process while making beer that tastes the same whether it comes from Newark or Houston. For Mitch Steele, the assistant brew master at Anheuser-Busch’s brewery in Merrimack, NH, and another fermentation sciences graduate of UC-Davis, that doesn’t change the basics.

“A brewer to me is part scientist, part artist and part public relations manager,” Steele said. He spent eight years in the wine business, then four years in pub brewing at San Andreas Brewing in Hollister, CA. He has worked in several A-B breweries since 1992 and in many roles, including that of new products manager.

He quickly learned “never to accept anything less than 100 percent quality,” he said. “You don’t want to give your customer something that isn’t representing your best effort. There are so many choices out there that he or she will move on to something else.”

Watching the Bottom Line

Parkes said beginning brewers are often so close to what they are doing that they don’t think about what choices they’ll have when they grow tired of hoisting 55-pound bags of malt. “I was more concerned about getting beer out the door,” Steele said, thinking back to when he brewed at San Andreas. “I was just enjoying brewing beer at first, but after four years, I did start thinking about other options.”

Until you go to work for A-B, there is always a bigger brewery out there. Left Hand Brewing co-founder Eric Wallace finds that many people who visit the Longmont, CO, brewery ask about starting their own.

“A lot of them still think you can get rich doing this,” he said. They enter through the tasting room, and the taps are never far from their minds. “It’s cool. You make beer here, you drink it there. They don’t realize that a lot of times I never get near the tasting room before the last person is out the door.”

Wallace is 40, and co-founder Dick Doore will be 40 this year. “We prefer to hire people with mortgages and maybe a couple of kids.” They are former homebrewers who first met as Air Force cadets in the 1980s, and reunited after leaving the service to start Left Hand in 1994. Back then, either one could do whatever needed to be done at the brewery

That didn’t last long. “You go from being an overgrown homebrewer to running a business real quick,” said Wallace. Today, Doore oversees the brewery operation but doesn’t have time to brew, and Wallace focuses on marketing and distribution. Left Hand merged with Tabernash Brewing in 1998, and soon thereafter started its own distributing company, Indian Peaks Distribution. Indian Peaks handles 23 breweries and importers, about 180 beers total.

“We’re controlling our access to markets,” Wallace said. It has been a learning process at several levels, starting with running a distribution business. “It teaches us what is working with wholesalers and what’s not.”

Saint Arnold’s Wagner was also a homebrewer who wanted to run his own business. “I ran the numbers and figured I could keep a roof over my head, have a house, some kids, retire at 65 and take a vacation every year,” he said. “In investment banking, it’s all about money. I realized that money wasn’t what motivated me in life.”

Four years after the brewery opened in 1994, he estimated he was making perhaps a quarter of what he would have as an investment banker, and that was just fine. But he and Bartol also realized the brewery was not going to be big enough to support both of them. They agreed that Wagner would buy out Bartol.

“I haven’t physically brewed in four years,” Wagner said. “I miss that sometimes, but I don’t miss starting at 5 a.m.” Of course, he was the brewer when Saint Arnold started. “I knew about as much as your advanced homebrewer, and looking back, that wasn’t very much.”

Every weekend, before the brewery opened, he’d drive up to Arlington and brew with the late George Fix, an accomplished amateur brewer whose advice was cherished by homebrewers and professional brewers alike. Fix died in March after a battle with cancer. “We’d brew and he’d haul out technical journals and teach me something every time. He brought me to that level to where we could open.”

Not everything went perfectly. “That first batch I messed up a conversion,” Wagner remembers. What was supposed to be an amber ale was hoppier than an India pale ale. “There were 13 people in Houston who loved it,” Wagner said, laughing.

Forgetting the Bottom Line

Skypeck remembers his first batch at Boscos almost as vividly, and why he keeps brewing. “I like the artistic part,” he said. “The first day we opened, people were sitting up and down the bar drinking my beer. I don’t think that feeling has ever gone away.”

There are times when the bottom line is not the bottom line. That’s why Isenhour will tell people how much work brewing is, why Wagner can verify it’s a tough business, why Matheson may point to his own crazy work scheduleÖand there will always be new brewers.

Flossmoor Station’s Ashman had worked at a variety of jobs, including as a jet engine mechanic in the Air Force, before he decided to take severance pay from a job in California rather than move again. He used the money to attend the American Brewers Guild in 1995.

He’s clearly at the top of his game now, earning eight Great American Beer Festival medals in the last five years. “I know I’m at the older end [of the age spectrum],” said Ashman, who is 41. “I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t notice. Most of my colleagues around here [Chicago and the suburbs] are 10 or 15 years younger.”

Soon he was talking instead about three new 15-barrel, bright beer tanks that were on order.

“We’re still trying to do new and interesting things,” he said. “I love doing what I do, and I couldn’t give it up. To me, it still revolves around having the passion.”