Going Pro: The Journey from Homebrewer to Commercial Brewer
Anyone who has successfully brewed a batch of beer at home has at one point thought, “this isn’t so hard, I bet I could do this full time.” Yours truly included. And I still think about it… On the surface, it seems like a great way to get paid for doing something you enjoy and making a product everyone enjoys. Perhaps you find you and your buddies mapping out a plan after a knocking back a handful of homebrews. All you need to do is develop some great tasting beer recipes and then scale it to make it in a large quantity, right? Guess what, if it was easy everyone would do it. So, let’s look at some of the ways you might go pro and why you may or may not want to go pro. Warning: this is a long post but stick with it.
Learning the Ropes
Unlike baseball, there really isn’t a “minor league” farm system where budding homebrewers can develop their craft and then easily transition to make beer on a commercial scale. Until recently, your only options were: (1) bite the bullet and raise enough capital to start your own brewery, or (2) be lucky enough to snag a manual labor job at a production brewer and learn the ropes over time. With the craft beer boom there are some new formal education programs sprouting up. It’s been said that some of the larger craft brewers are giving a preferential nod to those who have completed these formal programs over someone that has racked up homebrewing competition hardware. Some certificate-type programs include:
Siebel Institute – America’s oldest brewing school (over 130 years old) offers a wide range of classes which include formal on-site training to on-line self-paced study. This has been the gold standard (and often only option) for a long time. It’s faculty includes Cincinnati’s own Richard Dubé (head brewer at Moerlein Lager House) among a host of other brewing and distilling experts.
San Diego State University – A six-week course covering the topics of history, beer styles and flavor profiles, service, quality control, marketing and sales, distribution, and brewing and brewery management. The course is led by Bill Sysak of Stone and the advisory board is lead by Stone’s Greg Koch.
UC San Diego – The program curriculum provides students with the technical skill and knowledge to select raw materials, operate the brewhouse for wort production, manage yeast and fermentation processes, and finish and package the product. The business curriculum provides graduates with the skills and knowledge necessary to administer all financial and other operations of a brewery. The lead instructor for this program is Yuseff Cherney, head brewer at Ballast Point.
Oregon State University – Northwest Beer Sessions that include Sensory Analysis, Brewing Analytics, Craft Brewery Startup Workshop, and Beer Proficiency.
If you’re interested in a more traditional four-year program, there are a few options available as well.
UC Davis Brewing Science – The brewing science option prepares students for careers in production or quality assurance within the brewing industry or other food fermentation industries (e.g., other alcoholic beverages, vinegar and cheese). They also offer their brewing extension series.
Colorado State University Fermentation Science – The curriculum includes rigorous core scientific requirements and specialized coursework in the production, quality assessment, processing and packaging, and evaluation of value-added health benefits of fermented foods and beverages. Their business school also operates the Beverage Business Institute which covers the brewing industry.
The Glamor of Pro Brewing
Let’s cut to the chase, most brewers will tell you it’s not the most glamorous job in the world. The job isn’t like homebrewing in your driveway on a Saturday afternoon knocking back some beers and listening to Led Zeppelin. Blank Slate Brewing’s recent job posting highlighted perks of the job like lifting 55lb sacks of grain, cleaning kegs, dumping spent grain, working in extreme temperatures, and cleaning the floors. Overall he describes it as, “one of the crappiest jobs you’ve probably ever had.” By the way, that job is already filled if it sounded great to you. Your day-to-day brewery activity focus will probably change to sanitation, some more sanitation, quality control, quality assurance, cleaning the hell out of everything, and finally you might see how the beer comes out. An accomplished civil engineer recently left his job to work at a commercial brewery and shared his experience on Reddit. He found that cleaning and safety protocols were the unexpected aspects of the job. So your day is full of chemical and mechanical hazards, extreme environmental conditions, loads of manual labor, and you may not even get a beer at the end of the day.
Brewing on the Large Scale
Once you pay your dues and finally get a crack at developing/brewing your recipe here is another place where home brewing doesn’t quite translate to commercial scale. The larger, better, equipment is far more efficient with the handling of grain conversion and hop utilization. You won’t simply multiply up the 10lbs of base malt and six ounces of hop additions from your killer IPA recipe. You should be hitting in the high 90’s in grain conversion efficiency and the hops on such a large scale achieve greater bitterness utilization. You’re probably also going to be whirlpooling which keeps the hops in contact with the wort longer; more isomerization. Let’s also not forget that dumping a wretched 5-gallon batch of your elderberry wheat common porter is a far cry from pumping 10 barrels of liquid gold down the drain. Oh and let’s not forget to mention those precious hops are laying around in 11lb boxes at your local jumbo brew supply store. No, there are contracts for FUTURE years’ crops that you have to bargain for and compete with larger brewers to obtain. So maybe you can brew that hoppy wheat beer but there is a strong chance you just won’t be able to secure the hops you need to make it just right.
Why Take the Leap
For some, owning your own brewery helps fulfill innate entrepreneurial drives. Since I can’t describe it any more poignantly, Blank Slate’s Scott LaFollette describes his motivations for opening a brewery as follows.
Why does anyone ever go into business for themselves? Take the beer part out of the equation for a moment. Why do marketing people leave the security of a job at P&G to start their own firm? Why does a chef at a top restaurant leave to start his own food truck? You’re leaving a steady paycheck with medical benefits and set hours to spend 16 hours a day busting your butt for no paycheck and no medical benefits. Seems like the textbook definition of stupidity doesn’t it? Well maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.
They say that everything in life is a compromise. Some of us are wired to aspire to more in life than just bringing home a paycheck. Job satisfaction and thus life satisfaction don’t necessarily run linear to the amount of money you make. In my case I worked for a stinky plastic factory that was run by a venture capital firm that was out to do nothing but squeeze every drop of blood they could from that turnip before moving on to the next one. I became very jaded to the “corporate world” during my time there. So much so that I was generally miserable every day (all the plastic fumes didn’t help me feel very good either). The only thing that kept me going was the dream to work for myself someday. To build a company that did things “the right way” as an employer and a member of the community. If I had to resolve myself to the idea of working for the corporate world for another 40 years I probably would have slit my wrists.
Since the only thing I was passionate about (aside from my wife) was brewing it seemed pretty obvious that I only had one choice. So I “grinned and bared it” for about ten years in the corporate world all the while planning, researching and learning the business. Part of that planning was setting up my life for the financial hit it was about to take. It may sound romantic to say I “chucked it all” and started a brewery, but it took ten years of organizing my life to prepare for the lose the income I was making.
So I guess it’s more of a lifestyle choice. Some people are content to work the 9 to 5 job that they really don’t like in order to afford the quality of life that makes them feel comfortable and that’s totally cool. Other people are more content to do things that they truly believe in and live a different lifestyle and that makes them feel comfortable. There is nothing wrong with either choice and I think the world needs both to thrive.
So at the end of a long day I am sweaty. I am dirty. I am stressed about the bills and my debt and whether or not my hop contracts will come through in six months. Then I go to a tasting event and get to see and talk to people drinking my beer. I get to see that something I created with my own two hands is being enjoyed by someone else. Maybe that someone is like me circa 5 years ago and doesn’t like their job and just got out of a bad day there. Maybe drinking that beer helps them feel better about their day a little more than they would have otherwise. That to me is job satisfaction. The kind of satisfaction that I couldn’t personally get any other way.
Then the next day I get up and go back to stressing about all that other stuff. But at least I am stressing about my problems and not worrying about how I am going to make some millionaire a little richer today while he simultaneously cuts my benefits and freezes my salary……
All of the above seems to be a common theme amongst those who made the leap. I’ve witnessed them at the end of a long day of working on their brewery build out in complete exhaustion but happier than most guys with a loosened tie at happy hour staring into their glass. But it seems in most cases, I think they will agree they work 80 hours a week to make sure they never have to work 40 hours a week again.
Owning your own brewery isn’t the end game for all pro brewers. Some are attracted to craft brewing because of the inherent integrity of the product. Christian Moerlein brewer, Zach Heeney, found these qualities that attracted him to the career.
The job attracted me because Christian Moerlein’s, like most and all craft breweries, main goal is to make quality beer. They use quality malted barley, and do not cut corners as most commercial breweries do by substituting rice and/or corn syrup to the mash to save money. The work is not easy, I will admit, but worth it to know I am helping to produce a quality product reach the hands of every other hard working American. I love my job and love good quality real beer.
Different strokes, for different folks; sure. But, there is a common theme amongst the breed where pride in one’s work is a dominant force. There is a higher calling that seems to bring people to the industry rather than the promise of riches beyond their wildest dreams. Brewing can certainly be lucrative and rewarding, but just prepared to face some significant and perhaps, unexpected, challenges along the way. Hats off the wonderful men and women who dedicate themselves to the craft and have the innate passion to brew. I sure do love me some good beers!