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ON BEER AND BREWING: SO YOU WANT TO BE A BREWER, EH?

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So you want to be a brewer, eh?

Late afternoon light, steam heat, and the probable finger cut—it could be almost any day in the brewery. After the grain has been shoveled from the mash tun, after yeast has been pitched, after the farmer has hauled away the trailer, there is water everywhere, and a half hour more of work to do before I can go home. I’d woken up today at 4:30 a.m., it’s now 3 in the afternoon, and

I think I’ll be having a beer while I squeegee the floor towards the drains.

Knee-high boots, I walk into the tasting room of my brewery and am confronted with a familiar sight:

a mid-thirtysomething married couple, all baby bjorned, the wife looking amusedly around at nothing in particular and the bearded husband with the look of a kid who can’t keep a secret.

He can tell by my safety glasses and rubber boots that I’ve got something to do with the beer he’s drinking, and (dammit!) he’s going to find out what.

(I want to be very clear about that fact that I really like people, and I really like talking to them about brewing and beer. Just not after an 11-hour shift, and not when my feet are wet).

These conversations are almost always identical: questions about the beer they’re drinking, then questions about what hops we used, then casual mentioning of homebrewing, then an effusive profession of one’s love for brewing, then the questions about how I got into brewing, then, finally, the heartbreaker:

“So, do you guys need volunteers, because I’m trying to get into the brewing industry?”

“Sorry man, we don’t need help. And, personally, I don’t bring on volunteers, because it ends up being more of a liability than a help.” He’s crushed.

I feel for ya, buddy. Most sincerely. It was only four or so years ago that I was following Dann Paquette around like a stray dog during the first St. Botolph’s Day barcrawl, giving him the Vistaprint business card on which I described myself (and I’m not exaggerating)  as “Christopher Shea: Home Brewer, Bon Vivant.”

Oliver Twist asking for more gruel.

And, really, I wish that everyone who wanted to work in a brewery, if that is truly what they love doing, could work in a brewery.

Every person should be able to do something that they find personally satisfying and get paid for it.

Unfortunately, that’s not how the world is, and no brewer worth his salt wants or needs someone to work for free. Brewing’s dangerous business, and, at the end of the day, it’s work.

So where does that leave Guy-who-wants-to-be-a-brewer? I really don’t have an answer for that. I’m faithful that if someone really loves something, they’ll do it regardless. If he wants to be a brewer, he should go for it. I can’t give him hours in my shop, but I can give him some free advice.

So here’s my advice for people who want to turn pro:

FIRST: DON’T DO IT!

There’s a very good chance that, if you’re reading this article, you’re college educated and probably white (just going by statistics). The thing you need to understand is that brewing is not glamorous or cool. It’s hard, crap work and it’s not very rewarding.

There are people, like me, who are genetically predisposed to this kind of masochism, but we’re not to be emulated. I’m certain that you can find a job that pays really well and then you can homebrew on the weekends. If you still need fulfillment in your life, volunteer at a soup kitchen. Those people actually do need your help and time.

SECOND: accept the fact that you’re probably already screwed.

If you’re married, in your thirties, and have a kid, then, short of winning the lottery and opening a brewery, you’re boned, buddy. There are only two ways of getting into brewing: working your way up from the bottom by flipping kegs for minimum wage at a brewpub (like I did), or dropping thirty large to go to brewing school for three months (and then probably flipping kegs for minimum wage). There’s no way your wife will let you do that. And she’s right; listen to her.

THIRD: be ready to move.

Brewing work comes to no man! Another reason married men rarely become brewers. You gotta be open to work anywhere in the country.

Right now there are probably 20 start-up breweries hiring in Oregon. Go check out probrewer.com. You’ll find them in the classifieds. Are you ready to move to Oregon to flip kegs for minimum wage? If so, then you might have what it takes.

FOURTH: don’t expect to be fulfilled by your job.

If you, by God’s own grace, slog through the three or so years of crap work that it usually takes to be even allowed up on the brew deck, be ready for it to quickly become a job and not your soul’s salvation from the existential vacuum of modern living.

You now have 20-30 years of pouring flowers into boiling sugar water to look forward to. Cheers!

And FIFTH: do your best to be nice to the guy you used to be.

If you do become a brewer, you’re going to come across your past-self, searchingly trying to get his foot in the door. Tell him not to give up and that you’d be happy to talk to him about homebrewing. Have him send you an email.

Be nice! We were all there at one point.

As craft beer becomes ever more popular, and the bubble expands to the trembling edges of its capability, we will, inevitably, confront the fetishized and dreamed-up version of what a brewer is.

Rare are the Garret Olivers. Mostly a brewer is someone who spends 40-50 hours a week in a loud, ass-hot factory pushing around liquid.

We’re janitors who get free beer.

It’s not all that bad, but it’s certainly not cool or glamorous. We build our communities out of necessity, and we love each other, but that can be found anywhere you find kind and passionate people. If you really want this lifestyle, then by all means, go for it. But if you’re in your thirties, and you have a wife and two kids, maybe consider just keeping your day job.

Chances are, if you were supposed to be a brewer, you’d probably already be one by that point.

Still, sometimes people do win the lottery, and sometimes people do open up breweries. Do what’s right.


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26 Responses to ON BEER AND BREWING: SO YOU WANT TO BE A BREWER, EH?

  1. Fascinating — thanks for the writeup. I’ve always suspected the job was pretty much manual labor, long hours, and a lot of sweating a very little time drinking beer and laughing with customers.

    It seems to me the only real way to try to make it work in a positive light is to open your own place so you can run it entirely from the get-go and do it in a small enough market that paying the rent and so forth isn’t onerous and you don’t have to make a bazillion dollars a month just to stay afloat.

    That being said, there’s still the mountain of being a 30-something with 2 kids having to get a biz loan and strike out in an unproven venture with little experience in the industry and hoping it all just works out.

    For now, I’ll keep it a dream. But it’s a nice one to imagine my own place.

  2. Peter Peter says:

    Spot on. I took a 50+% pay cut to work in my favorite microbrewery and while I love it, I have never worked harder or sweated more in my life. It’s hard not very glamorous work, and I am proud of what I do. You also are responsible for everything that goes on in what people consume from the kegging to cleaning tanks to moving the beer and bottling. When people ask “oh you’re the brewer?” and you answer, “no but I…” they immediately lose interest even though you arguably have a lot more to do with what they consume because without brewery employees, that pint probably could never happen.

  3. Jen Jen says:

    As a woman, what would you say to us trying to break into what is essentially a boy’s club? I’m no stranger to hard, physical, dirty work. I’ve done work in fine art sculptural glass for the last couple years. It’s backbreaking, long, hot hours working with heavy, dangerous shit for extremely little pay [actually, minimum wage]. I love it. I also have an interest in brewing and have done a bit of it what I can in my tiny ass apartment.

  4. CHRIS SHEA CHRIS SHEA says:

    I don’t think that brewing is necessarily a boys club anymore. Granted there is clearly a gender skew towards men, but that is typical of most industrial work. More and more women are working on brew decks and in labs these days, and with the spread of automation in larger breweries, there is less and less reason to believe that either gender is more qualified. I knew a really great girl who worked in the QA lab at Schalfly, and I met a really nice lady brewer at Redhook. Any qualified anybody can work in a brewery, as far as I’m concerned. Best get a degree in brewing science or mechanical engineering or biology. That’s the best way to move in, but that’s just good advice for anybody who wants to work in a brewery.

  5. KFBass KFBass says:

    Well written man. Funny, but still very realistic. I loved “You now have 20-30 years of pouring flowers into boiling sugar water to look forward to. Cheers!”

    It takes a special kind of crazy to work in a brewery. I love my job, but everything you said is true. If I had kids, a mortgage, a wife, hell any kind of responsibility at all when I started at a brewery for $12/hr I couldn’t have kept it up for as long as I have (and thats a generous wage for most breweries). Like I said, there are some of us crazy folk who just need to do this. For everyone else, homebrew on weekends, and keep coming by the brewery, we love to talk beer with you!

  6. Cathy Cathy says:

    I’m the wife of that 30-something guy with two kids and a dream, and said “Why not?”, so it’s not totally impossible. Still very, very hard though. :-P

  7. will will says:

    @Jen, definitely not a boys club anymore http://i.imgur.com/fO4V7LA.jpg

  8. Gabe Gabe says:

    I’m a 30-something, married, but with no kids and still want to open a brewery – I guess I’m 2/3rds boned? :)

  9. CHRIS SHEA CHRIS SHEA says:

    Gabe, nobody is ever truly boned when it comes to pursuing a dream. Rather, it’s a matter of whether you should do it in the first place. I turned pro at 25, and have always considered myself behind in the game. I really don’t expect to have my own shop (if I ever do) until I’m close to 40. Those developmental 5-7 years of obsession necessary to be great at anything are quite often at odds with raising kids and paying mortgage. I strongly recommend against anybody going straight from home-brewer to brewery owner, especially in the current bubble climate.

    I think of friends of mine who have successfully opened a brewery recently. Phil Wymore of Perennial Artisan Ales in STL comes to mind. He is running a fantastic brewery near downtown St. Louis, and raising two kids, and is keeping his wife happy (I HOPE!). But he also went to Siebel after college, worked at Goose Island, and then ran Half-Acre. It was only after all those years he felt good about opening his own place.

  10. Mark Mark says:

    Chris, well written! I had to chuckle a bit reading this as I’ve been homebrewing for many years. Many of my friends tell me I should open my own brewery :) I just say thanks! Have another if you want! A house, day job, wife, and two kids keeps me in the homebrewing side :) . You give good perspective.

    Mark

  11. Chip conlon Chip conlon says:

    Even more fun is trying to meek it out as a chef for ten years and then become a brewer! ;) I always tell people they should go to culinary school to become a dishwasher as quick as they go to Davis to be a keg grunt. That said, if you have the right work ethic…it is a great job! Cheers-well written.

  12. Jason Jason says:

    I think that while a lot of those 30-somethings looking for a career change think they want to be brewers, they’d probably be much happier as sales reps.

  13. George George says:

    LOVE IT! I’ve 20+ years in microbrewing, starting washing kegs at $5/hour, now a brewmaster for a 3 brewpub small chain. This is SPOT ON and I will include link next time I post a “brewer wanted” ad. Cuts, smashed fingers, wet feet, 14 hour days, low wages, even with specialized degrees and experience. I’ve loved every minute of it, but I am that special kind of devoted masochist willing to live just above the poverty line to achieve my dream.

  14. Kevin Kevin says:

    Reality revealed! Nice work, Chris.

    Brewing is like being a musician. You do it for a living because you can’t imagine doing anything else.

    When I started working there was no craft industry. I was the Homebrewer that transitioned by obsessively learning as much science and engineering as I could. Yet, these days, new hires need to show college level work and a certificate from a brewing school.

    As it turns out, I spend a mere 30% of my time actually making beer. The rest is cleaning, planning and repairing. I work at least 50 hours a week and often 60.

    I’ve fallen in love with making the same recipes over and over. I’ve fallen in love with the tedium of filtering, kegging and explaining my beer to new servers…again. I like passing that passion on to my assistants, too.

    I get the beer geek, passionate customer and beer know-it-all through my doors, everyday. Yet, when they tell me their thoughts about beer, and mine specifically, I still listen. Even though its nearly always compliments and praise, I still give an honest reply, “Thanks, I can’t hear that often enough.”

    That’s my real reward.

  15. Well said and good advice. You didn’t sugar coat a thing. But where else can you walk up to your emplyees, ask if they have been drinking and be surprised if they say no.

  16. Per Per says:

    I don’t thing brewing is so special. If you want to be an actor, artist, photographer, a Vet, a sports pro, a professor, start your own shop/pub/restaurant (most kind of businesses really), design cars, inventor, mercenary, politician, whistleblower, etc either way you har to work harder than you imagined. Even getting married and having kids can be harder than beeing a brewer. Whether you “really want something” is not a given, it can be a product of lot of different variable, chance could easily be the greatest one. “Really wanting something” developes through experience, because what you wanted in the first place almost always turns out to be something different in real life.

  17. Al Al says:

    Boy after reading the article I am more excited than ever to open a brewery……anything involving masochism is right up my alley!! I have been a professional firefighter for over twenty years. Believe me the stuff my poor body has gone through pales in comparison to what a brewer has to go through. In fact that is one reason why I love brewing so much…the sheer physical work!! Nothing fancy….just hard work. My plan is to open up my brewery a few years before retirement and see where it goes. I do agree though being a brewer is a poor 1st career choice. Go do something else where you can make some decent money and get an early retirement. THEN go open a brewery.

  18. CHRIS SHEA CHRIS SHEA says:

    Good luck!

  19. Mark Mark says:

    SPOT ON…

    18 years of this business & I see the above described “family of 3+” with the guy OR the girl with the same gleam in their eye. I’ll remember the soup kitchen comment for the future, thanks Chris…

  20. Pingback: Henniker head brewer on the reasons why you are probably never going to go pro | BeerPulse

  21. doug doug says:

    I hope this article doesn’t leave every aspiring professional brewer leave them as jaded as the author. Consider his point of view – he has brewed at White Birch and now Henniker (as far as I know). White Birch makes sub-par and often flawed beer. Henniker is a production facility that makes uninspired grocery store beer – anyone up for a dusty IPA? I would write as negative of an article if I were wearing his rubber boots.

    Think of Richard Norgrove of Bear Republic. He invites homebrewers to his brewery to give him inspiration. Think of Tony Magee of Lagunitas who was a home brewer and still has major impact on all the recipes created with his brand. Think of Sam Caglione who is a spokesperson for SABCO. The list goes on….

    Brewing is hard work. Anyone who has mashed, boiled, fermented, and packaged knows that. Anyone with the intuition to use google knows brewers and cellarman make a minimal amount of money. I’m just wondering why in an industry that demands innovation and passion why anyone would write an article like this…

  22. It’s not negative, it’s a realistic portrayal from someone who is down in it on a day-to-day basis.

    What brand Chris brews with has nothing to do with the point of the article, and only serves to muck up and distract from the point.

    Too many people, seemingly you too Doug, are in love with the romantic side of brewing. All of the brewers you mention have achieved celebrity status. They are not the norm.

    I have interviewed many celebrity brewers and brewery owners over the last year and their message has been the same as Chris’ across the board.

    Nothing wrong with a dose of reality. In fact, instead of dose it should be a steady drip.

  23. Jeff Alworth Jeff Alworth says:

    All of this is superb advice except for one thing: don’t move to Oregon! This is absolutely the worst market for brewers in the country. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a brewer angling to start his own brewery. A good half of those new breweries are being helmed by guys with years or decades of experience as professional breweries. They have made connections enough to get capitalized. The worst place on earth to move is Oregon if you’re a young brewer.

    It’s better that you should move to Alabama or Kentucky instead. But that would tend to support Chris’s underlying thesis.

  24. Lauren Lauren says:

    @Jen – First of, as a female brewer, it is still a “boy’s club” (only 1% of brewers in Colorado are female), but it is a fun “club” to be in! Brewing is an extremely trying and exhausting career to choose. I can’t even tell you how many times a week I describe my day as “I got my ass kicked”. But it is very rewarding and so much fun!!

    I have no formal education in brewing and worked my way up through unpaid internships, then in packaging, now brewing.

    I’ll be happy to answer any questions or discuss hesitations you have regarding getting into the industry.

    As far as this article goes, I completely agree with all of it. It is not an industry for everyone. Those who really have the passion, work ethic and skill – go for it!

  25. Gretchen Gretchen says:

    @Jen – If you’re still out there feel free to contact me through my website or Facebook. I don’t disagree with anything Chris says, but my experience as a craft brewer (almost 20 years in) has been very different. I paid my dues, for years actually, but it worked out well for me. A few posters commented that a lot depends on the market – so true! Here in NJ, for example, breweries and experienced brewers are still somewhat of a novelty. Although there aren’t a lot of jobs, pay is certainly higher than in other brewery-intense areas. A pub brewer, as opposed to a production brewer (different licenses in NJ), definitely has a much easier life and is generally better compensated. You better be, if the owner is getting $6 a pint. Thanks, Chris, for this piece, a reality that many brewers do share.

  26. CHRIS SHEA CHRIS SHEA says:

    Glad you liked it Gretchen!

    It should be noted that I’m happily at work every day and really not cynical. Still, I hope people know what they’re getting into when they decide to move from home brewing to pro! I really do believe the world could use more brewers.