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.