What do you do for a living? Brewmaster

I make beer.

How would you describe what you do?

Well, brewing is about 80% cleaning, so some say we’re glorified maids. I don’t like that term, but you have to be exceptionally clean in the brewing industry, so you’re always cleaning something. Whether it be circulating chemicals in a tank to clean it and then circulate chemicals to sterilize it and then, or maintaining your draft lines need to be clean because bacteria can build up in them. So you’re always cleaning something. Even during a brew day anywhere the beer or wort”before it’s beer it’s wort”comes in contact, you have to make sure that chemical passes through those pipes or hoses or valves and fittings.

…it’s still work but it’s work that you love. It’s not like you wake up in the morning like, Oh, crap! I got to go make beer today!

Besides that, there’s small amount of paperwork involved. You have to do your paperwork for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Twice a month, they get paperwork sent to them, and they get $7 a barrel that we produce. The state gets a percentage of beer that we sell and so there’s a small amount of paperwork. I’m not a desk-type of person, and a nightmare job for me would be sitting in front of a computer, in an office. So this is neat because you’re always on your feet. It’s very physical work, but you’re doing something different. Creating recipes is a fun part of it. When I was searching for jobs and I ended up here, I liked the pub environment and a smaller system where I can use my creative freedom. I can create new batches of beer, keep the customers on their toes as what’s coming out next; different styles, that kind of thing.  And then taking existing recipes and tweaking the recipes slightly to try and improve them. And the only way to really do that is change one small thing at a time. You can’t, change your water treatment and add different hops or different yeast strain, all three things, and then expect to know what the difference is. You have to do one subtle thing at a time. When I was searching for this current brew job, I had been offered positions in a micro brewery or production plant, where it’s basically a beer factory at that point where you’re, you know, at 2:10, you start this pump and at 2:30, you move this lever and do this. And you’re brewing the same beers day in day out, and you got the bottling line and the tagging line. That’s not a good job for me to have. I really like the small pub environment where I can come out and say hi to the customers, or you see a sample platter go out and you could approach the table after they’re half-way through them, and find out what they like, what they didn’t like, and what could I do to make it better kind of thing.

What does your work entail?

Typically, nine to five. Brew days are always longer. Brew days here tend to be about ten hours. There’s not so many events in this area because there’s not a lot of breweries, but coming from Chicago, it seemed like there was a beer event every weekend, and I would attend as many as possible to spread the word for the pub and get people introduced to Craft Beer in general. But they’re long, labor-intensive hours.

…that’s one of the beautiful things about brewing. It’s as complicated as you want it to be or it’s as simple as you want it to be. I’ve had great homebrew from extract formulas and I˜ve talked to people who have Doctorates in Fermentation Science that make great beer…

I like to fall into a schedule where I can get weekends off. That’s not going to happen here just because we do tours on Saturday. So typical days off here would be Sunday, Monday”because those are your slower days and because Monday we’re closed here”so that makes sense.

How did you get started as a brewmaster?

I have a pretty unique story. I mean, most people homebrew and develop a love for it and decide to seek it out as a career and go to school for it. Mine is completely different than that. My father was a school teacher, and he started collecting beer cans in the ˜70s when it was real popular¦And since he had summers off, we would actually camp at campgrounds as a family vacation, and tour breweries. And in each brewery, we went to get a couple of cans for his collection. And we were doing this since I was like four or five years old. Now this is the early to mid ˜70s when there weren’t brew pubs or micro breweries, they were all very large industrial-size brewing facilities. And growing up in the Chicago area, there were really none in Chicago to speak of, so we would go to Stroh’s in Detroit and we’d go to Hamm’s in St. Paul. And we’d see Pabst and Schlitz and Miller in Milwaukee, and we would go to Lacrosse, Wisconsin where they had Old Style¦ And we would tour all these plants all around the Midwest pretty much. And it left a huge impression on me as a young boy, walking into these breweries and seeing these tanks that go up seven stories and the smell of beer on the ground and the cold rooms and the smell of the wort boiling with the hops. And I could remember being in a mid-sized brewery in O’Clare, Wisconsin. It was like a 50-barrel brew house, pretty small compared to some of the other large ones. And the brew master was giving the tour”and a big burly German guy with a big beer belly and wearing suspenders and stuff looks at his watch and he’s like, Oh, it’s time to add the hops. And he’s like, Hey, kid. Come here, and he points to me”and I was about seven years old at this time”and he says, Climb up this ladder and I’m going to hand you this bushel of hops and dump it in, but don’t fall in the kettle. And I remember climbing up the ladder and looking at this big tank boiling and squirting¦I dumped in the bushel of hops, and I remember being seven years old and thinking like, This is what I want to do when I grow up. And so, freshman year, I sit down with your guidance counselor in high school and he’s like, So what do you want to do with your life? kind of thing. I said, I really want to be a brewmaster, then he looks at me and he like throws his pen across the desk and folds his arms back, and he said I’ve been doing this for thirty-two years and I’ve never heard anything like that. I’ve heard, I want to be a bartender or I want to work as a beer distributor kind of thing, but I’ve never heard anybody say that. And he’s like, Well, let’s check it out. So he gets down on his primitive Apple computer at that tim and lo and behold, there’s actually a school in Chicago that teaches how to make beer. And this the Seibel Institute of Technology and they’ve been teaching how to make beer since the 1870s. And for the longest time, you either went to Chicago, Illinois to learn how to make beer or you went to Munich, Germany where you better speak fluent German because they don’t have English translators. So I’m like, That’s great!. We looked further into it and the courses were quite expensive. At that time, it was about $10 or $12,000 dollars to go attend an eight-week course where you’re basically there nine to five and you’re just inundated with a plethora of information. So, in high school, I took a lot of math and chemistry and biology, and ended up going to community college where I furthered my chemistry and biology thinking that this is what I’m going to need. I ended up getting a job at UPS to kind of pay bills while in school, and save my money to go to beer school. And right before I turned 21, at my hometown of Burlingame, Illinois, a small brew pub opened up called the Wine Keller. And I’m like, This is unbelievable! There’s actually a brewery in my hometown. But I wasn’t 21 yet. So, as soon as I turned 21¦the owner had a free tour and tasting to promote his new company, and they’d been around for maybe a year at the most, and I went there with my family and my girlfriend at the time, and did the tour. And the brewmaster was a German guy named Udo, and during the tour, he had mentioned that his son Christopher was the assistant brewer, but he was attending college in August and he needed someone to fill his shoes. And I thought, No way! This is unbelievable! So after the tour, I pulled him aside, introduced myself. I said, I’ve always had a love for beer. I’ve wanted to be a brewmaster since I was a kid. I’m saving my money to go to beer school, and he’s like, Oh, that sounds great, he’s like, Why don’t you start tomorrow? And I mean, literally, I had been 21 for three or four days and I’m working in a commercial brewery now. So I was part-time assistant apprentice for six years. During those six years, there’s numerous brewmasters that came and went. As it turns out, this German named Udo was quite a stickler to work for, wasn’t very people-friendly. And I was still working at UPS at the time so I never did attend a beer school, but I learned hands on from numerous brewmasters, some who have gone on to open their own very prominent breweries themselves. So then it came down to a career choice in the mid ’90s of Am I going to drive a brown truck the rest of my life or am I going to make beer? Well, driving a brown truck, you’re a teamster, you get union, you get great benefits, you make great money, and then I’m thought, Well, then I’m dealing with, brown packages, wearing the same uniform every day, doing the same route every day, in Chicago weather and Chicago traffic, and thought, I want to make beer. So, I bounced around quite a few breweries in Chicago, the last one ended up canceling the brewing operations on me with four days’ notice. And I had an eight-month old daughter at the time, and my wife who worked for the same company, got let go as the party planner, so we were both without a job kind thinking, What are we going to do? So I got my resume together and the owners of this brewery actually contacted me through a person who had done some brewery work here. And then I did a phone interview, they sent my family down back in July to check the area out, see if you liked it. They made me a nice offer, and I accepted and sold my house, and I’m here now.

What do you like about what you do?

Well, the creative freedom that I had mentioned. I love interacting with the customers. I love the sights and smells of making the beer. If I don’t want to deal with the public I could close the door and turn the tunes up, enjoy music all day as I’m working. Or I can go out and visit with the customers and ask them what they like or don’t like about the beer. And, of course, I have a passion for beer and I love good quality handcrafted beer, so that’s the main part. And then getting free beer and food in the process is a nice perk.

What do you dislike about being a brewmaster?

I dislike the heat, especially here, the brewery here, for some reason, has no fresh air coming into it, and we just had a real hot spell and it was absolutely brutal. I’m down two belt sizes in four weeks because of it. But you basically, from the time you start till the time you finish, you are completely sweating. I’ve worked at other breweries that had, dedicated air conditioning units just for the brew house”and it was never uncomfortable” but you still got sweaty during periods of the brewing because you’re dealing with steam and heat and hot things. But that’s the most difficult part that I dislike is the heat.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

It’s a salary position with benefits. This particular job helps with insurance. You get a twenty dollar a day allowance for food and two free beers a day. Other companies will offer a 401k and profit sharing, part ownership where they will take a part of your salary and then you’ll be a part of the profits of the business.

How much money do you make as a brewmaster?

With all the benefits involved is between $40,000 and $50,000.

What education or skills are needed to be a brewmaster?

The biggest thing that helps is home brewing. You’re starting at home and tinkering around with recipes and switching from extract to all-grain and seeing how that works, and trying out different styles and using different yeast strains. And then a solid education will help. I know the University of California, Davis, has a bunch of different beer programs. I think the University of Wisconsin offers some beer programs, and definitely the Seibel Institute of Technology, that I mentioned, in Chicago is one of the most renowned brewmaster schools. Definitely willing to work physical labor, the ability to handle heat, the ability to work long hours”they can be long hours especially if you’re on your own. You need to have a solid foundation of Chemistry and Biology, which isn’t completely necessary”and that’s one of the beautiful things about brewing. It’s as complicated as you want it to be or it’s as simple as you want it to be. I’ve had great homebrew from extract formulas and I˜ve talked to people who have Doctorates in Fermentation Science that make great beer so, it’s just all those things.

What is most challenging about what you do?

The most challenging aspect is probably keeping up with demand. I’ve worked at brew pubs where you can make a batch of beer and you don’t have to worry about making it for month or two because it’s a lower demand setting. Here it’s really busy, so trying to predict the future of saying, Okay, this tank is getting low, you better have a back-up for it, because beer takes two to six weeks to age depending on the style so, planning for the future and keeping up with production is one of the most challenging aspects.

What is most rewarding?

Most rewarding is sitting down after a long hard workday and enjoying a cold beer, absolutely. And just hearing the feedback from the customer saying how much they love your beer or, you know, What did you do to change it? I love it so much better. That kind of thing.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

I would say get a home brew kit. Go to a home brew shop either online or in your neighborhood and ask a lot of questions, read a lot of books, subscribe to the beer publications, there’s numerous of them, check out all the beer websites and learn as much as you can before you decide to make it a career. Some people don’t like the smell of wort boiling, some people don’t like the smell of (spun grain), it’s revolting to some. I personally love it and can’t believe that some people find it offensive. I would say, find out if you like it first. I mean, most people think it’s going to be great, you know, I make beer, and some people have quit careers to be brewmasters and love it to death, and others have left the brewing profession because the money isn’t there, especially without much experience. I guess the starting salary is usually around $30,000 or less, $35,000 on the high side, and a lot of people will think they’d love it as their passion and their career and decide that there’s no way to make enough money at it.

How much time off do you get/take?

Typically, it’s a two-week paid vacation and two days off a week, but that doesn’t include festivals which, like I said, luckily there’s not a lot of brewery events going on here. When you have those you can plan on busy weekend.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

That we’re fat! No, you know, most people think of a brewmaster in a typical German environment with a big, burly, beer belly guy. My concept of the brewmaster, especially growing up as a kid, was always the guy with the white lab coat walking around with the clip board taking readings and telling people what to do. I guess another misconception would be that we’re drunks. I don’t know too many brewmasters who abuse the privilege. I mean, it would be the easiest thing in the world to come in and start nipping off of the tanks first thing in the morning, but you’re not going to get anything done and you’re going to end up hurting yourself because there’s a lot of dangerous chemicals and pumps and things and things that trip over always. Buy yeah, I would say those are the two biggest misconceptions.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

Ideally, I would like to open my own. Location is the main thing. I mean, this place has a great location; you’re close to campus, there’s an endless supply of traffic, you have new customers every year. It’s an ideal situation. So I would say my ideal goal would be to make enough money. Save some money, and gather enough people and investors together to open my own location, in a small-scale, location to be determined.

What else would you like people to know about what you do?

Just that I’m doing something I love. I mean, it’s still work, sure I’d rather sit at home and watch cable or read a book and make money, it’s still work but it’s work that you love. It’s not like you wake up in the morning like, Oh, crap! I got to go make beer today! You have to have that passion and there are so many people I talk to that they hate their jobs. I love my job. I love what I do. Moving from Chicago to here was a huge change especially with a family. If I was a single guy, it wouldn’t be as big of a deal, but it’s something that the wife was there to support me in that decision and she knows that I didn’t want to get a job in a machine shop or something. And especially with this much skill and experience, I wanted to continue doing this.