So You Want to Go Pro?
Here at the American Brewers Guild, the professional brewing school in Middlebury, Vermont, where I am an instructor, we train professional brewers. We meet people from all walks of life and with diverse backgrounds, but the thing they most often have in common is the story they tell about the day they realized that their current career/life wasn’t working for them, and that they wanted to get up every morning and work at something they love rather than going through the motions of something they have to do. “When you love what you do you’ll never work another day in your life.” That idea brings all kinds of people to us in search of a formal brewing education and an opportunity to join a family of brewers recognized by the industry as being knowledgeable and excellent. If this describes you, before you quit your job and run off to brewing school, let’s go over a few realities about professional brewing.
The Best Background
While it’s not required for every brewing program out there, it’s very helpful to have some college-level science coursework under your belt before starting a pro brewing career. A science or engineering degree is even better. Biochemistry, microbiology, chemistry, and chemical engineering are all great places to start for anyone lacking hands-on experience in brewing. If you aren’t familiar with engineering fundamentals, such as fluid dynamics, heat transfer, gas laws, thermodynamics, liquid:solid separation, and enthalpy then your time in the brewery will be more challenging.
An impressive homebrewing resume can also serve you well when looking for a brewing job. As a professional head brewer who has hired brewers in the past, I’ve often looked at the homebrewing experience a candidate has. It shows not just an enthusiasm, or even passion, for beer, but also a willingness to learn as much about the process as possible. Internships were once a useful way of getting an opportunity to brew and to learn to brew, however these days laws have tightened up on the practice and in most cases labor laws prevent unpaid apprenticeships. Volunteering at your neighborhood brewery on packaging day is a tried and true practice, but again laws in many states prevent it as uninsured people operating brewery machines is probably not the best idea.
And of course, read and research as much as you can about brewing before you jump into pro brewing. When I started my career we had one brewing science textbook available; Hough, Briggs, Stevens and Young’s two-volume set was my textbook at University and it is heavy on biochemistry and a little light on anything practical. It was a few years before Michael Lewis and Tom Young published a new textbook that covered the basic science for a new generation of American craft brewers. Now, thanks to the work of the MBAA (Master Brewers Association of Americas), the BA (Brewers Association), and others we have access to numerous textbooks ranging from the highly technical to the practical and useful. I highly suggest taking the time to read some of them. The MBAA three-volume set has a lot of answers to your practical brewing questions, and the four books on ingredients published by the BA (Brewers Association) are an excellent resource. Anything written by Professors Bamforth and Lewis from UC-Davis are also must reads. The BA also publishes The New Brewer magazine six times a year, which contains useful technical articles, the professional organizations publish four times a year, and British and German organizations publish technical journals all aimed at professional brewers.
Be a Better Brewer
Once you’ve decided that, yes, you’re definitely going pro, your priority should be becoming the best brewer you can be. Many of my professional brewer friends have reported a new phenomenon: The idea that brewing using traditional methods and insistence on brewing to style is “old fashioned” and that the kids are in charge now — so get out of the way. To be honest, despite having 34 years of professional brewing experience, and a brewing degree, I have some sympathy for that attitude. I was 17 in 1977 and remember thinking that musicians that knew how to play their instruments represented the past and that punk rock was the future. I don’t believe that flavorful beer has quite won over the entire beer market yet, however, so it’s a bit soon to be indulging our amateurish tendencies, despite how passionate we are about our work.
When discussing what it takes to be a great brewer I often use a jazz analogy: If I pick up a saxophone and blow in one end of it and move my fingers over the keys it makes a sound that to the untrained ear sounds a bit like jazz. It takes training and years of practice mastering how to play all of the notes to get to the point where you can break the rules and have it sound pleasing. In the same respect, I don’t expect a novice brewer to immediately be able to master the brewing of a sour beer. It’s a mark of a good brewer to create a clean and balanced American pale ale with a robust malt backbone and delicate hop aroma. For example, I learned my craft brewing skills making cask ales in the UK, which is an unforgiving style of brewing. Later in my career I attempted lager brewing and have to say I find a Czech Pilsner to be particularly difficult to master. especially when trying to brew it commercially with the time constraints production brewing imposes. Get the yeast counts going into maturation and your beautifully balanced and crisp Pilsner will taste like butter after two weeks in the bottle.
Make industry connections
The network of pro craft brewers is big, and getting bigger — use that to your advantage and connect with your fellow brewers, both before you go pro and after. One of the remarkable things about the craft brewing community is the willingness of brewers to collaborate and to share information. There’s a sense that we’re all in this together — because in a real sense we are. Every time you travel to a new town visit the brewers there and ask lots of questions. While it’s possible you have dreamed up an entirely new way of brewing beer, it’s unlikely one of us hasn’t already thought of it, tried it, found it didn’t work, and have resorted to the methods we learned in our brewing textbooks. I was once visited by a neighboring novice brewer who was upset when I told him he needed a vessel capable of holding pressure to keg carbonated beer. I found myself apologizing for the laws of physics.
When you get into the industry, join MBAA, the BA, and your state’s brewing guild. If and when you decide to go pro, this will be your network — these are the people to talk to when you’re looking for a job, and will become your peer group of advisors. The advantages the huge brewers enjoy are difficult to overcome unless we grow the entire market segment, and we can best do that by working together. Fostering friendships with brewers close to you is invaluable; sharing techniques and information is the first advantage, but sharing ingredients and even equipment is possible. I’ve lent my carbonation tester and my filter to other brewers around the state. I’ve done lab work for one brewer and had lab work done by another. I’ve lent and borrowed hops, malt, cleaning chemicals, and even yeast. There’s a brewery a few miles up the road, theoretically competing directly for the same customers, and we regularly help each other out with growler caps. And there’s always the beer trading!
Judging in beer competitions is always valuable, at both the homebrew and pro level. It teaches a brewer about brewing to style, and helps in training for off-flavor recognition, and in the way ingredients work together to balance each other in a great beer. And it’s a great chance to meet other brewers!
What’s Different in the Big Leagues
You may have some ideas about the differences between pro brewing and homebrewing, such as batch size, brewing the same styles with consistency, and brewing beer lots of people want to buy. But there are other differences that a lot of homebrewers don’t anticipate when they enter into a pro brewing program.
One of the changes you will probably expect when you go pro is in the scope of the ingredients at your disposal. But they are probably not the changes you expect. Pro brewers spend a lot of time working with suppliers to secure enough raw ingredients to keep their catalog of beers in production. It comes as a surprise to some new brewers that the access to ingredients that they enjoyed for homebrewing is a little more challenging on a larger scale. Commercial brewers operate under contracts they have signed with suppliers covering several years. There’s little wiggle room in the supply chain these days and new beers, new ingredients, the death of brands etc. can create big challenges.
For example, barley, and hence the malt market, is produced globally, and so a drought in Russia or a storm in Germany can affect a brewery in Wisconsin. Barley is not high on the list of profitable crops to grow so farmers need encouragement. The traditional model of farmers striving to meet malting quality specifications with their crop, or sell the rest for animal feed is increasingly outdated.
Or consider hops. After decades of over-supply and shrinking demand led to low prices, and attrition among growers, the hop market faced a crisis in the late 2000s, when the sudden increase in demand for hops overtook supply. Shortages, long contracts and high prices resulted and the ripple effects are still being felt in commercial brewing. Brewer demand for hops has swung dramatically toward aroma varieties, and since picking for aroma is time sensitive, variable quality is an added factor to scarce supply as an issue for brewers. Many varieties are unavailable on the spot market, and several are sold out for several years in the future through forward contracts. Some very popular varieties are also proprietary, and so they are only grown on one hop farm.
Numerous supply options exist for sourcing brewer’s yeast from several reputable suppliers, but it’s still not the same as heading to the homebrew shop to grab a vial or smack pack. Of course you can replace yeast with a fresh pitch every time you brew, however that can get very expensive in a commercial operation. With experience you learn that you quickly have to develop a reliable method for re-use, which requires expertise, equipment, and a microscope.
Equipment and Processes
A better understanding of some key engineering principles is also required once you start producing beer for sale. Step into a commercial brewery and suddenly you’ll find yourself dealing with pumps, boilers, refrigeration units, and pressurized vessels. When you first encounter a centrifugal pump you’re unlikely to be aware of net positive suction head and the potential for cavitation. If the flow into a pump is restricted too much a pressure drop can occur inside the pump head. If the liquid in the pump is close to boiling point the negative pressure can cause it to boil, creating vapor bubbles that can damage the pump. The wrong sized pump in the cellar may not create enough pressure to correctly operate the sprayball in a tall tank. A certification to operate a boiler is often required and they require special water treatment and maintenance to remain safe. Refrigeration systems rely on a secondary refrigerant, usually propylene glycol, which is pumped around a circuit to the tanks where it is needed. An understanding of the vapor compression and expansion cycle is required, particularly when troubleshooting a system that is failing to cool a tank in the middle of summer or depths of winter. A lot of brewing equipment including fermenters, bright beer tanks, and kettle jackets are limited to a maximum pressure of 14.7 PSI. That means you can’t naturally carbonate ales to the normal levels using natural carbonation created by yeast. (Lager brewers can carbonate naturally because lager yeast ferment at lower temperatures where the gas dissolves more readily in beer.) Homebrewers usually rely on bottle conditioning to carbonate their bottled beer, and often look to repeat the same process as professionals. The majority of commercial brewers around the world understand the need to pay far more attention to yeast health and strain characteristics when counting on it to perform reliably in a bottle. It is common practice to clarify the beer and add back measured amounts of healthy yeast suited to the harsh conditions inside a bottle. The result of a poor bottle fermentation can be dead yeast flavors, diacetyl, or flat beer, and yeast that are left behind in suspension after a fermentation are not the healthiest.
After yeast health and engineering principles, the next biggest area where there is an experience gap between homebrewers and pro brewers is in beer clarification. There are two main causes of haze in beer: Yeast left behind in the beer deliberately by the brewer, and haze caused by the complex formed by oxidized tannins and protein in the beer.
In the case of yeast left behind, not filtering or fining the beer causes the haze. Filtering is the traditional method that professional brewers use to present a clear product. The residual yeast will settle to the bottom of the container over time. This can cause the entire yeast content of the container to be dispensed in a couple of glasses making for an unpleasant drinking experience for the unlucky customer, and an inconsistent one for everyone else.
As for haze caused by oxidized tannins and protein in the beer, again brewers traditionally remove this with cold filtration, or treatment with selective adsorbtion agents. Small soluble tannins, or proanthocyanogens, arrive in beer via the malt husk or via hops. A lot of new brewers are looking to push past the boundaries of what have traditionally been acceptable levels of hopping, as a selection of enthusiastic customers has demanded a more challenging beer drinking experience. New varieties of hops with aggressive aromas are being added to beers in amounts never before seen, resulting is beers with a haze that cannot be removed without using exhaustive methods.
Brewers can remove yeast and precipitated haze particles using a number of methods. The oldest method was to chill the beer then wait . . . a very long time it turns out. Filtration can be used to remove yeast and haze, along with contaminating bacteria that will cause the beer to sour. English brewers make and sell cask conditioned beer, which has undergone a secondary maturation in the
barrel from which it is served. This beer is clarified with the use of a fining agent, historically isinglass, which causes the yeast to sediment out more quickly, and since the beer is not served “cold” chill haze is not an issue. There are a number of brewers these days brewing beers that are dry hopped with a large charge of aroma hops, and they are able to achieve good clarity. These brewers employ centrifuges, diatomaceous earth filtration, sheet filtration, and fining agents to achieve clarity without sacrificing intense hop aroma and flavor. There are also other brewers who are brewing intensely hoppy beers that are not clear, and are unfiltered — these brewers take on the added risk that not filtering brings, such as the risk of souring due to contamination, off flavors from yeast autolysis, and buttery off flavors from dirty draft lines. Provided the beer is sold and consumed very quickly those should not be an issue, however this requires that brewers also become educators who must push the message of beer freshness upon their customers, and also accept that there is bad beer handling out there and that some people will experience their beer when it is not at its best.
Choose Your Path Well
Of course we’re not the only formal brewing program available, and they do vary in the scope of their education programs and the relative industry experience of the instructors. One of the biggest problems the industry is facing right now is education opportunities. Many of the established traditional brewing schools have long wait lists for their diploma classes. As a result of the explosive growth in the craft beer industry, breweries are opening too fast for start-ups to find trained and educated brewers. Many universities and community colleges have rushed to create brewing classes in response. These programs can vary in the quality of education. Research carefully and be sure that you find a program with qualified instructors and a certificate or degree that will be recognized in the industry when you graduate. (For a list of brewing schools, see December 2015 BYO.)
At the end of the day however, when you charge someone hard-earned money for your work you owe them your very best. Compromises are OK if you have to make small adjustments, but as a professional brewer the product you make has to deliver on the customer’s expectations, not just your homebrew club. That means that you must deliver consistency in flavor, appearance, shelf life, and carbonation. Remember that as a pro brewer your responsibilities are no longer just toward yourself. Now the impact of your work affects the financial livelihood of the company’s investors, your employer, and your fellow employees. You have a reporting and revenue collecting responsibility to the government. And above all you have a responsibility to
– your customers!
I Went Pro (One Year Ago) — Derek Dellinger, Brewmaster at Kent Falls Brewing Co.
Looking back now on the years I spent as a homebrewer, it’s strangely hard to remember that time when opening up a brewery seemed like the most obvious idea in the world. At the rate new breweries keep opening these days, it’s clearly an extremely common sentiment. But why do so many of us become fixated — obsessed, even — with opening up a brewery as our inevitable career destination? What is it with beer that drives so many who enjoy it as a hobby to not only chase it as a profession, but via our own, start-up, hard-fought, boot-straps business? Plenty of people casually bake bread every now and then without focusing all their energy on opening a bakery. Many tinker with cars and never strive to open an auto repair shop. What is it about brewing as a business, exactly?
Over a year into my life as a professional brewmaster — at Kent Falls Brewing Co., in Kent, Connecticut — I certainly have a different perspective on brewing than I did back when I was boiling wort on my stovetop. It’s not so much that the beer I’m making has changed, or the way that I’m making it. It’s the context surrounding it.
If you, too, are struck by the bug to go pro, my chief advice is to very closely and thoroughly examine what it is about brewing you enjoy, and consider how those aspects would change if it became a job. You don’t have to become a professional brewer for the sake of the beer itself. Because you really can make anything as a homebrewer that the pros can turn out. Because you can be stocked up with beer in your personal fridge to your heart’s content, either way. Because scaling up recipes, even with a jump as extreme as the one I made — from 5 gallons to 1,000 — isn’t honestly as tough as you might think. But make no mistake: Working day after day in the hectic environment of a production brewery is going to feel very different than hanging out in the driveway and firing up the propane burner.
The first year as a start-up brewer isn’t easy, as anyone will tell you. But then again, you’re making beer for a living. You’re hands-on with one of the most interesting and compelling culinary creations in the world. Sometimes you even get to hang out and drink beer . . . like, professionally. You’ll go to events. Maybe have fans come up at a festival and tell you how much they enjoy what you do. Eventually — if you’re really good — your mom might actually admit that she’s proud of you. You’re a genius — you make beer and get paid for it.
That’s a big part of the reason why people want to open breweries. Some days you will feel this swelling of pride. The satisfaction of making something both interesting and satisfying and widely-loved for a living. Other days you will spray yourself with a hose over and over, drop a gasket on the ground for the thirteenth immensely frustrating time in a row, and later get blasted from head to toe by a sudden torrent of yeast trub unleashing through a clogged-up valve.
But the thing I find the strangest about my new life as a professional brewer is that none of the things that I expected to be the “hard part” are really, ultimately, the actual hard part. Learning to use the Big System wasn’t all that hard — it’s an intimidating-seeming cluster of valves, but still the same process. A couple brews in, and you realize you know exactly what you’re doing. Learning how to clean-in-place a tank is easy. Scaling up a recipe is mostly just common sense and applied knowledge that you already have. Figuring out where the hell to stack all those kegs and bottles and barrels is going to be a challenge at any brewery, anytime, no matter your level of experience. That’s just the nature of running a brewery, which is half janitor work, half giant game of Tetris. Managing floor space is possibly more stressful than managing a large-scale fermentation.
There will be goals you set that you will not be able to meet. Before we even opened, we worked tirelessly to set up Kent Fall’s Brett IPA, Waymaker, as a flagship offering in 16 oz. cans. It wasn’t meant to be. Behind the scenes, you learn things about the business, the logistical and budgetary hurdles and hoops to be jumped, that you never have to consider as a consumer. We worked more than tirelessly — deliriously and stupidly — to bottle distribution-worthy volumes of beer off of a rudimentary, hand-made, counter-pressure 4-head filler. We added new tanks that hadn’t been in the plan, and were able to brew new beers that I’d been hoping and waiting to brew, but hadn’t at first had the chance. We pursued hop contracts as fervently as beer nerds chase top rated IPAs, and worked trades with friends in the industry for those we couldn’t secure. We scrambled last minute to fill holes in the production schedule and invent new beers out of thin air. We drunkenly debated beer names, and a few of our ideas weren’t even too dumb.
All of these things are challenges in different ways. But the hardest thing about becoming a professional brewer is something I couldn’t really have seen coming at all, because the perspective shift can’t be felt as a hobbyist — and that’s a good thing. Starting out, you look down the narrow tunnel that is the rest of your year, at all the insane brew days you will have to tackle, the expansions you will map out, the travel you will do, the planning and plotting and making and doing. This will be intimidating enough. Over all of this will loom the spectre of potential failure. There are a thousand opportunities for failure in brewing, and they will eat at you, all the time. But chances are, you will make it through. You’ll adapt. You’ll MacGyver. You’ll pull the long nights to make it work. Chances are, you will succeed.
But success, oddly enough, doesn’t ease up the stress. If anything, it just adds a slick new layer. I love homebrewing. I love professional brewing . . . mostly. They are both an incredible experience in their own unique ways. But there is a sense of recklessness and adventure inherent to homebrewing that is hard to match once it’s no longer a hobby. If a batch sucks, the worst that happens is you dump it and try again. Figure out what went wrong. Improve. If you mess up as a homebrewer, there aren’t too many people to make you feel bad about it — if you even decide to give friends and family a chance to try that bad batch. If it’s not up to their standards, they might make a face and say something politely vague. “This is . . . interesting,” they’ll conclude, and conveniently forget about their half-empty glass on the backside of a table somewhere. But if they love the beer, there’s no pressure. No comparisons to other famous successful breweries. No ranking, or listicles, or batch-to-batch variations to muse over. If they like the beer, it’s all about confidence. Forward momentum. The things you could do with this incredible skill of yours. Sensing an opportunity for you, they’ll say: “You should open your own brewery!” And when the only thing that matters in that moment is how tasty the beer in your glass is — beer that you made — it can’t help but sound like the best idea you’ve ever heard.