Going Pro

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” — Hunter S. Thompson

At one time or another, most avid homebrewers probably harbor thoughts of brewing professionally. The allure of having hundreds or even thousands of appreciative beer drinkers consuming the fruits of your labor is great food for fantasy. Visions of massive stainless steel conical fermenters and multiple serving tanks full of your brew are the stuff of dreams — and the occasional reality for a number of people who have made the transition from brewing as a hobby to doing it for a living. About two-thirds of professional craft brewers got their start as homebrewers.

While the economics of professional brewing are beyond the scope of this article, a few cautions are in order before you trade the tools of your current occupation for a pair of rubber boots and a mash paddle. For one thing, a brewer’s salary may not be enough to support you in the style to which you are accustomed. Many assistant brewers, the usual starting rung at brewpubs and small microbreweries, earn little more than minimum wage, with matching benefits. And should you wish to start your own operation at the top as an entrepreneur, the financial investment can be considerable, along with numerous legal and regulatory obstacles that must be overcome.

Brewing at the very largest breweries is an entirely different matter. Production brewers are often union members who advance through the ranks, while technical and supervisory employees are typically hired as recent college graduates with science and engineering backgrounds, and promoted as they gain experience.

Try before you buy

It’s worth making the acquaintance of the brewers at your own local brewpubs and microbreweries. These are typically small operations with minimal bureaucracy and overhead. Show up at the back door and introduce yourself. The nature of brewing somehow seems to make it a morning activity, although some breweries operate around the clock. There is a fraternity among brewers that extends from amateurs to professionals alike. If they are not too busy at the moment, professional brewers usually will be happy to talk and show you around. Be polite and respectful and defer to their judgment. Once they realize you share an interest and a passion in common, they are often very open and forthcoming. Understand this is their job rather than a hobby as it is for you, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. By the way, the contribution of local craft brewers as the occasional source of ingredients such as fresh yeast, as well as opinions and advice, can be invaluable.

Once you are on a first name basis with your local brewers, if you are truly interested in learning about the work, ask if you might be able to “ride shotgun” during a brewing session. Offer to help for free in exchange for the favor; you’ll likely be rewarded with samples later. Be willing to adjust to their schedule. It’s something of a traditional ritual for assistants, both paid and unpaid, to shovel out the mash tun, so don’t be afraid of a little physical labor.

Seems like home

You will find a lot in common between small-scale craft brewing and homebrewing. Any all-grain brewer will easily recognize the basic processes of mashing, sparging, boiling, chilling and fermenting the wort. The equipment and batch sizes, typically from 3 to 15 barrels (90–450 gallons or 350–1,750 L), are certainly larger, but not so much that the scale seems out of proportion. About the same amount of time as for homebrewing applies to each stage of the brewing process. A typical brewing session, including cleanup, is seven to eight hours, and the beer is ready for serving or packaging in from one to several weeks or longer, depending on the style.

The ingredients of course are the same, merely in larger quantities. Many craft breweries employ a mill to grind the grain, while some use pre-crushed malt and adjuncts. Typically an auger or grain elevator feeds the crushed grain to the mash tun. Sometimes it is mixed with hot water as this occurs, in order to reduce the amount of stirring, but some arm-twisting with a paddle in the mash tun is usually necessary to complete the process.

Small craft brewing systems achieve roughly the same mash efficiencies as homebrew systems, typically in the 70–80% range. This means that homebrew recipes scale rather easily to small commercial batch sizes. Some of the best-known craft beers originated in the minds of homebrewers, and the prototypes for a brewery’s beers may in fact have been brewed on a homebrew system. There is some difference in hop utilization between homebrew and craft brewing systems. Typically, larger kettles extract a little more of the alpha acids from the hops, so it may be necessary to scale back the hopping rates somewhat.

The one area where commercial breweries often enjoy an advantage over homebrewers is in yeast management. Because they tend to brew regularly, professional brewers usually have a ready supply of healthy yeast from a previous fermentation that can be pitched into fresh wort. However, most breweries tend to maintain only one or two regular “house” strains, which limits the variety. And periodically (typically anywhere from every 5 to 20 batches) they like to start from a fresh culture, which means stepping up the population from a smaller source volume, much in the same way as homebrewers make yeast starters. In fact, the yeast in more than a few brewpub seasonal beers may have had its origins in a vial or smack pack that originally fermented a 5-gallon (19-L) batch of homebrew.

Don’t try this at home

There are a few major differences, however, between homebrew and craft brewing techniques. For homebrewers, it’s generally a simple matter to take a dirty piece of equipment, even a relatively large pot or fermenter, to the sink for cleaning. (A laundry tub or utility sink may increase the convenience factor.) The sheer size, weight and lack of portability of commercial brewing vessels make this either extremely impractical or altogether impossible. As a result, special measures for cleaning and sanitation have had to be developed, many of them adapted from the food processing and pharmaceutical industries.

Among these is what is known as “clean in place” or CIP. The brewing vessels are fitted so that they can be closed and sealed, while cleaning solution (usually hot) is pumped and forced through an internal spray ball at relatively high pressure. This results in a spray pattern that scrubs the interior of the vessel clean. Think of it as being much like an automatic dishwasher. Once the cleaning has finished (it typically takes from 10 to 30 minutes), a similar process is performed for rinsing and for sanitizing. Some manual cleaning may be necessary for areas not easily reached by the spray, and vessels such as mash tuns cannot be readily fitted for CIP applications. They may have to be cleaned by hand, which can require literally climbing inside.

Brewing requires relatively large amounts and a ready source of hot water. An important feature of most craft breweries is the hot liquor tank (HLT), which is used for heating sparge water, as well as water for cleaning and sometimes sanitizing. Typically the water is heated prior to a brew session and the temperature is controlled via a thermostat. Additionally, the brew kettle may be used as an auxiliary HLT when not boiling the wort.

Homebrewers often rely on gravity and siphons to move liquids. This is less than practical in many commercial situations. Consequently, pumps are used extensively in most breweries. As many as three or four pumps are employed to perform tasks such as moving the wort from the mash tun to the kettle to the chiller to the fermenter, and the beer to the serving tank or kegs, in addition to the various CIP procedures.

Safety first

Professional brewing entails greater safety risks. The two major categories of homebrewing injuries are cuts from glass breakage and burns from hot liquids. Professional brewers use few glass vessels, but the danger of burns increases with the batch size. Moreover, many commercial kettles and HLTs use steam as the heat source, which is under pressure and even hotter than boiling water. Most professional brewers have a few scars and horror stories; the vast majority are not life threatening, but they underscore the importance of safety. The relaxed attitude of having a few homebrews during a brewing session is conspicuously absent from almost all commercial brewhouses. The risks are too great and workplace safety regulations in many locations forbid it.

Other dangers include some you may not have thought of. For example, the concentration of CO2 in a large brewing vessel can reach levels where it displaces oxygen in the lungs and can potentially asphyxiate a brewer. It’s important to purge and equalize the pressure in vessels before opening them. Large vessels under pressure have special safety concerns. Excess pressure can turn covers and doors into missiles when opened improperly, while a vacuum can crumple a vessel like a tin can. The caustic chemicals and acids used in brewery cleaning and sanitation can irritate and burn the skin, nasal passages, lungs and eyes. Proper safety equipment and procedures are required.

My own personal entry in the annals of strange brewing injuries came while doing some manual cleaning of a conical fermenter. The scrubbing pad I was using dropped from my hand and, rather than disassemble the bottom fitting, I leaned deep into the fermenter. The opening was just slightly wider than my torso. Blocking out all light, I was immediately plunged into darkness; the effect was disorienting and claustrophobic. I instinctively jerked myself backwards and my rib cage caught on the thick stainless steel lip of the opening. I felt and heard two distinct “pops” as my lower ribs cracked. Suddenly I was standing back in the daylight in pain, clutching the pad in my hand. Gritting my teeth, I managed to finish the job and my shift and went home. Fortified with painkillers, I was able to continue working during the healing process, but with considerable soreness for almost six weeks. Obviously, professional brewers need to be constantly aware of the dangers that surround them.

Brewing hot and cold

Perhaps less familiar to homebrewers is what occurs on the “cold side” of craft brewing. The fermented beer has to be transferred to a conditioning or lagering tank, and finally to a vessel from which it is ultimately served, kegged or bottled. Sometimes the beer is also filtered. All of this is known collectively as “cellaring” and is an integral — if somewhat less visible and glamorous — part of professional brewing.

Often the cellaring is accomplished during slack periods that occur in the brewing day. Craft brewers have to become adept at multi-tasking. For example, it’s sometimes necessary to ready the filter for one beer in the cellar and prepare a serving tank to receive it, all while sparging another batch in the brewhouse. Later the first beer is filtered and pumped to the serving tank, while the wort rests after the boil. Such is the life of a professional brewer: there’s no rest for the wicked, as one head brewer used to say.

Don’t quit your day job

While a career as a professional craft brewer may remain a dream rather than a reality for most homebrewers, consider the honest labor and admirable results of the effort. The dedication to quality, consistency and taking pride in the work is highly regarded and worthy of emulating. And you can rest assured that many professional brewers indulge in nearly the same ritual as you do at the end of the day — that is, they relax, don’t worry and have their own beer. We could do much worse. Here’s to all those who make the beer we drink!

Issue: May-June 2006