Going Pro Roundtable
So you think you want to go pro? It’s no secret that many of the commercial beers out there are brewed by homebrewers who made their hobbies a career. But while going pro once meant writing up a business plan and picking out some real estate, these days there are plenty of brewing jobs with existing craft brewers out there that don’t involve opening your own business. We talked to some homebrewing graduates of the American Brewers Guild who are working in the industry about what it really takes to break out of the home brewery and into the pro brewery.
Jim Lieb, Rocky River Brewing Co., Cleveland, Ohio
David Berg, August-Schell Brewing Co., New Ulm, Minnesota
Coty Bell, Humperdinks Restaurant and Brewery, Dallas, Texas
Joseph Lemnah, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Milton, Delaware
Bobby Jackson, Bohemian Brewery, Midvale, Utah
Matt Johnson, Karl Strauss Breweries, San Diego, California
Dustin Jamison, Boulevard Brewing Co, Kansas City, Missouri
What did you do to make a professional brewing career happen? Were there challenges or setbacks?
Joseph Lemnah, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery: I found it difficult to get a brewer’s apprenticeship in upstate New York. I knocked on many doors and was turned away every time. I got a job on the Old Saratoga Brewing Company’s packaging line and then transitioned into their cellars. It can be tough to get into this industry and I realized I needed formal education and training. While at the American Brewers Guild I sent my resume to breweries across the country and received a few offers before Dogfish Head Craft Brewery offered me a brewer’s position, which to me is amazing. Only a few years ago, I was living in Wichita, Kansas reading Brewing up a Business by Sam Caligione, and now I’m brewing for Dogfish Head. But, don’t get me wrong — this was not an easy journey. There were long hours in packaging lines stuffing six packs and stacking cases, and even longer hours scrubbing floors.
David Berg, August-Schell Brewing Co.: When I decided to go to school I was living in Portland — 1996. There really weren’t a lot of options for brewing schools in the US: UC-Davis, the American Brewer’s Guild and Siebel. I ended up choosing the American Brewer’s Guild because of the apprenticeship program.
Bobby Jackson, Bohemian Brewery: During my junior year of college I started thinking about what I was going to do after I got out of school. I had been working at a vineyard in South Hero, Vermont and thought about sticking around there when I started looking into schools. I found the American Brewers Guild not even an hour a way and decided that’s what I had to do. I did a five-week apprenticeship at Otter Creek in Middlebury and was hired at Bohemian before I was even done with the apprenticeship.
Matt Johnson, Karl Strauss Breweries: I tried to go find an assistant job at one of the breweries in my area when I found out that a friend’s father was an investor in a brewpub. I talked to his brewer and brought him some of my homebrew and he actually told me that I shouldn’t be a professional brewer, which made me want it more so I decided to go to school.
Dustin Jamison, Boulevard Brewing Co: I looked at different brewing courses when I got serious about wanting to make brewing a career.
Was it hard to make the transition from homebrewer to pro?
Joseph Lemnah, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery: The transition was difficult. I think many, like myself, have a romantic impression of professional brewing. I soon discovered that, as with any job, there was time to be spent on the bottom rung — scrubbing tanks and floors. Brought into the cellars, I was trained on filtration operations and taking responsibility for the beer. While it was tough, I appreciate the time I spent packaging. It gave me a better understanding of what it takes to get from grain to glass.
Coty Bell, Humperdinks Restaurant and Brewery: It really wasn’t hard to make the transition but it took a leap of faith. Once I was committed there was no turning back.
David Berg, August-Schell Brewing Co.: Yes and no. I don’t think any job turns out to be what you expect. I started out as a head brewer, which is absolutely ridiculous looking back. Fortunately, I was too stubborn to quit and too dumb to know I was in over my head. I had to learn a lot of things with my feet over the flame. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world, but I also wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
Bobby Jackson, Bohemian Brewery: I didn’t find it very hard to make the transition. I was kind of scared at first because I was no longer working for free under the supervision of several other brewers — I was in charge, making the decisions, and there wasn’t anyone there that had been brewing for 15 years to answer my questions or stop me from opening an incorrect valve.
Matt Johnson, Karl Strauss Breweries: I was ready. I really didn’t like my job and this was something I really wanted to do and I was willing to do whatever it took. It was pretty hard work.
Dustin Jamison, Boulevard Brewing Co: It wasn’t too hard of a transition. I had been devoting 20–30 hours a week to homebrewing in addition to my full time job so I was used to working long hours and devoting late nights to cleaning, transferring and — on the lucky days — brewing. The biggest hurdle was learning the ins and outs of working with much larger volumes and getting comfortable with the different equipment.
You brew for a company that is not your own. Is that an eventual goal of yours — to own your own business, or do you find this kind of brewing more rewarding?
Joseph Lemnah, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery: My first professional job was at a contract brewery. The opportunity to make almost a half dozen brands was astonishing. Making multiple styles for all the different breweries made every day interesting. I met and brewed with all the brewers of the respective brands, which was priceless. Brewing for a company like Dogfish Head is also crazy rewarding. But, yes, it is a goal of mine to own my own brewery.
Coty Bell, Humperdinks Restaurant and Brewery: I one day hope to have my own brewery. I really appreciate the opportunity I have now to learn the business and the reality of what a brewery faces and I am learning from three very experienced and accomplished brewers who are preparing me for my future in the brewing industry, which is very rewarding.
David Berg, August-Schell Brewing Co.: I think most people begin in the industry with ownership in mind, but I’ve reached a stage in my life where if it hasn’t happened by now, it never will. And that’s far from being a bad thing. My situation is pretty unique. I was head brewer at two start-ups, so the beers I brewed were always my own, good or bad. It was a lot of fun, but I came to this profession pretty late in life (I was 32 at the time). Shoveling out a mash tun is all well and fine when you’re 30, and maybe 40, but I was starting to wonder what I was going to do when I was 50 or 60. When I was offered a management position at a regional brewery, I jumped at the chance. I’m having as much fun as I’ve ever had in the brewing industry. Indeed, probably more fun than if I was an owner having to worry about cash flow in addition to making great beer.
Bobby Jackson, Bohemian Brewery: It is my goal to eventually open my own brewery somewhere. For the time being I like not having the responsibilities of having my own brewery — especially financially. I also think it is helping me to build connections so when I do decide to go for it I might be more plugged into the network and will be able to piece it together with less frustration.
Jim Lieb, Rocky River Brewing Co.: I like brewing, I’m not so much into the business end of the situation. It might be nice to be an owner but a lot of guys who own the business don’t get to actually brew unless they set it up that way because they end up dealing with a lot of the business end of it.
Dustin Jamison, Boulevard Brewing Co: I really enjoy working in a production brewery right now, mainly because I like getting to work with the beer all the time. A brewery of my own does sound like it would be fun but I realize that many brewery owners don’t get to spend as much time brewing as they would like and they have to spend more time running the business.
What are some of the challenges to brewing professionally that you learned along the way, but weren’t necessarily expecting?
Joseph Lemnah, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery: Unlike the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. jobs, brewing is 9 a.m. to done.
Coty Bell, Humperdinks Restaurant and Brewery: I have a pretty good grasp on the science and engineering at our locations, it’s the planning that can be a challenge. Four fermenters, seven bright tanks plus kegs to keep six proprietary beers and a few seasonals always flowing at the taps can get tricky.
David Berg, August-Schell Brewing Co.: Being a professional brewer has very little to do with actually making beer. Working in a pub, you may brew 20% of the time. That leaves 80% of the time you’re doing other things that are equally important. When you’re not cleaning or fixing something, you’re talking to customers. People think just because they can brew good beer means they could be a brewer. Well, maybe you could be a brewer, but it certainly doesn’t follow that you could run a brewery . . . and that’s what it is all about.
Bobby Jackson, Bohemian Brewery: Hiring people — I didn’t expect that one. I get three brewers a day showing up looking for work, and I wish I could hire them all but I really can’t. I also can’t really have five people hanging around the brewery all the time. Our brewery is small and even three people working at the same time gets pretty tight.
Jim Lieb, Rocky River Brewing Co.: It’s definitely tough in terms of physical things like carrying and dumping 500—600 pounds of grain. It’s also a challenge trying to brew the same beer time after time and getting it as close as possible. There are some advantages of being in a brewpub, for example you get to brew all different beers. In the big production breweries they brew a much more limited spectrum.
Aside from the usual differences (like batch sizes) what are, to you, the biggest differences between homebrewing and professional brewing?
Joseph Lemnah, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery: Endlessly striving for consistency, equipment operation and the technical aspects of the process separate professional brewing from homebrewing. Professional brewing involves handling dangerous chemicals and particulates and working around extremely high pressures — up to 60 lbs./sq inch. At work, I am around deadly quantities of carbon dioxide and other dangerous conditions I never had in my kitchen or driveway.
Coty Bell, Humperdinks Restaurant and Brewery: Homebrewing has a lot less consequences but greater freedom of expression and experimentation. I can’t risk having to dump a full batch of beer if it doesn’t come out right. However, I also can’t get over letting my creative juices flow doing a batch of homebrew. I will always be a homebrewer for that reason.
David Berg, August-Schell Brewing Co.: Understanding you are in a business to sell a product. The goal is to make money to pay bills so we can make more beer. If that means you have to brew a style of beer that you don’t like but sells like hotcakes, so be it. Back in my early pub days someone once asked me why I brewed a golden ale. My response was, “So I can brew a barleywine.”
Bobby Jackson, Bohemian Brewery: For me I think it comes down to creativity. At home you can just read about something and go for it. In a professional situation an owner may not be down with trying to brew thirty new beers in a year. The money may not be there, he may be stubborn and stuck in his ways, you may not have the capacity, etc. There are a million reasons. I take what creative license I can when it comes and enjoy it even more. And I can always brew what I want at home.
Matt Johnson, Karl Strauss Breweries: Consistency. Customers are looking for the same beers they had three weeks ago. Customers are the ones that bring in the money — if they liked your blonde ale a month ago it had better taste the same. You also need a willingness to brew beers that you might not like.
Dustin Jamison, Boulevard Brewing Co: At Boulevard the biggest difference is definitely the amount of lab work and testing that goes into every batch of beer. Another major difference is consistency. When you are having new raw materials coming in or even having to substitute different ingredients it becomes a challenge to keep the final beer the same from batch to batch.
What advice would you give a homebrewer interested in going pro as far as being prepared, what to know that you didn’t know, what to look out for, finding a job, etc.
Joseph Lemnah, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery: Get your foot in the door some way, somehow. Show an interest in brewing. Give some of your homebrew to professional brewers. Go to beer festivals and ask local brewers if they need help. Most brewers in brewpubs start as apprentice brewers and work up to brewing. This will take hard work and long days on very little pay.
Coty Bell, Humperdinks Restaurant and Brewery: I would suggest going to a local brewery and asking to volunteer for a few days. Realize that 90% of the job is cleaning and heavy lifting or physical labor. You are also almost guaranteed to have to relocate to get a job. If you can deal with that and have a true passion for beer and the business, go for it.
David Berg, August-Schell Brewing Co.: Be prepared to do what it takes, which may mean moving, working odd hours, etc. Chances are someone is not going to open up a brewery across the street from your house, or even close to where you live. Try to get a job at a brewery to see if you really like the work. When you look for a job you need to realize a few things: you’re not going to get paid very much, you’re most likely going to be doing grunt work and you need to fit your schedule to the brewer’s. It never ceases to amaze me how many people apply for a brewing job, but they only want to work on nights or weekends. As an employee you need realize I don’t want to be at work nights or weekends, so if you want a job you need to adapt to my schedule.
Bobby Jackson, Bohemian Brewery: READ, READ, READ. I cannot stress reading enough. Books, periodicals, anything you can get your hands on. Go to a brewery and offer to help, but don’t be annoying, that’s a good way to be remembered as a jerk and not be taken seriously.
Jim Lieb, Rocky River Brewing Co.: Definitely when you’re homebrewing learn all that you can about the technical end of it. If you can, take a short brewing course that fits in with your time and budget. Also, try to brew some lighter styles such as Pilsner and helles — you learn more brewing those styles because if there is a flaw in your technique it will show up a lot easier in your lighter beers as opposed to in an IPA, which could mask flaws with all the hops.
Matt Johnson, Karl Strauss Breweries: You have to be willing to put your time in as an assistant or relocate to where there are jobs. There are more brewers out there than there are brewing jobs so the best way to start out is to either be flexible and move or take an assistant position and put your time in. There are a lot of brewers that have experience and will get a job over someone who is brand new. Definitely consider places that are less desirable to get started.
Dustin Jamison, Boulevard Brewing Co: Education is a huge thing that breweries are looking for, especially as the craft brewing market keeps maturing. Experience is the best training you can ever have and the hard part is trying to get started in order to gain the experience you need. This is where education and an apprenticeship help. Also, be persistent and have a true passion for brewing. Getting into the professional brewing community is tough. You will have to work hard and make sacrifices and most likely you will never get rich. But it is a career that if you really love what you are doing then you will never have any regrets and can wake up with a smile (and sometimes even a hangover).