Going Pro!

Every day for six years, Rob Mullin worked alongside some of the most powerful men and women in the country. He sums up the experience with one word: “Frustrating.”

As a legislative assistant to a North Carolina Congressman , Mullin was one of the several hundred aides who play a key role in the workings of Congress. They help formulate policy, build coalitions, and to a large extent do the detail work of creating federal legislation.

It’s a job many, many people would like to have. Dozens of conservatively dressed suitors seem to roam Capitol Hill constantly, resumes in hand, networking skills polished, in an effort to land such a position.

But for him the job was no dream. He discovered that political change moves by millimeters, not miles. And the two-year reelection cycle is a ticket on the fast train to burnout. When Clarke lost his bid for a fourth term in 1990, Mullin found himself without a job and ready for a career change.

“I had decided I was tired of politics, frustrated by how hard you work without necessarily having anything to show for it. I wanted to do something where I could have something to show for my work.”

That something was brewing.

Mullin began homebrewing during the 1988 election. He had received a homebrewing kit as a gift months earlier, but because of his busy schedule he had set it aside and forgotten about it. He finally pulled it out and dusted it off because he thought it might provide a relaxing change from the stresses of the campaign trail.

After a quick trip to the local homebrew shop for supplies and instructions — and several subsequent phone calls to the owner for additional information — he completed his first batch, a stout. It turned out well, and he was hooked.

Two and a half years later Mullin, by then a jobless former legislative assistant, met John Mallett, head brewer at Old Dominion Brewery. When Mallett offered him a low-paying position as a beginning brewer, Mullin didn’t hesitate.

“It was really easy to take a job where I could relax at the end of the day and enjoy what I had worked so hard to produce,” he says.

Mullin started as an assistant, as is standard at Old Dominion. By 1995, four years later, he had become head brewer. And three years later two of his beers won gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival.

“Anyone who wants to work here starts at the bottom like I did,” he says. “Now we tend to hire people to work on the bottling line and they work their way up from there. The last six people we have turned into full-time brewers and brewer’s assistants started on the bottling or kegging line,” he says. “A lot of these guys come here looking for work because they are homebrewers. A lot of them find out about the job because they come here to take a tour and we mention that we could use some help. They are here because they enjoy beer.”

Mullin prefers hands-on experience to education. “I don’t think we would hire someone who has just taken a course to come in here and brew. It’s easy to learn how to make beer. The hardest thing is figuring out if doing all the work is what you want to do. There is a big difference between making beer and working in a brewery. There is a lot that has to get done that isn’t fun — cleaning and manual work. People don’t realize how much work it is. We like to get people in and doing the work to make sure it is what they want to do. Then we’ll take the time to invest in educating and training them,” he says.

“We get a lot of people in here who want to apprentice for a week. We’ve never taken anyone on that way. If people are serious about it, they should be willing to give up the job that they’re working and work on the bottling line or work throwing kegs around. That’s a really tough thing for people to do.

“The other option,” he says with a laugh, “is to find a rich uncle and start your own brewery.”

Now that Mullin spends more than 40 hours a week brewing, he doesn’t homebrew. That’s partially, he admits, because he’s sure his wife doesn’t want to hear any more about beer. If he were to stop brewing professionally, Mullin says, he would definitely start homebrewing again, but with some modifications.

An extract brewer before, he would go to all-grain. “I’d use more grain and I’d have a lot more control of the yeast,” he says.

“(The yeast) is the biggest difference that I have been able to find between bad homebrew and good professionally brewed beer. The idea of just opening a packet of dry yeast and throwing it in there, you’re never going to get the same results as you would from pitching the right quantity of good yeast.”

His advice to homebrewers: “Make sure you have good cell counts and good pitching quantities of yeast. The easiest way to do that is to contact your local brewery.” Mullin has five or six homebrewers who regularly collect yeast from Old Dominion.

“If (you) have a local brewery that will supply you with yeast, I would highly recommend that. If not, then take the time to grow pitching quantities from the packet of liquid yeast or dry yeast,” he says.

Emphasizing the correlation of good materials and a good product is important to Mullin, who worked in a world where the two seemed to be unrelated. Part of his frustration with politics was that “there didn’t seem to be a link between the work that you did and the result. People ran bad campaigns and won. Or you could run a good campaign and lose and have nothing to show for it,” he says.

“That’s one of the best things about brewing, whether at home or professionally, to taste and enjoy what you’ve done. There are not many jobs where you can do that.”

With the recent award of two gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival for Tuppers Hot Pocket Ale in the American-Style Pale Ale category and Dominion Lager, the flagship beer, in the Dortmunder/European-Style Export category, Mullin has more than beer as tangible evidence of his labor.

Award-Winning Homebrewer, Award-Winning Pro
As the first recipient of the Russell Schehrer Award, John Maier has made his mark on the brewing industry. The award, named for the late owner of Wynkoop Brewing Co., recognizes innovation in brewing. Maier, brewmaster at Rogue Ales, was the 1997 recipient of the award, which is presented by the Institute for Brewing Studies.

Maier has helped build an image for Rogue as one of the most creative, bold small breweries in the country. Some of the more unusual beers include Hazelnut Brown Nectar, Mogul (strong ale), and Mexicali Rogue.

One innovation he’s introduced is dry hopping his St. Rogue Red Ale in the keg. He also has done considerable work on rauchbiers, the smoke-flavored beers popular in some parts of Germany. Rogue won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival for its smoked ale. The silver in the Smoke-Flavored Beers category went to Alaskan Brewing Co.’s Alaskan Smoked Porter, a beer that was originally developed by Maier.

Maier credits much of his success as a professional brewer to his experience as a homebrewer. His technical experience came from instruction and training. “But the artistic influences came from homebrewing,” he says. Two recipes he uses at Rogue, the smoked ale and a barleywine, are based on five-gallon recipes he developed as a homebrewer.

In the early 1980s Maier’s stepfather gave him a six-pack of microbrewed beers, including a bottle of Anchor Steam. It wasn’t long after that Maier signed up for brewing classes at a homebrew shop in Redondo Beach, Calif. His first beers were pretty bad, he recalls, but he learned from his mistakes and slowly improved. When he joined the Maltose Falcons, a homebrew club in Woodland Hills, Calif., his beer really began to improve. He began using cultured yeast and moved to all-grain brewing.

By 1986 he had won a handful of homebrewing awards in state and national competitions. He considered brewing professionally. He quit his job, flew to Chicago, and enrolled in the Siebel Institute, a well known brewing school, for the 1986 fall course.

After completing his training Maier returned to Portland, Ore., where Geoff Larson of Alaskan Brewing Co. hired him as an assistant brewer. While Maier was at Alaskan, he won the American Homebrewers Association’s Homebrewer of the Year award. He had saved several bottles of a barleywine that he had made two years earlier, before he started brewing professionally, and submitted them to the 1988 contest.

He stayed with Alaskan until 1989, when he received a call from Jack Joyce, the president of Rogue Brewing. Rogue was preparing to open in Newport, Ore., and Maier was invited to join as head brewer.

“The Larsons at Alaskan taught me a lot about brewing,” he says. That is why Maier highly recommends a technical course but in conjunction with some on-the-job training. “Apprenticeship is a pretty good way to go. I think I would have learned more if I had been in the industry somehow and then went to Siebel. A lot of that stuff was over my head.”

Eight years and more than 3,200 brews later, Maier hasn’t forgotten his ties to homebrewing. While he hasn’t homebrewed since he was with Alaskan, he still spends time with homebrewers, giving them his experimental hops.

He recommends that homebrewers use pure cultured liquid yeast, which first came on the market in the mid-1980s. “That was the biggest advancement in homebrewing ever,” he says. “It made the beers a lot better. Homebrewers have access to the same ingredients that we do as professionals. That’s why the beers are so good.”

Rogue fans will not be surprised by the advice Maier gives to homebrewers. “Don’t be restricted by guidelines; you have to brew something that you like to drink,” which is presumably how some of Rouge’s more unusual beers originated. “Use lots of specialty grains. Then you can use a lot more hops,” he says. “Use lots of hops.”

Maier can often be found with members of the Cascade Brewers Society, a group of mostly homebrewers in Portland. He’s never far from the hobby that led him to a profession.

Reflecting on his previous job as a senior electronic technician for an aircraft company working on the F14 radar system, he sees no similarities. “Now I’m making an honest living,”  he says with a chuckle.

Taking the Scenic Route

Waiting tables and tending bar hardly seem the path for an aspiring head brewer. But for Eric Savage this was the only way into the brewhouse at Dock Street Brewing Co., a Philadelphia brewpub.

Once he decided brewing was his calling, Savage talked to a lot of brewers who recommended apprenticing. “They were telling me that people can go to school and come out with some sort of brewing degree and they have good book knowledge but still don’t know how to brew. They still don’t know how to run a brewery,” he says.

Savage faced tough competition when he sought his apprenticeship. “When I got into (brewing), there were only two breweries in our region (Philadelphia) and a lot of people who were trying to get into brewing. I had to compete a lot and wait a long time before I was able to be a full-time brewer.”

Submitting a resume and talking to head brewers both proved unsuccessful, but Savage was tenacious. He quit his job raising money for a non-profit organization, a job that he didn’t really like anyway, and was hired as a bartender and server at Dock Street. When he wasn’t behind the bar, Savage was cleaning kettles and helping to brew — all for free — until by a matter of what he says was good timing and luck, he was offered a full-time brewing job in fall 1994.

In giving advice to homebrewers with a desire to brew professionally, Savage recalls his own experience. “I know what worked for me. Be willing to work for free for someone. In my case I was cleaning kegs and polishing copper. They didn’t show me how to brew right away. They showed me how to clean kegs and polish copper. I kept at it. They also gave me reading material and I read on my own.” By February 1996 he had been promoted to head brewer at Dock Street.

Looking back, Savage thinks he approached his quest in the best way for him. “Brewing is a craft. There is some thinking work and mathematical formulas, but the bottom line is it is a craft. The majority of your time you spend cleaning tanks, scrubbing things, or hauling grain. It’s one of those things that you just get better at as you do it,” he says.

While he has taken a leave of absence from homebrewing, he recently returned to the shop, Philadelphia’s Home Sweet Homebrew, that gave him guidance in his early days of homebrewing. Like many homebrewers, he often called his retailer in mid-brew with questions.

His first kit was given to him by a former girlfriend, a chef who was looking for a way to encourage him to spend more time in the kitchen. “Even before my first batch was finished, I was sold,” he remembers. It was a typical American pale ale and although it was not altogether successful, he could identify with participating in a great craft, he says.

He recalls that while he couldn’t quite identify the taste of that first batch, he continued to experiment, looking for that right combination.  Trained as a musician — he played violin professionally for several years — he equates brewing with composing. It is similar to searching for a perfect note combination and not knowing exactly what you’re looking for until you’ve found it. Brewing is “serendipitous” he says. “You sometimes happen upon a great beer without really trying. That’s why it’s important to take careful notes, so you can recreate what you just made.”

Savage admits that he wouldn’t homebrew from grain again but would like to continue to homebrew, perhaps with extract from the brewery. The ability to experiment with homebrews is something that Savage misses. “Homebrewing is wide open. You can do what you want. You can shuffle through your cupboards, find a box of Corn Flakes, and shake that into your mash if you want,” he says.

But he says that because Dock Street brews so many different styles (65), the experimentation lies in trying to get the most authentic beer he can. Using true malts and aged hops allows him to emphasize the authentic flavor of each style.

A homebrewer interested in professional brewing can begin by working for consistency in his homebrew, Savage says. “Make consistently good products. Have a routine that works extremely well and stick with that routine. Make different styles, but systematize the way you work. If you are doing three hop additions in the boil, always do the hop additions at the same time so you can really start to understand what changes are happening with minute differences. Develop methods for formulating and executing every batch.”

Developing methods is the best way to improve your beer, Savage says. “But don’t change everything at once. If you are shooting for a style and determine that your beer is too bitter or doesn’t have enough body, don’t cut the hops in half and double the malts. Do small, incremental changes so you really understand what changes are affecting what.”

Savage thinks the job market is a bit less competitive now with so many breweries. Savage still receives consistent inquiries from aspiring brewers and encourages people to pursue the craft. “Anyone who is really committed to becoming a brewer can do it. They just have to be willing to work for free or spend time in school,” he says.

Issue: January 1998