Before you read on, ask yourself the following question: Are you an ordinary guy that enjoys the challenge of brewing extraordinary beer? If so, the following story is for you. It’s for you, because it can potentially be about you. I know this, because it is a true story about me, and I’m probably much like you. I arrived home one evening from the local brew shop eager to venture into the world of brewing. I held in my hand several buckets full of gadgets, grain and dreams. Sure, it was a start up kit. Sure, any yokel with half a brain could follow the simple directions and wind up with something drinkable at the least. But it was a start, and 31 days later, it was beer.
A little over a year later my wife and I purchased our first home, with an unfinished basement that stayed cool all year long. I immediately saw a basement brewery in my future. Money was tight, and knowing that home breweries can be brutal on the bank account, patience and innovation would have to be implemented.
I built my enterprise from the ground up. I saved everything. If it was metal, plastic, had a motor in it, or just looked neat, I tossed it in the pile. Even if it couldn’t be identified, I salvaged it anyway in the event that somehow, it could be used. I remember the first piece of equipment I obtained was an old garden hose that I found in my parents attic. It was the perfect length for a heat exchanger (counterflow chiller).
Next, I noticed a refrigerator sitting outside my pastry kitchen at work. The compressor needed some work, but that wouldn’t present a problem. A few trips to the local junkyard later, followed by a public auction at a chemical plant (where I landed three carboys, an Erlenmeyer flask, a hot plate and several hydrometers for 15 bucks!) and I was in business. Over the course of a year I built my brewery for less than 200 dollars! I could now brew up to 10 gallons (38 L) from all grain, store my equipment neatly and counter-pressure bottle or dispense.
It seemed fitting to be in the midst of a thunderstorm the night I tapped my first brew. I was immersed in my work like a mad scientist, checking and double-checking every part of the system. I even searched the house for the perfect ceremonial glass. It flowed like clockwork. The perfect pour, the hesitant sip, the flash of lightning, the crack of thunder, and the curdling laugh. “It’s alive!” Family and friends lined up to try the heavenly concoction that flowed through the sub-level of our home. Life was good. Another year had passed, and the same question seemed to surface. “Have you ever thought about doing this for a living?” I would smile, maybe blush, and humbly reply no — but I would be lying if I told you I didn’t fancy the thought. Even when I had a few gold medals under my belt, I still asked myself, “what do I really know about brewing beer?” Besides, who was going to hire a schmo like me?
With a mortgage to pay, and a baby on the way, money was quickly becoming an issue, especially on a simple baker’s wage. With gas prices rocketing through the roof, I needed to find a part-time gig fast. How about working in a brewery part-time? There may be too many scheduling conflicts, but it might be worth investigating.
A malfunctioning Corney keg and an upcoming homebrew competition brought me to a brew shop that I don’t normally frequent. I brought up the notion of working as a brewer’s assistant with the shopkeep. She handed me the e-mail address of a craft brewer who was interested in finding some part time help. I wasn’t convinced it could be this easy. Although it seemed like a long shot, I still felt it worth a try. Even if nothing came of it, I stood the possibility of getting a free tour of the brewery, and putting myself on the “craft brewing radar.”
Long story short, I was presented with the opportunity to take the reigns of a small craft brewery. Imagine me, a craft brewer. I still had much to consider. Average production was 28 barrels per month. This could be accomplished quite easily on a part time basis by any skilled professional brewer — but professional brewer I was not. After talking it over with the wife, as always, we sought prayerful consideration. Despite the fact that it was 40 minutes from my house, I made the call and accepted the position. Training day was in 1 week. No time to celebrate now, I had some big rubber shoes to fill, and certainly had some brushing-up to do. Fortunately, with the extraordinary number of home brewers going pro these days, the rift is beginning to narrow between the pro and the novice. Home brewers make great problem solvers in the brew house.