A new brewery opens its doors, on average, once a week in the US. That’s at least one opportunity a week for a homebrewer to land the job of a lifetime. Today there’s actually a shortage of qualified brewers. These are the stories of four homebrewers who made the leap to successful professional careers.
Steve Dresler, Brewmaster
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
A few months ago Steve Dresler bought some Crystal hops, a type that he had never used before. He liked it and wanted to make something from it, but he wasn’t sure what.
So he concocted and brewed several different recipes. He finally settled on an unfiltered crystal wheat beer, which was served this past summer at a brewpub owned by Sierra Nevada, the company where Dresler has been chief brewmaster for the last 10 years.
“I’m in a nice position here where not only am I responsible for what I feel is one of the best product lines in the country, but I can do some very creative in-house batches of beer,” he says.
He freely admits that he enjoys the best of both worlds: He has much of the freedom and creativity that make homebrewing fun, while he also earns a generous salary for overseeing the beer product line. He can showcase many of his more innovative endeavors at the brewery’s local pub. He can do 50- or 60-barrel batches periodically and distribute locally. If a particular brew becomes extremely popular in Chico, Dresler and the Sierra braintrust might introduce it nationally.
When Dresler graduated from college with a double major in biology and chemistry, he went to work painting airplanes at the local airport in Chico, California. He also started homebrewing out of sheer financial need.
“I didn’t really care for any of the beers that I could afford to purchase at the time,” he says.
The painting job didn’t last long, so he found a job based on his homebrewing background. He landed a retail position at Ken Grossman’s Homebrew Shop, a store that Grossman actually no longer owned. He had sold it to help launch Sierra Nevada Brewery.
“I was selling homebrew products and still making my own beer at home when I heard through the grapevine that Sierra Nevada was looking for some part-time help on the bottling lines,” explains Dresler.
Once he got his foot in the door, he began performing as many tasks as possible: bottling, warehousing, janitorial work, building boxes and dividers by hand—anything to get more hours at the brewery. Sierra Nevada soon began to expand, adding a couple of cellar and fermentation shifts, and Dresler used his microbiology background to win shifts in the lab and do actual brewing.
Roughly 10 years ago Dresler ascended to the top of Sierra’s brewing ranks. He assumed control over all aspects of production, fermentation, and quality control. “I’ve been in that position as the brewery grew from doing five-barrel batches five or six times a week to doing 100-barrel batches 42 times a week.”
He particularly appreciates the creativity he’s allowed to pursue at Sierra Nevada. “I get to do some fun formulations,” he says. In addition he has access to excellent equipment at the brewery. The only negative, he notes, is that managing a large staff is often burdensome.
Dresler says his passion for brewing is even stronger since joining Sierra Nevada’s commercial ranks in the early ‘80s. “I’m more in love with brewing now than I was when I was doing it to supply my own beer habit,” he says. “Most of us who have been here for any length of time started as homebrewers and those people’s passions for beer as an entity, as a product, and as an art form are as great as they’ve ever been.
“It’s worth a lot of money to get up in the morning and look forward to going to work, and it’s also a great thing when you get done with your day to sit down and have a beer.”
Greg Noonan, Brewmaster
Vermont Pub & Brewery
The Seven Barrel Brewery
Greg Noonan, like many of his veteran brewing counterparts, doesn’t have a single unit of formal brewing education under his belt. Raised in rural New England, Noonan is the founder and brewmaster of both the Seven Barrel Brewery and The Vermont Pub & Brewery.
He began homebrewing during the early ‘70s while living in New Hampshire. Noonan gained most of his technical experience by associating with regional homebrewers. “There was not a wealth of information about the availability of services related to brewing and information itself about brewing—nothing compared to what is out there today,” he says.
As the ‘70s wore on, he became more and more serious about brewing beer. Through his research at the local library, he learned about all-grain brewing. A homebrew shop finally opened in western New England, and Noonan immediately made the pilgrimage to buy supplies and raw materials. “I went to buy grain and hops and such, and the proprietor asked if I knew what I was doing. He said, ‘Let me show you malt extract. This is how you should do it.’”
Noonan didn’t care for the shopkeeper’s malt-extract advice. He bought 10 pounds of grain, which cost roughly $12 at the time, and returned home determined to brew an all-grain beer. “It was pretty expensive brew, and it all went down the drain. I didn’t have clue what I was doing.”
Fortunately for Noonan, Dave Line published his seminal homebrew guide, the Big Book Of Brewing, shortly thereafter. (The few other books on brewing science that were available at the time focused on extract brewing, not grain brewing.) Noonan began brewing all-grain beer around the clock while visiting New England breweries during his spare time. He became consumed with the idea of operating an independent brewery and sustaining a living by making beer.
He also wanted to lend a helping hand to other prospective all-grain brewers. He compiled allgrain brewing information that was not readily available, and in 1985 he published Brewing Lager Beer, essentially a companion piece to Line’s book, which dealt with ales.
Homebrewing still wasn’t paying the bills, however. Professionally, Noonan had a background in restaurant management, but he was working as a manager for a manufacturing company. Together, he says, the fields provided him with the entrepreneurial experience to open his own brewery.
To this day Noonan remains a religious all-grain brewer. He’s only brewed with extracts twice, and in each instance he used them as adjuncts mixed with grain brews. “I just got into grain brewing from the start and never saw a reason to go back, although I was envious of other homebrewers who were using extracts,” he says. “They were done with three-hour brews where I’d be eight or nine hours every time I brewed.”
When asked to compare homebrewing to commercial brewing, Noonan likes to quote homebrew author Dave Miller: “I had this perfectly great hobby, and I went and ruined it by making a job out of it.” Noonan feels there is a lot of truth to Miller’s statement but, on the other hand, he appreciates the levels of control commercial brewing environments afford.
“We’ve got controls for everything; temperature controls, timer controls, microscopes to count the yeast we’ve pitched. It’s not like you hit a warm spell in your house and the cellar goes up 10 degrees. You don’t get called away in the middle of a kettle boil because one of the kids has fallen off the swing.”
Noonan has access to more controls without the burden of an increased workload. “It kind of seems silly that brewing seven to 14 barrels of beer isn’t a lot more work than brewing a homebrew, but it isn’t.”
Teri Fahrendorf, Brewmaster
Steelhead Brewery & Cafe
As the brewmaster at a successful brewpub, Teri Fahrendorf says she makes a decent living brewing beer without compromising the creative process. “At our brewpub, we always have at least one specialty beer that changes weekly, three standard beers, and then a dark beer that changes about every three weeks,” she says.
Fahrendorf traces her brewing roots to early childhood, when she started making bread at age 10. “It involves using yeast. To me the connection is quite apparent.” During her sophomore year in college, a classmate in Fahrendorf’s speech class gave a talk on homemade wine. Fahrendorf started experimenting with jug wine soon thereafter.
In 1984, when she moved to California, she no longer saw a need to make wine. “There’s just no practical reason to make homemade wine in California. You can get really good stuff cheap,” she says. The next logical step was homebrewing. She homebrewed extract beers for three years, and ultimately wound up at a homebrewer’s conference in Denver where she met John Myers and Don Outerson. They told Fahrendorf about the brewing classes they had taken at Siebel, and she was intrigued by the idea.
Then at the Great American Beer Festival she met Melly Pullman from Wasatch Ales in Park City, who won a few medals. “I thought, ‘Wow, if she can do the physical work, I can do the physical work. She’s about my size,’” Fahrendorf recalls. Upon her return from these two events, Fahrendorf was committed to pursuing a career in professional brewing.
After completing the 11-week diploma course at Siebel Institute, she landed an unpaid three-week position with Stevens River North Brewpub in Chicago. Next, with a degree and some experience, she went to look for work in Portland, Oregon, dropping off resumes and encouraging brewers to pass them on.
Within a month’s time, she was working for the second incarnation of the Golden Gate Brewing Co. Two months into her stay, however, the brewery went out of business for the second time. Fahrendorf pressed on, working as the head brewer for Triple Rock brewpub in Berkeley, California. She had found the perfect job, she says, with one exception: It wasn’t in Oregon.
Just over a year into her tenure with Triple Rock, she finally matched the ideal location with her dream job. The owner of Steelhead presented her with an opportunity to start a brewpub in Eugene. “They needed an experienced person, I wanted to move to Oregon. Boom, we made a deal.
“In hindsight people say ‘Of course that was going to be successful.’ But they weren’t looking at an empty building with a concrete floor imagining what it could be,” says Fahrendorf. “All I knew for certain at the time was that I was leaving all my friends and a fantastic job for an unknown.”
Golden Gate’s failure weighed heavily on Fahrendorf and her decision to move to Steelhead. “I didn’t want to go through that again...I weighed the risks, and I felt that Steelhead would make it. Fortunately I was right, but it was never a sure bet.”
Steelhead has plans to expand in California, building new brewpubs in Redwood City and Irvine. Fahrendorf is responsible for hiring and training the new brewers. While she is Steelhead’s top brewer, everyone at the pub takes part in all brewing decisions. This sense of collective creativity appeals to Fahrendorf, who prefers working in a brewpub as opposed to what she calls the “beer factory” environment of a microbrewery.
Fahrendorf couldn’t have scripted a more ideal career for herself. “I never allowed myself to even dream about becoming a professional brewer. For one, I didn’t think anyone would hire me because I’m a woman and I’m small; and two, I thought if I did do it I wouldn’t make any money. Financially and physically I didn’t think I’d ever have that chance, so I never let myself dream it.”
Bill Cherry, Brewmaster
While Teri Fahrendorf swears by her loose brewpub workstyle, Bill Cherry travels brewing’s scientific path. The head brewer for Boulevard Brewery in Kansas City, Cherry has a bachelors degree in microbiology and a natural interest in the scientific processes of making beer.
“Beer is probably one of the most fascinating of the fermentation processes because of the two-fold interest: you are both encouraging microbial growth with your yeast, and you are discouraging microbial growth of bacteria.”
When a close friend observed that he could probably make a living brewing beer at the nearby Anheuser-Busch plant, Cherry had an awakening. “The light kind of dinged in my head. I said, ‘Life making beer, this is it.’”
Cherry graduated from college in 1986 and at the time, there were no small breweries in the Midwest. The only other option was the big breweries, and Cherry couldn’t get his foot in the door. Instead of giving up, he put his dream of brewing professionally on the back burner and started working for Oscar Meyer during the interim. It was during that time Cherry honed his homebrewing skills.
“I never actually bought a kit,” he admits. “I pieced stuff together. I preferred to do it that way because I had my own ideas of what I wanted to do.” Cherry started by adding a couple cans of sugar to a can of malt syrup and “then just letting it go. I made a real basic, boring beer. But I was excited.”
Limited by his space and equipment, he never had a large enough facility for all-grain brewing. He began brewing his beers with an extract base and augmenting them with specialty malts to make different varieties.
During his homebrew evolution, something surprising happened: Cherry began advancing in the meat industry with Oscar Meyer. He hadn’t expected any promotions, which explains his reaction to management’s request that he go back to school. “I figured if I’m going to go back to college, I’m not going to learn how to make better ham or better bologna, I’m going to learn how to make beer.”
Cherry held true to his word, and he wound up studying brewing science at the University of California, Davis. While at Davis, he stopped one kind of homebrewing in favor of another. “Of course, the lab brewing really was homebrewing. Even though we were doing experiments, they were essentially better homebrewing experiments; we had better equipment and better control, but we were still making five-gallon batches of everything we did.”
While at Davis he completed a 12-week student internship with Anheuser-Busch, then went directly to Boulevard Brewing upon completing his master’s program.
Homebrewers head Cherry’s list of the industry’s cutting edge. They are the most experimental, and they tend to never make the same beer twice, he says. That is not to say homebrewers are technically inferior to professional brewers. Many of Cherry’s friends have homebrew systems that are every bit as sophisticated: “Custom, tiled rooms off the garage that the spouse is not allowed to enter. These guys are doing incredible things that are pretty fascinating.”
After homebrewing the next step into the business is brewpubs, which have relatively small production and usually a few tap handles they can experiment with, according to Cherry. Seasonals and specialty brews provide the pubs with an expanded creative license. “They always have something in the pot,” he says.
“And then you get to Boulevard, which is going to do over 20,000 barrels of beer this year and, strictly through distribution, I’ve got to worry about how many different products we can put on a shelf. In that way, I become restricted. We’ve got a set amount of products that we’re trying to perfect and improve just a little bit every time. As a scientist, I love that.”
11 Tips to Land a Pro Job
- Establish a balance between creative brewing and consistent batching.
- “Keep in mind that beer is a food and that cleanliness is godliness.”
- Learn your craft inside and out. Try to pick up a little experience in microbiological fields, pick up some chemistry, and try to get a few classes in fermentation science.
- Make yourself available and build on-the-job experience. “Try to do some internships, perhaps in a brewery. Some small pubs will try and pick up volunteer labor.”— Steve Dresler, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
- Start small. “Brew homebrew quantity, promote yourself, and build your business the hard way. There are drawbacks to securing outside money by way of investors, primarily a lack of control.”
- Enter your work in homebrew competitions. “Homebrewers who want to brew on a commercial level are best advised to learn many different beer styles as homebrewers and enter them into competitions.
- Read books. “Learn Malting and Brewing Science cover to cover. George Fix’s Brewing Science is a good book covering the major biochemical reactions in brewing. Michael Lewis just published Brewing, an excellent new textbook.”— Greg Noonan, Vermont Pub & Brewery
- Write a resume that is brewing specific. Even if you only have experience as homebrewer, write that down. Include competitions entered, awards won, even if you’ve given a speech to your local homebrew club. Consider your homebrewing history as professional experience.
- Make yourself known. Hit the breweries you want to work for, get to know the brewers, become a familiar face. “Have a beer with them on your time off, but don’t be a lush. They’ll wonder if you only want to work there because you want free beer.”
- Ask the opinions of those inside the industry. Even if a brewery isn’t hiring at the moment, ask the brewers for advice and encourage them to pass on your resume when they hear of something.— Teri Fahrendorf, Steelhead Brewery & Cafe
- Secure references from within the industry whenever possible. If prospective brewers have objective verification of your ability, you’ll have an advantage.— Bill Cherry, Boulevard Brewery