What a brewer does

I get asked, on a regular basis, what my daily routine is like. I sometimes think people are disappointed with my response, as it’s remarkably unexciting for the most part, although my routine is peppered with moments of fun. After all, we are making beer!

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A lot of brewers refer to themselves as “janitors” which is really appropriate.

 

I remember seeing this photo on Facebook, and thinking-“wait, they forgot one-the guy sitting at a desk, reviewing databases and spreadsheets and talking on the phone.” That’s me.

When I first arrived at Stone Brewing Co., I spent my first few weeks learning the brewhouse, and learning how the automated programming worked. I had expected that I would be brewing at least a few times per week. Wrong. I realized pretty early on that we already had some very skilled people brewing the beer, and that I was needed elsewhere-like installing some quality criteria and protocol, reviewing and optimizing our processes and procedures, managing our ingredient supply, and managing our growth. And yes, I do recipe formulation, and I really enjoy it but it’s a very small part of my job. Though innovation will continue to be a key part of my role as we move forward.

I remember being at a beer dinner a few years ago and sitting with a beer writer who made some derisive comments towards what he called “clipboard brewers”. I held my tongue, but that is what I am, I walk around with a  clipboard or notebook, talking to the team, and making notes on what opportunities or issues we have in various process areas. Auditing processes, working on optimizing the time spent on various steps, and understanding the impact of all the equipment on the quality and consistency of the beer are all important parts of my job. When a brewery grows, that’s what the brewmaster job evolves into. Not every brewmaster can be the hands-on brewer all the time, and as breweries grow, it becomes more about directing the flow of beer through the brewery, managing the team, managing the process, thinking forward, and finding opportunities to make the brewing processes better.

I recently saw a post from my friend Jaime Jurado on Facebook where he quoted a former coworker of mine, Otto Kuhn, who is currently the Resident Brewmaster at Anheuser-Busch’s Merrimack NH brewery. Otto and I worked side-by-side as Assistant Brewmasters in Merrimack for several years, I respect his brewing skills tremendously, and he became a good friend. His quote went like this:”You’re Brewmaster when the owner of a brewery entrusts his entire brewery to you, and trusts in you to keep its employees safe, and make the best beers you can. And to stop screwups by leadership and to be responsible for making the best decisions for the company you can.”

That pretty much holds true for being a Brewmaster at any size brewery. If you are a one-person show, and also own the brewery, it still works.If you are working fior a mega brewery, it works. Make the best beer you possibly can, keep the team safe, and be part of making key business decisions. The only thing I would add to this, especially in a growing brewery like ours, is that the Brewmaster needs to develop the team’s skill set and creativity.

Do I miss hands-on brewing? Of course I do. And I do get out in the brewhouse occasionally, though not as often as I’d like. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy what I currently do, and I enjoy having the ability and responsibility to grow this brewery, come up with creative and tasty beers, and hire talented team members, many of whom I think could run their own brewery at some point, if they want to.

So to finally answer the question on what my day is like:

My daily routine starts at about 7:00 am with a quick sniff test on samples of fermenting beer. This allows us to identify any problem fermentations that show themselves as excessive amounts of sulfur, diacetyl (butter) or acetaldehyde (green apple seed, pumpkin). By catching any issues during fermentation, they can be easily corrected, usually by simply waiting for the yeast to take care of the issue on its own, though adding a dose of fresh yeast or fermenting wort to the tank can help also. During this informal tasting session, we also taste approve beer in bright tanks ready to be packaged. No beer of ours ever gets put in a bottle or keg unless it is taste approved by a brewing manager.

I spend the rest of the early morning drinking copious amounts of coffee, and reviewing emails and shift reports from the past 24 hours-basically to make sure we don’t have any quality issues, brewing process issues, or beer supply issues. I get 200+ emails a day, so I need to make sure I’ve responded to the ones that require some response from me.

At 8:30, we have our daily production meeting, where all the brewery managers gather in a conference room, and we go department by department, reviewing the daily plan and discussing any issues and priorities. This is an important meeting for all of us, as it helps us coordinate our work schedules. For example, coordinating when a piece of equipment is going to be available for maintenance work, where and when we have construction activities going on, if we have any quality/analytical issues, or whether we are at risk of not having all the beer we need for packaging.

The rest of my day, until about 3:00 pm, is either meetings, walking around the brewery, meeting visitors, or getting work done at the desk.

Getting work done at the desk involves a lot of things, and includes managing ingredient supply, the brewing, filtering and packaging schedule, reviewing sales projections, expansion and capacity plans, and the all-important task of managing the team, including staffing plans, interviewing, training and career path development. Reviewing our database of processing data, and looking at ways to make our processes more efficient also plays a big part of my daily routine.

Unfortunately, meetings are a huge part of my day, and I can spend, at times, 70-80% of my week in meetings. We have weekly team leader meetings, new beer release meetings, project and capital meetings and meetings with my boss, along with a host of other things that come up occasionally. I’m not a big fan of meetings, as I usually walk out of them with more work added to my plate. But they are a necessary evil, especially in a company as big as ours has gotten.

3:00 is taste panel, and I taste at least 3 times per week. It’s a critical piece of our beer quality and consistency program, and we taste everything that was bottled, bright beer ready for packaging, beers ready for filtering, and process waters. One of my former bosses always called taste panel the most important part of the day, and I believe that.

Bottom line, though the daily routine will differ depending on the size of the brewery, a Brewmaster has to take responsibility for the quality of every single beer that is released. And whether the brewer does all the work him/her self, or manages a team that does it, the beer quality and consistency is of paramount importance. In my situation, that means having a team of brewers who are well trained, smart and educated, who understand which quality and process issues can impact the taste and consistency of the beer, and then take appropriate action when they see the issues. This ability doesn’t happen overnight, it takes experience and training.

More on the definition of a “brewmaster” in a future post.

 

 

5 thoughts on “What a brewer does

  1. Gary Gillman

    Very interesting and pertinent comments. These methods should not invite derision since they are designed to ensure quality. There is too much bad quality craft beer out there. I just had a ESB in a brewpub that tasted like an extract brew although I’m sure it wasn’t. Dusty with a slight chemical note. A draft Rolling Rock the day before tasted just as it should: slightly malty, adjunct presence, mildly bitter. I will take the RR ove seven out of ten craft brews drunk day in day out. RR is not my preferred beer type by far but it was way better than too many craft beers out there. An enduring issue as well is poor retail condition of many craft beers but in part this get back to the stability issue.

    Gary

  2. Mike

    Turning a hobby into a career can be tough. I’ve met many people who are blind to this and end up hating something they used to love. At the end of the day, a business must make money.

  3. Fergus

    Nice write up Mitch, I guess we all get the same questions, the picture at the top is particularly true for me, my mum still tells people I’m a scientist.

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