Monday, December 10, 2012

Want a career in brewing? Start at the bottom, then hustle

imagine yourself... brewer, bearded, and badass
Start your own.
Skip the fancy Siebel or UC Davis education. You will have so much debt, you will have to take a job at a large production facility to make the degree worthwhile. You're better off taking some accounting and business law classes and spending your time figuring out how to fund the brewery. Find a good lawyer, figure out what you're good at and recruit a business partner to do the things you suck at. In the meantime...

Start at the bottom
Cellar, brewing, and production jobs are extremely competitive and an unlikely option if you've only got home brewing experience. Homebrewers often fail in a commercial cellar and brewhouse. Production requires little creativity, a monotonous grind and daily simple frustrations like constantly breaking machinery. The autonomy, and flexibility of homebrewing are nonexistent until you get to be head brewer. Even then, you're listening to the market more often than being a tastemaker.

first assignment: disassemble, sanitize and reassemble. Try not to hurt yourself
Make friends and work for free if you want this route. Only your friends will get you in the door directly to the production floor. If you do get an interview, talk about how clean you are, how you're good at detail work and taking direction. Downplay your brewing genius. The last thing a cellarmaster wants is a newbie “ getting creative.” If your homebrew truly is the nectar of gods, bring it to the interview as a parting gift ,but don't talk about it too much. Your job is to get along with everyone and perform your job exactly as your boss wants. You will never get to brew if you can't learn how to clean a tank. Cellar takes their job extremely seriously. They also have a freakish sense of humor, prepare to get weird.

Once you've worked in production for a few years, decide if a brewing degree will take you to the next level. Make sure the pay jump is worth it. Even head brewers don't make bank, so decide if this will give you the authority, knowledge and clout in the industry you need to be successful. Apply to Siebel and UC davis even if you're not sure. The waiting list is at least 2 years.

Less competitive beer jobs include front of the house in a pub, customer relations, distribution, buyers for groceries, outside sales, events management, point of sale retail, and management. These areas capitalize on different strengths than production. If you have an ounce of people skills go for a beer-tender position. You will meet the most industry insiders, learn how to talk about beer and can easily move up the ranks to management or sales. Keep in mind that you can still love beer and make it on your own time.
like wearing costumes? I've got a job for you!

Learn the industry.
While you're at the bottom figure out everyone's role in the brewery and also what type of brewery you'd like to work for. Large production facilities have tons of resources to help you grow and have more industry clout. Trust me, it pays later to slog it out at big brewery for the street cred. You'll also gain a huge amount of professional experience in doing things the right way. Big companies tend to play it safe and you'll get a feel for professional conduct. Brewpubs have the most flexibility and inventiveness in brewing but also have tension between brewery and restaurant, and limited resources. On the upside you'll get opportunities to crosstrain as they have fewer employees. Job hop around to different breweries and locales. Never burn your bridges and always give credit to those who helped you grow. It's a small industry and feels like family for the moment. Balance being kind and looking out for yourself.

Get experience in different areas.
Offer to do ride-alongs with sales people. Jump in the lab and learn to do cell counts. Clean parts in the cellar and always take projects your boss hates. Mostly shut up and listen. Ask questions to find out what makes each person good at their job. What do they enjoy and what is challenging about their daily grind? Your goal is to find what you like and what you're good at. Like leaving work at the office? Don't be in sales. Hate doing the same thing everyday? You may not like being a brewer. Not much of a neat-freak? Get out of the cellar.
gnome liberation. A finer point of my skill set
Always be learning, and networking.
Brewing is literally the oldest science, so you have a ton of catch up. Take a beer serving certification program course (cicerone). Study the BJCP guide. Go to homebrewers meetings, learn the history and culture of brewing. Express your passion by educating yourself and teaching others. Building a network never ends either. Your network benefits your brewery too. If you can hunt down an available bar manager or new cellarman you will prove your value and good judgement to your bosses and have a friendly for office politics.


  1. Very honest, straightforward, and sobering advice. Don't go into it thinking it's all rock stars and hanging out in bars. I have to think (I am not a brewer) that if you don't love the craft for all of its grinding, physically punishing aspects, the long hours brewing will cause you to burn out like a match.

    Make sure you are passionate about every step of the process and are willing to start at the bottom to make it happen. Most aspiring brewers will have to start here.

    Nice post!

    1. Thank you for the praise, CBC. Like most careers the starting steps are unglamorous, hard work.

  2. Readers may be interested in the Craft Beer Academy that's just getting started at the Blue Ridge Community College in Western North Carolina. Very affordable classes covering production, sales, and the beer business. You might even get lucky and find a foot in the door through the Oskar Blues Brew School. It filled up quick for Spring 2013, but keep an eye out for future sessions.

  3. Dear Barb;
    Followed this post from your recent LinkedIn post. Thanks.
    Ditto on the Community College momentum. We're hoping to collaborate with Linn Benton Community College to get a U-brew incubator started in Lebanon, Oregon. Could be that we move toward more formal apprenticeship programs as a further step.
    Any comment on pay scale for craft brewers? I argue that one reason to drink macro-lagers is that they're made by folks who make a living wage.