Getting a Boot In the Brewhouse Door

By Kevin Wright

Your mind is made up. The time has come for you to trade in your Lands’ End button-down or your blouse and skirt combo and escape your claustrophobic cubicle for the glory of a pair of shiny rubber boots and sweet coveralls with your name embroidered on them. Today is the day you will follow your passion and become a craft brewer!

The decision to enter into the craft brewing industry is becoming more and more popular lately. Many people, fueled by a passion for great beer and backed by years of homebrewing, have decided to leave their day jobs to pursue their dreams. Some have the resources (lots of money) and the commitment (more money) to venture into the world of brewery start-up and ownership. However, most people in the craft industry are not brewery owners, but brewery employees. How did these people get their start, and what can you learn from them to help you make the leap? 

Meet Your Future Co-Workers

There are many different faces that belong to the craft brewing industry and not all of them make beer. Besides breweries, there are distributors, suppliers, retailers, media members and other community supporters. For the sake of time and words, we will focus on breweries themselves; but don’t overlook these other areas! All of these stakeholders offer exciting opportunities; your dream job may indeed be with one of them.

Within a brewery itself there are many different roles. These can range from production positions including brewers, assistant brewers, cellar operators or packaging to more specialized positions in lab work, engineering, warehousing, logistics and maintenance. Not to mention jobs in management, administration, IT, sales, driving, retail and restaurant operations. We will come back to some of these, but first, we’ll focus on what seems to be the most popular goal: the brewer.

The Brewer

It has been said that a brewer is little more than a janitor with some basic microbiology training—this is not far from the truth. Depending on how large/automated a brewery is, a brewer can spend anywhere from 50 – 90 percent of their time cleaning, scrubbing and sanitizing. The job is very much manual labor and is a great fit for someone looking to get in shape quickly. The work environment is often challenging, with inherent risks and dangers including extremes in temperatures, hazardous chemicals, heavy lifting, scalding liquids and the like. Just read the average brewer job posting and you’ll get a taste of what you are in for.

Another point to consider is the wages that you can expect to earn as a craft brewer. These can vary considerably depending on your role and the type and size of brewery where you work. The following statistics were compiled by the Brewers Association (BA) 2011 Packaging and Brewpub Salary Survey. None of the information presented thus far was meant to scare anyone off, and hopefully it didn’t. It was just meant to be a realistic snapshot of what you can expect entering into this industry.

Average Brewery Salaries


Source: Brewers Association Benchmarking and Best Practices Survey Results

Fringe Benefits

Community

Now let’s get into the good stuff. There are four main things that I personally love about this industry that I think make it one of -if not the best- industry to be a part of. First and foremost is the community. When I say the people in this industry are great, I mean they are really great. I don’t think there is another industry out there that focuses so much on inclusion and collaboration. I can’t count the number of times that I have reached out to others in the industry with more experience and expertise to answer a question or help solve a problem.

Events

Another great aspect of the industry are the events that we have the opportunity to attend. Events like the Craft Brewers Conference and the Great American Beer Festival along with countless beer dinners, festivals, gatherings and educational seminars. A business trip to San Diego to talk beer and brewing with thousands of your peers is pretty awesome in my book!

Camaraderie

The third thing I love is the sense of camaraderie that you get while working in a brewery. It is truly amazing to surround yourself with like-minded people working together towards a common goal with a shared focus. For those of you that have experienced a work environment like this, you know it is like catching lightening in a bottle. People are truly happy to be at work and truly feel connected to their co-workers and see them as family. 

Beer

The final thing that I love about this industry is…beer! Nothing is more rewarding than sitting down after work with some customers in your tasting room and enjoying something that you put your heart and soul into creating. The fact that others want to be around you to share and enjoy is also pretty neat. When was the last time you said, “Let’s all go to the lawyer’s office after work on Friday and hang out!”?

One other great thing about the craft brewing industry is that there are actually jobs available. In a time of economic struggle, this industry has continued to expand. According to the BA, 2011 saw a 13 percent growth in volume among craft brewers with over 250 new brewery openings. There were approximately 103,585 total industry jobs in 2011 with more growth this year. Over 99 percent of regional breweries (15,000 barrels+ per year) are growing, representing more opportunities for specialized positions. As of writing this, there are approximately 1,300 new breweries in planning, which represents a ton of opportunity for the job seeker.

Your Options

So you like what you’ve read so far, you know this is for you. Now how do you translate your enthusiasm into an actual job? Let’s start with how you can find a job that you will love in a brewery. One way that some people get their start is through a “cold” application. Walk into your favorite local brewery and let them know that you are interested in a position. Deliver a resume to a hiring manager. Often times these bids are along the lines of “I’ll do anything you need” or even starting as a volunteer. Being persistent without being rude or obnoxious can sometimes open doors.

Probably an easier way to find an open position is to find job postings. These can be found directly through the brewery on their website, social media or through job board sites like ProBrewer.com or trade publications. A final path to accessing the industry is through a professional brewing school.

Many brewing programs exist worldwide, but in the U.S. there are three major brewing-specific programs: UC Davis Extension, Siebel Institute and the American Brewers Guild. All three offer excellent education and industry access.

UC Davis Extension

The UC Davis Extension is located in Davis, Calif., and offers a few short and mid-length courses. Their main course is the Master Brewing Program. This is an eight or 18 week intensive brewing science, engineering and sensory course taught by some of the most respected brewing scientists in the world. In addition to an un-rivaled staff, this is the only program that prepares you for the Institute of Brewing and Distilling diploma in brewing science exam, an internationally recognized brewing distinction. The course also offers opportunities for two-week internships in the student’s brewery of choice. The program is currently full through 2014.

Siebel Institute

The Siebel Institute is located in Chicago, Ill., and offers a myriad of courses ranging from a few days to a few weeks. Their large programs are the International Diploma in Brewing Technology (IDBT), a 12-week program that includes time at their Chicago campus and the Doemens Academy in Germany and the Master Brewer Program, which adds eight weeks of Advance Brewing Techniques to the IDBT program. Siebel has the distinction of being an entirely brewing-focused school. The faculty is excellent and includes many extremely knowledgeable industry professionals. Both the IDBT and Master Brewing Program have availability for 2013.

American Brewers Guild

The American Brewers Guild, based out of Salisbury, Vt., offers an Intensive Brewing & Science/Apprentice Program that encompasses 28 weeks. Of these, 22 weeks are internet-based distance learning, one week is spent on-site in Salisbury and five weeks are spent in an internship at your brewery of choice. The American Brewers Guild has an outstanding reputation in the craft brewing industry and has many affiliated breweries for internship opportunities. They have a track record of training many of the craft brewers in the U.S. The program is full through 2014.

Selecting a professional brewing school is a tough decision, and you should weigh the pros and cons before proceeding. Some of the main benefits of a professional school include the wealth of knowledge that you will gain, the access to experienced professionals and opportunities for job placement, often in a larger role. All of these programs are places where breweries will look to recruit employees and many of them keep alumni records for continued access after graduation. Some of the challenges of these programs include the time and financial commitment, the location and need to relocate, as well as the difficulty of material and high standards of the program.

A Foot in the Door

No matter which path to entry you choose, you will have to go through the process of applying and interviewing. Here are some tips to keep in mind. To begin, all general “best practices” for job seeking apply. Be sure you have an up-to-date, well-written resume. Be professional when you apply and interview. Just because the person across the table from you is wearing stained work pants and a t-shirt—my usual day-to-day wear—doesn’t mean that you should treat this differently from any other job interview. Do your homework and know something about the company you are applying to. Be sure you know the story behind it, the vision for the future, the ownership and their background.

Going back to a point made earlier; be persistent but not obnoxious. It is probably not the best time to ask for a job after you have enjoyed two or six pints in the tasting room. Know what breweries are looking for. As a hiring manager, I am most often looking for: a passion for craft beer, a knowledge of beer and brewing, a basic understanding of the industry, someone that has a history of being a hard-worker, someone that is looking to make a serious commitment—not learn for a few months then move on, and most importantly, someone that is a great culture fit for our team. I think culture fit is most important because of the nature of this industry and the value of the team and the people. Every great craft brewery has a great team of people behind it, and every addition must strengthen the team.

Set Yourself Apart

  1. Convey your passion. This industry is based on it and everyone throws the word around constantly, but how can you convince someone that brewing is your passion? Most interviews will eventually get to the question that goes something like: “Why do you want to be a Craft Brewer?” Your answer had better be compelling enough that they believe you and remember you. 
  2. Be prepared. Do your homework. Understand the position you’re applying for and be able to explain how your background/ education/ work experiences make you the perfect fit for the job. As regional breweries continue to grow, there will be more and more specialized jobs that can more easily fit into your area of expertise. This can include graphic design, electrical engineering, accounting, social media, etc. Seek what is out there that can offer you the perfect fit in this industry.
  3. Ask great questions. This is always my favorite part of the interview because I feel that it really separates the good candidates from the great. This is your chance to develop a full understanding of the position. It is also a chance to ask questions to learn about their company culture. Remember, you want to find the place that best suits you, and asking thoughtful questions is a great way to figure that out.

In closing, I would just like to say that I hope this has proved to be useful for you in helping make the decision to pursue a job in the industry, or in giving you some useful pointers that you can use in your job search. The industry is truly great, and I feel lucky every day to be a part of it. It is so rewarding to me to post a new job at our brewery, sift my way through resumes, schedule and conduct interviews and then find that one great person that shares our passion and would be the perfect fit for our team. Hopefully by giving them the chance to pursue their dream it will only help make us stronger. Good luck to all you would-be brewers and I hope you can find your place in this amazing thing we call the craft brewing industry.


KevinKevin Wright is the head brewer and brewery general manager for Hangar 24 Craft Brewery in Redlands, Calif. He attended the Master Brewing Program at UC Davis in 2009 and earned the JS Ford Award from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling. Kevin oversees the brewing and packaging operations at Hangar 24 and facilitates interviews and hiring for at the brewery. He thoroughly enjoys all aspects of brewing and the craft brewing industry and is still working hard on his beard-growing capabilities.