Heroes of the Brewhouse: Here’s What Brewery Workers Actually Do

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For many beer lovers, sitting in the taproom of their favorite brewery also allows a window to the brewhouse. Like ants going about their routine, brewery workers scamper about, filling tanks, moving beer, operating equipment and transmuting raw ingredients into liquid gold.

As everyone in the brewery laughs and jokes and goes about their work, the average beer lover sits back and sips, and asks, “No. Seriously. What does everyone back there do?”

Many folks enjoy beer, but do not realize just how many people it takes to get a batch of beer out the door. One batch of beer will be handled by many people – from the person who receives the shipment of raw materials to the person who finally packages the finished beer and loads it up to be shipped, it takes a village to get beer to the masses.

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Who are the Brewery Workers Behind the Glass Wall?

At Minnesota’s Surly Brewing, head brewer Ben Smith has two brewing operations running – a small 30-barrel brewhouse and a larger 100-barrel brewhouse. Brewing operations are running 24 hours a day, five days a week with short weekend shifts to check fermentation and a Sunday centrifuge run to separate out all the solid ingredients and prepare for Monday packaging. With all these wheels in motion, the brewery is on track to produce about 95,000 barrels of beer in 2019.

In order to make that amount of beer a reality, Ben maintains two brewing teams: “At our smaller brewery, there are seven people on the brewing team; at the larger brewery there are six.”

Brewing Jobs Defined

The head brewer (in Surly’s case, Ben) oversees brewing at each brewery. “During any given shift, I help troubleshoot, train, oversee quality and brew as needed.”

Surly Brewing also maintains lead brewers. These men and women “manage day-to-day production, scheduling, raw ingredient inventory and troubleshoot any issues when and if they arise,” Ben explains.

Next, Surly has three senior brewers. “They still perform the duties of shift brewers but have greater responsibility with respect to training, quality assurance, standard maintenance, barrel work and general support for myself and the lead brewers,” Ben says.

Finally, Surly’s brewhouse has shift brewers. “Shift brewers rotate through the general production shifts from cellar work, quality assurance and wort production.”

Everyone on the team at Surly has a hand in the beer-making process. Ben says his brewing team “rotates through all functions of brewing from raw ingredient handling through centrifugation, after which the packaging team takes over.” The batches of beer are always in motion and the tasks of the brewery require attention.

“Generally, we have three to four people [working] at a time during the day managing wort production as well as cellar work such as dry-hopping, yeast harvesting, quality assurance and centrifuge operation,” Ben explains. “In the evening, we normally just have one brewer on staff overnight managing the wort production schedule.”

Ben also mentioned that Surly does not have a dedicated cellar person – a brewery employee who is tasked with dry-hopping, yeast wrangling, working with quality assurance, operating the centrifuge, preparing beers for treatments, among other tasks. It is common for many breweries to have people whose sole job is to perform these specialized tasks in the brewhouse.

Sometimes the size of the brewery dictates the size of the village needed to move batches of beer through the brewery. At Surly, that village has surely done its part.

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Great People are a Common Theme in Craft Beer

For a brewery the size of Tampa Bay Brewing Company – the brewery will produce about 19,000 barrels of beer in 2019 – the number of people per shift goes to seven operational staff with a manager and a logistical support person.

“On a shift, we’ll have a lead brewer, a brewer, a cellar/lab person, a packaging lead, and a packaging staff member,” says head brewer Dave Doble. He says at least seven people would directly handle each batch of beer.

The biggest challenge, even with an outstanding staff, is “rolling with the punches,” Dave says. “Even the best laid out plan is only valid for 12 hours.” With hurdles like equipment failure, supply chain hiccups, and evolving distributor needs, Dave says it is increasingly important to have the most dependable staff working in the brewery to keep production moving. He wants employees who maintain positive attitudes despite challenges.

All that hard work and positivity has paid off. Tampa Bay Brewing Company’s team was awarded their second silver medal in the American-style Fruit Beer category at the 2019 Great American Beer Festival Competition for its beer “Quat,” which is made with Florida kumquats.

Dan Carey is the brewmaster and co-owner at Wisconsin’s long-time New Glarus Brewing Company. New Glarus Brewing is on track to produce 245,000 barrels of beer in 2019, and the brewhouse is humming around the clock five days a week.

“If everyone called out sick, how many people would it take to get beer out the door?” Dan says, thinking out loud when I ask him how many people, bare minimum, it takes to keep the New Glarus brewhouse running smoothly.

Dan pauses and tallies all of the hands that receive raw ingredients, perform quality control lab tests, make wort, manage the cellar, package beer… “In my case that answer would be 11 people.”

Dan agrees with Dave from Tampa Bay Brewing: good employees are the key to making good beer.

“People make beer — not machinery. That’s a hard thing to internalize,” Dan says. “We like to [think] that sexy machinery makes great beer, but with subpar machinery and people who are very passionate about their work, you can still make outstanding beer. Attentive and hardworking people make the difference.”

Every brewery has a proverbial village of people that help get every batch of beer out the door. The number of people and their job descriptions may differ slightly from brewery to brewery, but each brewery counts on and is made better by each member of the brewhouse staff, each providing their own brand of heroism every time duty calls.

Mark DeNote is a wandering beer writer who keeps a home in Florida and an eye on the road in search of fresh, local beer. Mark is a teacher at heart, and enjoys talking about beer and beer history almost as much as tasting beer. Mark is the author of The Great Florida Craft Beer Guide and Tampa Bay Beer: A Heady History. He also edits, reports, interviews and writes the story behind craft beer on the web at FloridaBeerNews.com.

CraftBeer.com is fully dedicated to small and independent U.S. breweries. We are published by the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade group dedicated to promoting and protecting America’s small and independent craft brewers. Stories and opinions shared on CraftBeer.com do not imply endorsement by or positions taken by the Brewers Association or its members.