Brew School: Learning by Doing

Posted on January 6th, 2011

Despite everything I’ve been learning at the brewery I constantly want to know more. Fortunately, the brewery I work in consists of three people: the head brewer, an assistant brewer and myself. This small crew provides me with many opportunities to not only flood my mind with beer knowledge, but also get my hands into many of the daily brewing operations.

I currently work six days a week. Although I spend three great days in the brewery, the other three days are spent waiting tables. In all honesty, being a waiter is the pits. However, it pays the bills.

Lately I’ve found some of my brewery hours getting cut in order to work more in the restaurant—the brewery is part of a brewpub, so we have a full restaurant and my two jobs are thankfully located in the same building.

Initially I was bummed, since I viewed this as stepping backwards from my ultimate goal of full time brewing. However, I spent one of these forced days off visiting another local brewery and checking out the operations there.

A friend of mine starting interning at a brewery in Brooklyn around the same time I started my tenure at Chelsea. On my day off I hopped the train over to his neck of the woods and had the chance to see the inner workings of another commercial operation. My initial reaction was to the size of this brewery. It dwarfs the facility in Chelsea and produces about 5 times as much brew. Also, the brewery had 8 full time employees and 2 interns.

Although my buddy is now full time, like most people, he started as an intern. Most interns start as the brewery monkey, shlepping around pallets and cleaning kegs. While this is essential to any brewing operation, it also takes the least amount of time to learn. I’m not saying that keg cleaning isn’t important, but when it comes to the mindset of brewery interns, it’s only the first few backbreaking steps down a long road of brewing knowledge.

As he showed me around the space I got curious and began asking a lot of questions about their procedures. Since I now possess a pseudo-working knowledge of a brewery, I started contemplating how the practices at Chelsea were different from the way things were done here. After a few minutes of questioning my pal conceded that he wasn’t sure about most of the procedural activity since he didn’t get many chances to take part in the actual brewing. Most of his time, he said, was spent on the other side of the brewery cleaning and filling kegs and directing transfers.

As I sat on the train home I realized how often I’m able to get my hands in many of the essential brewing activities. While I definitely clean my fair share of kegs and spend a great amount of time completing the less desirable tasks at Chelsea, I’m also allowed to take part in the actual brewing and many other aspects of life in the brew house.

Working in a small brewery—like working for any small operation or company—definitely has its setbacks, but the rewards outweigh these issues by far. Although I may be forced to wait a few extra days for my paycheck, or the beer I make isn’t as readily available as bigger breweries, I have the opportunity to get my hands dirty and actually learn the craft. Despite the little inconveniences, the hops stuck underneath my fingernails and the wort that sticks to my boots is a true testament to the value of learning by doing. Besides, how many other people get to pour themselves a pint in the middle of their workday?

  • I am curious as to whether you had any formal training as a brew master or if this on the job training is replacing a formal education. I have started home brewing and have contemplated a career in the craft but have no idea how to get started.

  • I’ve been apprenticing at a tiny brewpub too while working for a newspaper as my main job. So I do a lot of watching and monitoring right now. It sucks because my main job starts around 11am or noon so once the sparging starts I have to go to work. So I’ve got a good handle on the mash and everything else I have to read about. CO2 carbonation is still a mythical magical thing to me.

    We’re on a pretty manual, mostly poorly built system, so I’m curious to know which methods you noticed were different from Chelsea to Brooklyn?

  • Justin

    Before I landed the job at Chelsea the extent of my “training” was home brewing, tons of reading (not only about the technical aspects of brewing but also beer history) and lots of…tasting.

    If you casually like beer and want a job in brewing, I highly recommend you try to intern somewhere first. Just like any job, brewing isn’t as glamorous as the media makes it. In all honesty, it’s a lot of making a mess, then cleaning it up. However, it’s a very rewarding job if you dig working with your hands.

    For those who are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN they want to throw away their current job and getting brewing there are two options. 1) Luck out at get a entry level job at a local brewery being the beer monkey or 2) Shell out some big bucks for beer school (i.e. Siebel or ABG) and hope you can get a job afterwards. Shoot me an email at JustinLloyd@email.com if you have more in depth questions.

  • Justin

    Unfortunately, I’m not brewing at Brooklyn. However, I can say the differences between the two systems are huge.

    Just to put it into perspective, Chelsea produced about 2800-Bbls in 2010. Brooklyn produced about 10,000-Bbls in 2010 and plan to double that in 2011. Brooklyn is growing much more aggressively than Chelsea and their operations reflect that. Chelsea has a 30-Bbl brew house that is all manual. Brooklyn has a manual 25-Bbl system and just starting using an additional 50-Bbl automated brewhouse.

    If you want to get more in-depth shoot me an email.

  • Wow… this is great motivating highlight. This is a very
    common situation that many face and use to step back due to lack of confident,
    no wonder this emphasize will fix their backbone.