One question I'm most often asked by home brewers is, "What's the best way to become a professional brewer?" There is no easy way to answer this. Many people have different paths and answers about how they got into the craft beer industry. My first answer is that if you have a job that required a college degree you're probably going to have to take a large pay cut. Most professional brewers are lucky to make 30k a year, but it's not about the money though, right? I do what I do because I love it. It satisfies my need for creativity and at the end of the day, I make something tangible.
When I was first trying to get a job I went to a brewery and asked to help anyway I could, I even offered to help for free. This offer got the brew masters attention, but not the way I thought it would. His head snapped up and he started berating me about how it's people like me that drive the wages down in the industry. He said, "there are so many people willing to work for free, how are brewers ever going to get competitive wages". At first I was shocked by his response, but now I kind of get it. It's true, the brewing industry has an image of relaxed work environments where free beer flows like free coffee in an office building. Well, that's simply not the case.
Brewing is tough work. It's hot and sweaty. You're on your feet all day. Lifting, moving, and dumping fifty five pound bags of grain. Scrubbing floors, parts, and tanks. Moving long, heavy hoses. Setting up CIP cycles and working with dangerous chemicals. Working with and around even more dangerous levels of pressure, up to sixty pounds per square inch (inside the bell of a DE filter). It's not like a home brew day, where your buddies come over. You sample some recent batches while hanging out and brewing another batch. In large busy breweries you're expected to be knocking out a batch every three hours. You do this by having three to four batches in process at a time. Knocking one out and pitching yeast, while running off another, while milling in for the next batch. This is just in the brew house. If you're working in the cellar you're usually filtering/racking a beer, while running a cleaning then sani cycle on another tank, and weighing hops to dry hop another tank. During all this your still checking gravity's, managing fermentation cycles, harvesting yeast and counting cells, and setting up long process loops to clean, sanitize, then transfer beer through. Usually the setup and cleanup time is longer than the actual act of racking and filtering. Then, if you're in packaging there is numerous equipment to operate and make sure all the equipment and conveyor belts are running smoothly and in time with each and every other piece of equipment. Including a glass de-palletizer, filler and crowner, labeler, case erector, six pack erector, case filler, stacking full cases properly on a pallet for shipping, etc. This doesn't include kegging. Where you receive dirty empty kegs back from the distributor that need to be cleaned before being filled with fresh bright beer. I haven't even mentioned all of the state and federal paperwork that needs to be filed and maintained. You have to track volumes of beer at different stages of the process. Work with your distributor to fill orders and make your brewing schedule. Track and order inventory so you don't run out of ingredients on a brew day. If you don't have a sales team, you need to go to bars and try and get your beers on draft. Host beer dinners, tastings, and give brewery tours. The larger the brewery, there are more specialized people employed. The smaller the brewery, the more hats each person has to wear. It takes some serious multi-tasking skills at all levels of brewery operations.
Don't get me wrong, I love what I do. It's hard mental work and tiring physical work and I like that balance. There is no one way to become a brewer, but just make sure it's what you want to do. Try an apprenticeship, go to brewing school so you can move up the chain faster (less grunt work more quickly), or just work at a small brewpub where the pace is much slower and interaction with customers is much greater.
My first job was on a packaging line making cases and six packs. I worked my way into cellar operations. During this time I attended a brewing school (American Brewer's Guild 2007) and then trained in the brew house (my first all grain batch was 4,450 gallons) where I was working. I left my first brewing job for one of the most well known craft breweries in the country. I quickly realized while brewing on computer screens that a small brewery was where I really wanted to be (I got into brewing so I wouldn't have to look at computer screens all day). I wanted to work at a brewery where it didn't feel like I was brewing widgets and the process would be more hands on. It has always been my goal to open my own brewery, but without the practical professional brewing experience I've had I could not imagine trying to open a brewery just being a home brewer (unless I had lots of money to keep throwing at the business).
If after reading this you still want to join the ranks of professional brewers at one of the more than two thousand and growing breweries across the country, good luck, and I hope to see you one day at the next craft brewers conference.