For years, there was nothing more I wanted to do than brew beer. I got my first taste of the practice when I took a homebrewing class with a couple of friends. From there, the spark was lit and my path was clear. I was going to become a professional brewer, open my own brewery, and take the world by storm.
This happened ten years ago. In the United States, we were right in the middle of a craft beer revolution. The hype was real, and everyone was getting in on it. If you had the money, the equipment, and even the barest knowledge of how to make beer, you could start a brewery. My start came from a small local brewery that was able to ride that wave. Over the next seven years, I clawed my way up to a leadership position with one of the largest breweries in the state. It required a lot of passion, hard work, and an insane amount of luck to get to that point. The pay was never great, and the working conditions were always rough, but it was what I wanted to be doing. And I wasn’t the only one.
I met a lot of eccentric individuals during my time that spoke to the heart of the industry. It requires a certain madness to be a brewer. They have a rigid structure in their process, but also a complete disregard for rules. Nothing is set in stone. Everything is possible. These are the people that drive the industry forward.
They are intense, wild individuals that thrive under pressure in very demanding environments. Brewing beer is more taxing than most people realize. A brewer needs to be able to think on their feet and work in unrelenting conditions. Many don’t make it past their first year. Those that can wade through that gauntlet are an interesting breed. Their stubborn defiance in the face of such odds is what drives them forward. They brew beer — not because they want to — but because they have to.
I would tell people that brewers didn’t make beer. Yeast made the beer. Our job was to clean the tanks, mop the floor, and make sure that the beer was in the right place at the right time. In essence, we were janitors that sometimes put grain and hops in hot water. Any time I mentioned this anecdote to another brewer, they would laugh and give me a knowing nod. They got it. We took our lumps, put in the time, and at the end of the day, had a product that we thought was worth all the effort. They knew that there were no such things as a routine schedule. If the beer finished fermenting on a weekend or Christmas, then someone was going to have to go take care of it. If there was a large brew day scheduled, then someone would be sticking around until two in the morning. It didn’t matter how hot or cold it was, or if you got sprayed with a slurry of hops and yeast. There was work to do.
What pushes a brewer forward is a drive to create. Making a passable beer is easy enough, but to truly do something unique is always a brewer’s goal. That could mean using a popular new ingredient, or a brewing technique that was missing for centuries. It could mean researching hops in detail, or how a yeast strain reacted with the equipment. It could also mean throwing beer into a used whiskey barrel and seeing what happens to it.
Sometimes, the most interesting beers came from a complete disregard for normal practices and safety. The best beer I ever made actually exploded at one point. Thankfully, no one got hurt in the process. As amazing as that brew was, knowing that no one would ever be able to replicate it made it all the better.
Brewers live for these moments. These flashes of inspiration and curiosity interject an otherwise harsh job. There’s a drive to try something new for the sake of seeing what will happen. Some of the industry’s best beers come from this cavalier approach. Each new experience is a tool added to the brewer’s belt, a tidbit of knowledge to use later. To be a professional brewer means to live for beer. To always chase after that perfect recipe. To never rest on good enough. It means always learning, always experimenting, and knowing every aspect of their process.
They take risks. They put in hard work. They explore and create. Some days all they have to show for it is a glass of beer. Some days that’s enough. Brewers are modern-day alchemists, transmuting ideas into reality. I will never forget the time I spent in the industry or the wild people that populated it.