As consumers, we blindly depend on the folks at the brewery who make stuff that we put in our bodies to know what they’re doing. We trust them to wash their hands after using the john, not sneeze over their work station and know how to handle the ingredients they’re working with safely and in a manner that prevents spoilage and, let’s face it, diarrhea (we’re looking at you Tyson, Chipotle and Blue Bell).
But the barrier between buying a DIY brew kit on Food52 (described as “part science experiment, part happy hour”) and opening a craft brewery has never been lower — or more attractive. You’re gonna need cash, common sense and cajones, but what else is required to succeed?
In practice, a lot. On paper, not much. And that gap can lead to a lot of heartache and searing growing pains for the brewer, and for the rest of us: bad beer. Quelle horreur!
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“If you can homebrew, you can feasibly start a brewery if you have the capital and regulatory approval,” says Rich Michaels, quality and innovation manager for F.X. Matt Brewing Co., maker of Saranac, and an instructor at Schenectady County Community College. “There’s no shortage of people who want to work in or start their own brewery. The problem many brewers face, when either hiring people, or maintaining quality control at their new facility, is that people don’t realize it, but you have to have a baseline of scientific knowledge to brew a consistent, shelf-stable product.”
Beer brewing ain’t space exploration. It doesn’t require teams of people in badly tailored lab coats wringing their hands about how to improve secondary ion transmission or the best way to explore undiscovered celestial bodies that may hold the key to the human race’s salvation. But it does require a whole hell of a lot more knowledge than any DIY kit can teach you.
“I think of it like this: Beer brewing is more like baking than cooking,” Michaels explains. “My waistline can attest to my wife’s wonderful cooking. She never follows a recipe. She has a wonderful talent and instinct for it, throwing in a little bit of this here and some spice there. But she’s not a great baker because her approach doesn’t take the chemical reactions that happen in baking into account.”
Like croquembouche or mille-feuilles, beer can be pulled off in small batches by a neophyte with a steady hand, patience and some talent who has a ready and willing audience of pleasure seekers primed to enjoy whatever’s on tap. But the chances that a novice will be able to scale a homebrew habit up to a commercial product that executes a consistent, lip-smacking product is as unlikely as a school-bake-sale-brownie star launching a full-blown pastry shop that Martha Stewart would covetously eye.
Also, brewers are expected to come up with their own recipes for beers, not robotically follow the directions on their brew kit. Recipe-writing requires a baseline knowledge of chemistry, in addition to a great palate, so that the manner in which ingredients will react to each other in the tank, and then over time as the beer settles into barrels, can be anticipated and controlled.
Michaels argues that many talented home brewers who “just” have great palates, recipes and background knowledge of styles who make the transition and open a business are destined for, if not eventual closure, at the very least stagnation and a decided lack of critical or financial success.
There are exactly zero requirements for any sort of formal brewing training certificate to own or operate a business that makes an alcoholic beverage for public consumption.
“The further the beer gets away from where it was produced and the date it was tapped, the harder it is to maintain quality,” he says. “Have you ever had a beer that was sour when it wasn’t a sour style? That’s probably because a chemical reaction occurred at some point in the process that the brewer didn’t have the scientific or math background to predict.”
So where should would-be brewers seek out proficiency? As Michaels explains, there’s no substitute for experience, and yes, book learnin’. (Thought you could avoid college by becoming a brewer? Fail.)
There is a record number of breweries – 4,269 as of the end of last year, up 15 percent over 2014 – and there’s little government oversight. There are exactly zero requirements for any sort of formal brewing training certificate to own or operate a business that makes an alcoholic beverage for public consumption.
It’s understandable. From the outside, brewing beer does seem like more of an art than a science. I mean, it’s a craft. Like shoemaking, basket-weaving or embroidery, the finished product seems to reward a combination of intrinsic, unteachable talent and instinct and, well, experience. That’s all true.
But as craft establishments proliferate and breweries can be found in more than 2,000 cities in all 50 states, it has become clear that a lack of quality control may threaten the industry as a whole and erode the public’s trust in the infallible deliciousness of a truly well-crafted beer. So far, the failure rate of breweries has been low: Of the 620 opened in 2015, only 67 (or 10.8 percent) closed their doors, according to CNBC. Based on long-term figures and 2013 data from the Brewers Association, 51.5 percent of brewpubs and 76 percent of microbreweries that have opened since 1980 are still open. But there’s a creeping sense among the beer drinkerati that a come-to-Jesus moment is nigh.
“The industry is growing so quickly, there’s a sense that there is a lack of experience in the workforce,” Paul Leone, executive director of the New York State Brewers Association, says. “The challenge is, a lot of brewers still have a lot to learn by the time they’ve opened breweries.”
Luckily, it’s more of a quality control concern than a Chipotle too-big-for-their-britches e. coli type of situation.
“Nothing can survive in beer that will kill you,” Michaels says. “Hops inhibit bacteria growth. If new brewers stick to basics and traditional styles and properly clean all of their equipment, they’ll be producing a safe product. But they just may not be good enough to succeed now that craft brewing is no longer novel and most Americans are within walking or driving distance of their own local brewery.”
The options for would-be brewers have never been more numerous, from two-year certificates, “crash courses” focusing on one or two elements of brewing, a broad variety of online courses and full-blown undergraduate degrees. All of this costs money, and the payoff, at least at first, will be minimal.
According to most accounts, a brewer at a small-scale outfit can expect to make between $25,000 and $30,000, whereas a brewer at a larger company can make upward of $100,000. A brewery tech, which involves conducting chemical analysis and lab tests, can expect about $40,000. Prices for online and crash courses start in the hundreds, and two-year and undergrad programs are similar to other community college and undergrad programs.
“Because so many people want jobs at breweries, we’re able to weed out candidates without any education already, and that’s only going to increase,” Michaels says.
When selecting a school, “the biggest mistake people make is in thinking brewing is simpler than it is and looking for a program that just covers basics,” Leone says. “Brewers who want to excel in their field need a wide gamut of science, chemistry, safety issues and business basics. Brewers wear a lot of hats. They need to know how to run a business.”
Michaels went to the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago, the oldest and one of the most prominent schools for brewing in the country. Founded in 1868 by Dr. John E. Siebel, alumni span 60 countries and are found in almost every major brewery in the world. Michaels says the graduates “include members of Pabst, Busch, Stroh. A Yuengling daughter was in my class.”
Not too shabby.
“The Siebel Institute and other institutes of its caliber like Oregon State or the University of California-Davis aren’t for everyone,” Michaels acknowledges, recognizing the time and financial commitment those programs entail. “A lot of community colleges, like Schenectady, where I teach, are starting strong programs.”
Two-year and four-year programs are probably better suited to young people without a gig or folks with deep pockets. For career-changers or people who work in breweries but still haven’t quite wrapped their minds around how to stabilize wild yeast or how to control diffused oxygen in the bottling process, a shorter program at a community college is ideal.
Everyone should look for programs staffed with faculty currently in the industry, with a curriculum that is heavy on math and science and programs that include hands-on training and outreach in the community.
One of Michaels’ students from Schenectady Community College, Chris Anderson, says a three-and-a-half month crash course revolutionized his career and mindset (even if it hasn’t paid off financially yet.)
“Before I took the class, I was working in the industry doing packaging for about three years, and I wasn’t having luck breaking into the brewing side, despite expressing interest in it,” Anderson says. “I made a job change and approached the owner of the Adirondack Pub & Brewery early on and told him how interested I was in brewing. He really mentored me, told me where to look for classes, which class to choose and once I graduated, he let me move over to brewing.”
His first effort, Triquetra, just went on tap at the brewery. It’s an IPA, with a heavy dry hop utilizing Chinook, Horizon and Bravo.
Today we tasted the third evolution in our Shapeshifting IPA Series off of the fermenter. Triquetra is a recipe developed by our brewer Chris, and features a heavy dry hop utilizing Chinook, Horizon, and Bravo. Look for this to be on tap at the Pub in the near future. #IPA #AdirondackBrewery #Shapeshifting #DrinkLocal #DrinkFresh #Fermenter #NYBeer #ThinkNyDrinkNY #Horizon #Bravo #Chinook #Hops
“I’d been in the industry for years and I’d home brewed a lot, but there was absolutely no way I could have learned everything I did in the classroom on the job,” he says.
The same hopped-up desire for a balanced yet complex brew that drives many of us to plan our social lives around obscure beer release parties within a 50-mile radius, our vacations around craft beer trails and our shopping lists according to the Beer Advocate’s rotating Top New Beer list, is driving more old hands in the industry to push for some sort of baseline educational requirement.
Chances are, Uncle Sam will soon join the industry in demanding new standards. In May, the FDA issued new rules requiring brewers to put ingredients and nutrition facts on their labels. Brewers will have to know more – a lot more – about what goes into their beer with the government peeking into the fermentation tank.
Brewers have until July 2018 to make their labels (and, more to the point, their recipes) completely compliant, consistent and FDA-ogling proof.
Start applying for school now, kids.