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Stewarding a Homebrew Competition in America’s Finest City (Drinking and paperwork make quite the pair)

February 22, 2011 Leave a comment

If this past Saturday morning was a reliable indicator, homebrew competitions are the following three things:

  1. Lively, at times bordering on raucous.
  2. Educational
  3. A fantastic way to spend a weekend.

I have to admit that I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into when I rolled up to St. Dunstan’s last Saturday at 9AM for the America’s Finest City Homebrew Competition.  As I approached the building I was stopped by a fellow QUAFF member who inquired about the tricky, google-inspired back road route he had seen me use just moments earlier.  We chatted for a few moments and I learned that he was Jim Crute, owner of Lightning Brewery.  I still react to meeting brewers as normal folks would when meeting rockstars, so this impromptu meeting bolstered my confidence that it would be a wonderful day.  I strode into the main hall to find a small crowd of somewhat familiar faces and a pleasant breakfast spread.

This was my first experience with a homebrew competition.  I hadn’t entered any beers, but I was there to volunteer as a steward in order to better understand the judging process.  Stewarding, it turns out, isn’t particularly difficult.  At the onset of the judging you pair up with a single category of judges.  In this case I got to choose, so I picked the Scottish and Irish Ale table.   You proceed to bring out the beers, one by one, until they’ve tried the whole flight.  After each beer you check the judge’s math — which gets pretty hairy as the day progresses — and fill out some last remaining paperwork.  Along the way you sequester the beers that have a chance of placing and remove those that obviously won’t make the cut.

The main take-away I got from the AFC is that stewarding is a fantastic way to train your palate.  I was hoping this would be the case, as my abilities to both discern and describe flavors need significant strengthening.  As judges make their way through their flight they are more than happy to let stewards in on their discussions.  I found that they are willing to answer questions if asked and will often encourage you to taste the beers after they’ve sipped enough to form their opinion.  As a steward you can read their scoresheets, which include separate commentary for aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel and overall impression.  This is made particularly useful because you can often peruse the comments while sampling the beer in question.  I personally think that it’s the notably bad beers which are most interesting to taste.  They often serve as examples for various off-flavors, which are hard to find commercially and even harder to identify if you don’t have a BJCP judge sitting by your side.  Early in the day I had a good example of an infected beer that betrayed both acetic acid bacteria along with a possible Brettanomyces infection (For the uninitiated, the former instills a vinegar-like quality, while the latter is a wild yeast intentionally used in sours; neither should be present in any Scottish or Irish Ale).   When I brought it over to the “dumped” beer area the other stewards were eager to sample the infected brew.  This culture of beer nerdiness and serious study pervades the competition and makes the day fun for everyone involved.

Experiencing the judging process has me pumped for the first round of the National Homebrew Competition coming up in April.  I’m eagerly anticipating the feedback I’ll get for my submissions, which will hopefully include a Scottish Ale.  I’m also looking forward to stewarding once again.  If you’re looking for ways to expand your palate, learn off-flavors, or nail a certain style of beer, I can’t stress enough how great of a resource competitions can be.

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Brewer’s Library: Brewing Up a Business by Sam Calagione

February 16, 2011 2 comments

You’ve heard of Sam Calagione. He is well on his way to being the most recognizable brewer in America. He founded Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, who are among the top 25 craft breweries by sales volume and have collaborated with the likes of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Boston Beer Co., and the Beer Advocate brothers. He has published several books on brewing and business. At the end of 2010 the Discovery Channel gave him his own TV show. Yeah, that guy.

Brewing Up a Business by Sam CalagioneBrewing Up a Business should be required reading for anyone working in a small craft brewery — or any small business, for that matter. Calagione has put together a lively, informative guide that covers the lifespan of a company from the original innovative idea to end-game strategies for gracefully exiting a successful entrepreneurial venture. Along the way he shares a number of entertaining stories from Dogfish Head’s unusual history that are the centerpiece responsible for this work’s accessibility.

Rather than being a nuts-and-bolts guide to business ownership, this work is really the transmission of one man’s business — and life — philosophy. Some of the key themes are as follows: everything you do should reflect your core values; you get the most from others when you communicate with openness, trust and respect; getting away from work can be the key to success both away from and at the office; etc, etc. These sorts of things can seem cliché when tersely spouted off by someone in a forum such as this, but when seriously ruminated upon they reflect real insight and are the heart of this book.

One of the greatest successes of Brewing Up a Business is that Calagione doesn’t torpedo his book’s readability when he does choose to focus on more tangible aspects of running a  business. In one notable departure he strays from business philosophies to talk about the difference between income statements and balance sheets. This is a subject that could easily put even the most interested young brewer to sleep. Yet, in the context that Calagione has created the subject becomes surprising and powerful. Having made it through two thirds of the book by this point, the reader trusts that if Calagione is taking the time to expound upon these supposedly crucial financial documents then it’s time to pay attention.

If the book has any downfalls the most egregious would be the author’s glamorization of business ownership. He mentions some of the hardships of the early days, such as getting years of little-to-no money and even less sleep, but only in a passing, light-hearted manner. It seems likely, given the success that has followed that era, that he simply views it all with the same amount of joy. After all, he couldn’t have gotten to where he is today without those tumultuous initial years. I recently spoke to another small craft brewer whose business is not yet out of that stage and he echoed Calagione’s realistic yet rosy view of the situation. Faced with a full-time position’s worth of brewery work on top of a normal day job, most of his life savings sunk into the business and with no certainty that the venture will ever turn profitable, he said that even if it were to go under tomorrow it will have been 100% worth it.

The reason that everyone working at a small-scale, for-profit business should invest their time into this book is high valuation of empathy. Calagione cites the ability to empathize as a fundamental characteristic of both good salespeople and good managers. He’s right on the money, except that I’d like to up the stakes and claim that it’s the fundamental skill for being a good human being. Understanding the entire life-cycle of a small business will help any employee improve the quality of their work. If you have an inkling of what the other owners and long-term employees went through early on and deal with on a day-to-day basis, you will better relate to those people. The ability to think holistically is an asset no matter what you find yourself doing, and Brewing Up a Business enthusiastically promotes that type of thought.

Volunteering at a Brewery

February 13, 2011 Leave a comment

One of my aspirations for this blog is to help others become professional brewers. Sometimes I’ll be posting information about specific techniques or equipment, but I think it’s equally important to supplement that with tips on how to make yourself a more attractive candidate for breweries to hire. To that end, one of the best ways to increase your chances is to volunteer at an up and coming brewery.

If you’re like me you might have assumed that, with the industry’s ever-increasing profile and size, the days of breweries opening their doors to volunteers were long gone. While that’s true for larger outfits, newer breweries are often in need of help and short on cash. Perfect volunteering opportunity. In general, the best way to find out if a brewery needs an extra set of hands is to go ask in person — try a flight while you’re at it!

Volunteering is the single best way to experience the realities of professional brewing. You’ll likely cover yourself in beer, hot water and grain dust. You’ll understand the physicality of brewing on a larger-scale. At the end of the day you’ll either be tired and joyful or tired and irritable. That may lead you to realize that you don’t actually want to do this every day, but even if that’s the case you’ll have an enduring, informed appreciation for the work of craft brewers. Or you’ll love every second of it, in which case you’ll learn some invaluable information on the job.

There are the little things: how to handle chemicals or flip and tighten a tri-clamp with one hand. Then there are fundamentals of brewing theory: what different mash temperatures are trying to achieve or goals for cleaning and sanitizing. Most important of all is that you’ll learn to think like a brewer. You need to hone your abilities to multi-task and organize logistics of space and time. If you’re already an all-grain homebrewer you’ll recognize procedural similarities, though some of the techniques and technologies used will be new to you. You’ll learn vocabulary of the trade that will translate no matter what brewery you end up working for.

Brewery owners will respect volunteer experience if for no other reason than that it demonstrates real interest in the craft. They know that you’ve traded time in order to learn: if you’ll do it for free, you must truly enjoy brewing. They can also be certain that your experience elsewhere will make it easier to teach you their operating procedures and, who knows, maybe you’ll be able to teach them a trick or two that they didn’t know.

If you’re going to volunteer, it’s up to you to ensure that you’re getting a good deal out of the exchange. I hate to see members of my generation working for nothing. As long as you’re enjoying yourself, learning everyday and building your resume it’s probably a fair deal. In the end you have to decide if you’re getting enough out of it. Sure, they’ll likely give you beer and merchandise, which is always fun, but you need to be proactive about your education. Get them to train you in all aspects of their process from milling to packaging. Learn everything you can and don’t be afraid to move on if your arrangement ever becomes uneven. As long as you’re driven to learn I’m sure you’ll find it was worth the time you invested.

That said, it’s time for me to go work at Manzanita in exchange for beer and an education.

Brule’s Rules

February 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Just in case you didn’t realize, brewing could have a negative impact on your health:

You will definitely be on your feet all day. You sit down only when you’re using the forklift.

You will definitely be lifting heavy things: grain out, rotating/moving wooden barrels, drums of chemicals, full kegs, etc.

You will burn yourself (heat).

You will burn yourself (chemical).

You may very well fall on your ass.

Worse still, any “safer” job you get next will seem unbearably boring.

<i>For your health</i>

Our Story So Far…

February 6, 2011 Leave a comment

So there’s a bit of backstory that needs to be told in order to get this blog up to speed. I intend to keep it nice and short.

I first encountered homebrewing back in college. My friend Paul made his own beer and kept in on tap in our friends’ dormroom closet. This bent a number of dorm rules and the authorities soon intervened, but my interest had already been piqued. In the fall of 2008 I found some used brewing equipment for forty bucks on Craig’s List and I was officially on my way. I brewed off and on for the next two years; mostly extract with steeping. It was a transient period for me so I repeatedly found myself needing to start collecting equipment all over again. One notable batch of mead was left to fend for itself in Hawai’i while I moved back to the East Coast to tour with a band. This sort of thing doesn’t make for good beer.

Things started to settle down and six months ago I decided I was ready to get serious about trying to brew professionally. Though I was a bit of an off-an-on brewer I had always loved the process. I’d like to think that I made some good beers and the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. I love that brewing is both art and science; it’s your prerogative to take it as far as you’d like in either of those directions.

I had just come out to San Diego — again with the band — and started brewing more frequently. I joined the local homebrew club and started trolling sites like ProBrewer for job possibilities. In December I saw a job posting for a Packaging Team Member at The Bruery in Orange County and applied. During my interview with them I realized that I should be volunteering at a local brewery if I could find one that needed the help. At the time I was living out in East County so I knocked on the door of Manzanita Brewing Company, a small-batch brewery that had just opened in July 2010. I started volunteering with them on brewdays, a couple weeks went by, and then came the call from The Bruery. I had the job.

Since I do two very different sets of activities at each brewery I have continued volunteering at Manzanita while working at The Bruery. So that’s the current state of affairs: M-F I work at The Bruery filling & washing kegs, bottling, and other assorted tasks; on the weekends I volunteer with Manzanita assisting with Brewer and Cellarman’s duties. I work all the time, but I love it. I’m learning something new everyday and am going to attempt to share that knowledge with all of you.

Cheers,

Matt

What’s This All About, Anyway?

February 4, 2011 Leave a comment

I am writing this blog for all the homebrewers out there who aim to make brewing their profession. American homebrewing has become huge in the past few decades. Driven by the enthusiasm of those small-batch scientists, craft beer has earned an ever-increasing market share since the 1980’s. There are a lot of brewers out there, young and old, who either dream of or plan on brewing professionally some day. I count myself among them and I hope that this site will become a resource for those budding keepers of the yeast. My plan is to give insight into my own personal experiences working in the brewing industry, along with research and commentary on related issues, book reviews, festival and brewing education reviews, etc. All things beer, all the time.

It would be great if this blog spawned serious discussions with others, but even if it is a solitary exercise I feel it will be useful. This is a place to collect thoughts and lessons learned, and to remind myself of what I still need to know.

Best read with a brew in hand.

Preliminary Definitions

February 4, 2011 Leave a comment

40 Liters: According to Arthur Guyton’s Textbook of Medical Physiology, the amount of liquid in an average adult male is 40 liters.

Starter: A preliminary step for brewing beer in which a small sample of yeast is cultivated until it has reproduced enough to successfully ferment the batch. Often measured in mL or liters, depending on the desired product and batch size.

40 Liter Starter: Documenting one young homebrewer’s pursuit of a professional brewing career, from volunteer to brewery owner.

More to come soon.

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