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Hundreds of Beers & Thousands of Beer Lovers, Take 1

The week of NHC is finally here. My countdown to this event began all the way back on Memorial Day weekend with The Bruery’s 3rd Anniversary celebration. The anniversary, while important to everybody at The Bruery, was especially so for me because it served as my introduction to beer festivals. As a virgin fest-goer I learned some important lessons (Lesson 1: If you want to sample beers all day, you must drink water and increase your caloric intake beyond nachos and their accompanying “cheese.” (Lesson 2: Do not expect decent vegetarian fare at a beer festival)) and I was saved from liver failure only because I was working for the first two thirds of the celebration. I found that helping may actually be more fun than simply attending, which has me very excited to steward the NHC finals this Thursday. Most of my day was spent pouring at the VIP tent; a task made more daunting due to the length of the VIP line and The Bruery’s track record of letting down many of these same acolytes at their last large event (a train-wreck that has led to the renaming of all subsequent reserve society parties: they are now “Clusterforks”). However, we came prepared and the red-flag-raising queue cycled through in less time than it took many a surprised Very Important Person to finish 3 ounces of highly sought-after booze.

Pouring and sampling these drinks taught yet another lesson: the people who pay hundreds of dollars for      fill in with any number of “whale” beers      are out of their goddamn minds. Yes, these beers are wonderful (the most illuminating of the VIP pours was the difference between Stone’s ’07 and ’08 Imperial Russian Stout; I was astounded at how a beer can mellow so perceptibly even after three years of cellaring). But I have to believe that those who inflate their value to such an absurd degree must come away disappointed. The aura of expectation that surrounds these select beers does more harm than good, as far as I can tell. The only griping patrons I encountered were those who came too late to get Chocolate Rain or Black Tuesday. But for every lauded Imperial Russian Stout (why are they all Stouts? It’s because any stout can be made more special with some time in a bourbon barrel, right?) there are a number of beers of equal greater quality and lesser stature to be had.

So now, after The Bruery 3 experience, I have a new top reason to be excited about NHC. There are no over-hyped beers amongst homebrewers. Almost everybody is unknown and word-of-mouth only has a few hours to develop after a beer starts pouring. This means every sample is a chance to be surprised. Oh yeah, and on top of the homebrews there are the presentations, NHC finals, nighttime soirées and the banquet dinner. There’s even a vegetarian option.

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The Sounds of Heavy Metal

May 19, 2011 2 comments

A funny thing has happened since I began working at The Bruery: I’ve developed a strong preference for silence over listening to music. With my Bruery weeks and Manzanita weekends I average 4-6 hours of driving every Friday to Sunday, yet still I traverse those miles with the sound system off. It seems that this is a natural response to the brewing environment, which tends to be quite loud. We are, after all, talking about industrial production here. Dickensian working conditions these may not be, but when you’re nestled between air compressors and propane burners things get overwhelming pretty quickly. It’s not unusual to find myself screaming at Garry during the course of an otherwise pleasant conversation because of all the noise.

While brewing does cause auditory fatigue, an attentive ear is a surprisingly useful asset in a production environment. Machines speak volumes if you listen. Mills and pumps that have run dry protest loudly and with reduced bass. The keg washer hisses and splashes in various combinations as it moves through its cycle, which allows you to track its progress from anywhere in the brewery. While filling kegs you can hear the last of the carbon dioxide get ejected before the full keg begins to spray foamy beer on the floor. You also know that if you hear something out of the ordinary you should probably try to figure out the sound’s origin immediately. Just this morning my supervisor, Victor, and I were talking when he suddenly asked if I heard water running. I could only hear the decidedly unsubtle sound of wine barrels being pressure washed, but soon thereafter we realized that he had indeed heard the miniature waterfall created by sparging too hastily.

Yet the din of the machines is hardly the only culprit behind my tired ears: we also have ourselves to blame. The Bruery has an awesome sound system. The average age of the six brewery staff is 25. We listen to music and we listen LOUD; not that we have much choice if we want to hear over the aforementioned racket. You might think this somewhat masochistic but I promise it’s essential for morale. Try quickly removing 2500 lbs of spent grain from the mash tun or bottling for 8 hours straight and you too would need the boost afforded by music with a quick tempo. Some days it sounds like a nightclub in there. Sometimes a mosh pit. No matter the genre, between the music and the machinery it’s no surprise that I relish a silent drive from brewery to brewery.

…And now, the best and worst of The Bruery’s various playlists:

Worst Offenders New Favorites
An entire album of Taylor Swift Foals – Antidotes
An entire album of Linkin Park Big Business – Here Comes the Waterworks
An entire album of P.O.D. Jay-Z – The Blueprint 3
“The Reason” by Hoobastank Deadmau5

I Had a Feeling Something Like This Might Happen

Today was a thoroughly enjoyable day at The Bruery. I was super busy and everybody seemed to be in unusually high spirits. However, as I left for the evening I found that my bike had disappeared. Asking around drew only the mildest concern and some pretty straight faces. It took a little looking, but I eventually located my ride:

My Bicycle Hanging Around at the Bruery

This explains the good moods. It also signals the kickoff of a badass prank war.

… to be continued.

In Brewery, Beer Schedules You!

April 27, 2011 1 comment

Welcome to my own personal economic downturn. There’s been little for me to do at The Bruery so I’ve only been in twice this week and today’s the start of a very long weekend. This displeases my wallet and speaks to a brewing reality that is worth delving into: if you aspire to enter the industry be sure to consider how flexible you can be. I’m not referencing the ability to “twist and turn, reach over your shoulders, bend and stoop” that every brewer’s help wanted ad mentions; I’m talking about choosing a flexible lifestyle.  If you need a steady, dependable schedule to anchor your life you won’t find it making beer.

All things considered, my hours are relatively easy to handle. Packaging takes place between 8 and 5 and The Bruery tries to stick to weekdays whenever possible.  I typically find out each week’s schedule on the last day of the prior week. My scheduled days do sometimes change at the last minute, but that’s unusual. Full-time employees know they work every day but their hours vary widely. With our two brewer, 1 – 3 batch per day schedule one brewer generally comes in as a early as 4AM to get the brewday started and the other stays into the evening to finish up. Their days last between 8 and 12 hours, depending on what’s brewing and how busy we’ve been in the preceding week.

My friend Nick brews at Ballast Point and confirmed that our malleable schedule is hardly unusual, even for a larger outfit. Though Ballast Point’s annual production is 10 times The Bruery’s, their employees’ hours still change on a day-to-day basis. I imagine that life doesn’t become more predictable unless you work for a brewery like Stone that’s brewing 24/7. Most of the daily variation is simply unavoidable. For instance, higher alcohol beers require longer lauter times. The Bruery’s boil lasts anywhere from 20 minutes to 4 hours depending on the beer. Schedules have to change if a fermentation takes longer than expected or ingredient deliveries get delayed. There are very few brewery processes that can be paused, so it’s necessary to keep working until the task is complete, quitting time or no quitting time. Unless we’re bottling a full day’s worth of beer we avoid taking any breaks until we’ve finished.

Some might find the brewer’s schedule unsettling, but I find it invigorating. One of the joys of life is that every day has the potential to be different, if only we’re willing to capitalize on the endless possibilities afforded to us. The average full-time job imbues our days with an unrelenting sameness that hinders one’s perception of these possibilities. The inertia of the daily grind lends itself to a stagnant existence against which we should constantly struggle. So while I would certainly appreciate having an extra day on my time card this week, I remember to value the less tangible benefits of the brewer’s lifestyle. If you believe that you’ll feel the same, you just might enjoy brewery work as much as I do.

Vegan and Non-Vegan Beers: Ingredients and Procedures

March 17, 2011 1 comment
Tyler Grilling

Tyler grilling a Friday lunch

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I adhere to a vegetarian diet and this makes me somewhat unusual amongst the brewing crowd. Beer culture and meat culture go hand and hand and I don’t expect the “haha, how do you even survive” jokes to end anytime soon. Some ribbing isn’t so bad, though I do occasionally miss out on delicious meals when the bacon-themed food truck comes around or Tyler breaks out the grill in mid-January to serve up Carne Asada tacos.

— On a related note, big thanks to Seabirds and the Lime Truck for being vegan and vegetarian-friendly, respectively. Sooo delicious. —

I obviously have no right to complain, though, as I’ve subjected myself to this bacon-less torture. I merely hope to provide the context for a conversation I had with Tyler awhile back in which he asked me if I buy only vegan-friendly beers. I’ve never tried to maintain a coherent vegan diet (i.e. no animal byproducts as ingredients) so I hadn’t ever considered the matter, but the subject did pique my interest.

Some non-vegan beers are pretty hard to miss: oyster stouts have… you guessed it, oyster; braggots or other meads rely heavily on honey for their sugar content, as do many beers such as Honey Blondes. I say “most” because of the existence of honey malt. I hadn’t encountered this ingredient until the maltster from Gambrinus Malting paid us a visit at Manzanita Brewing Company. Honey malt was one of his specialties that he was showing to Garry that day, so we spent a while tasting and discussing it. He explained that there is no actual honey involved in creating said malt and claimed that it tastes and smells so distinctly of it’s namesake that some brewers use it in lieu of the real thing in their so-called “honey” beers. I’m not sure I believe that, but it’s worth considering. Another confusing case is the sweet stout, otherwise known as the “milk” or “cream” stout. Many traditional examples of this beer included lactose, a sugar culled from whey. However, these days there are plenty of sweet stouts that get their unfermentable sugars from other, vegan-friendly, sources.

Aside from those more obvious ingredients, many beers are non-vegan because they include animal products as fining or filtration agents. Isinglass, a gelatin made from fish bladders, is one of the more common non-vegan fining agents. Additionally, some brewers may use animal byproducts to assist with head retention. Procedural ingredients such as these are unlikely to be listed on a label; if you want to play it safe, unfiltered beers are the most likely to be vegan-friendly. However, at the end of the day the only way to be sure is contact the brewery and ask. Luckily, these fine folks there have compiled what seems to be the most complete list of vegan and non-vegan breweries on the ‘net. While I still refuse to limit myself to vegan-friendly beers, it is interesting to see who uses what processes and how each company has fielded these inquiries. Enjoy!

Gettin’ Fancy (Huh?)

I finally have a background image that I like so I just want to give credit where credit is due: this portrait of our cleaned kegs (guess who’s responsible for those) was taken by Brian Evans for his blog The Beer Project. They recently did a nice piece on The Bruery and his photos are gorgeous, so check ’em out! Thanks, Brian.

Also, I’ve got a few articles that are in progress so hopefully I’ll have something new for y’all soon. Thanks for reading!

Getting Hired at a Brewery: The Interview

March 3, 2011 4 comments

So you found a brewing gig you think you want. You applied. They even called you back and you’re heading off to visit in a couple days. Naturally, you’re wondering what to expect from the interview and how best to prepare.

Well, today’s your lucky day because I just went through this process three months ago and I seem to have done alright, what with getting hired and all that.

Back in December I noticed that The Bruery had posted an entry-level position on Probrewer. I wasn’t so sure how I felt about moving to Orange County (at that time I was living with friends in East San Diego County) but I knew that if a brewery that close by was hiring I had to apply.  I whipped up a cover letter and resume that night and sent them off.   Twenty-four hours later I was scheduling the interview and at the end of the week I found myself in the Sensory Analysis Room face to face with all three brewers.

I did a couple things in the 48 hours between scheduling and fielding the interview that certainly helped land me this job.  First, I had never had a Bruery beer before.  I was able to rectify that situation with the help of a Whole Foods, who happened to have 3 French Hens and Saison de Lente.  I took my time when tasting them and jotted down notes on both beers; I wanted to be able to speak intelligently about them if asked.  The second — and considerably more time consuming — task I undertook was to absorb all the information I could find about The Bruery on a little thing called the internet.  This included their own website, a handful of interviews, webcasts, and beer rating sites.  The most interesting material I found was from the early years of The Bruery’s own blog, which details the creation of the brewery starting all the way back with their search for a proper location.  It took a long time to sort through, but by the time I drove up to O.C. I had a much better sense of who the major players were, where they were coming from and what they valued.  If it accomplished nothing else, I felt much more comfortable walking into that room armed with some contextual info.

Two final pieces of preparation were ensuring that I knew my resume and cover letter by heart (I also brought copies in case they needed one, though they were well on top of that) and to have drawn up a list of questions I thought they might ask me.  I wanted to minimize the number of times I got caught off guard in the interview, so I thought abut each of those questions until I was positive I could successfully answer without faltering.  I think it’s important not to have fully-formulated, memorized responses as those would be likely to come off as robotic and flat, however, you definitely should have your central ideas sorted out.

Here are some of the questions I came prepared to answer that we did cover during the interview:

What’s your favorite style of beer?  Least favorite?  Favorite beer ever?

Well, they didn’t ask me those particular questions but they did ask me…

What did you think of our (The Bruery’s) beers that you’ve had?  Which was your favorite?  Least favorite?  Why?

I got lucky and had a sample of Rugbrød in the tasting room right before going in, so I had tried three of their beers (Saison De Lente, 3 French Hens, Rugbrød) and had clear answers to this question.  It probably didn’t hurt that my least favorite happened to be the Head Brewer’s as well. It’s very important that you communicate an ability to form strong opinions about beer, whether it be theirs or another brewery’s.  It doesn’t matter if your taste for beer is the opposite of the interviewer’s.   Defending your opinion in a detailed, intelligent manner is what counts.

Why do you enjoy brewing?  Why do you want to do it professionally?

If you truly haven’t thought about this already you should ask yourself why you are looking for a poorly-paid job in this industry.

What are you currently doing (and planning on doing in the next year) to improve your brewing?

This seemed to be about checking my commitment to the craft.  Even though the gig is washing kegs, they want to know that you’ll be inspired to do the best job possible and eager to learn all that you can.  If you have plans for your brewing future regardless of any job possibilities that’s a pretty good sign.  In my case, I talked about homebrewing clubs, competitions, BJCP exam preparation, etc.

And here are a sampling of the more unexpected questions that they asked:

Can you lift 165 pounds?   Pretty sure they were messing with me.  I was fully expecting 55 lbs, as most job postings include that figure.  I was floored by 165 and (honestly) answered that I really didn’t know, but that I knew I could lift 150.  I think they were looking to weed out the liars.

What brewing books have you read? The brewing materials you’ve worked through give a pretty good idea of your interests and level of sophistication as a brewer.  Study up. 

What do you know about our brewery?   I was well prepared to answer this; I simply wasn’t expecting them to be so blunt.  This proves that they want to know you’ve prepared for the interview and are taking the job seriously.

Would you clean the toilets if that’s what we needed you to do? Again, they were sort of messing with me here.  The obvious gist was, “How badly do you want this?  Do you understand that it’s not a glorious job?  Are you willing to do whatever we need?”  And no, in two months they haven’t yet had me clean any toilets.

Ever volunteer at a brewery? It’s hard to believe I wasn’t expecting this.  As I’ve written before, I guess I was operating under the assumption that craft brewing had reached the point where no one used volunteers anymore.  Very wrong. Go out and find someplace to volunteer.  I did that the very next week, before I had even heard back from The Bruery.  

The Take-Away

I walked away from the interview thinking I probably wouldn’t get hired.  They had mentioned that some folks were flying in to interview, which didn’t make me feel particularly good about my chances.  However, I felt great about the whole process because I learned a lot and felt that, flawed as I may be, they had gotten a realistic snapshot of who I was during our short conversation.  That has to be the single most important goal of the interview.  Be yourself.  Be honest.  Both parties will end up unhappy if they hire you while operating with a poor understanding of who you really are.  During my interview I was frank and, thanks to some preparation, at ease.  I might have even managed some quirky brand of charm.  I’m not sure about that, but I did get the job.  And so will you.