So You Want to Be a Brewer...
Does your job suck so much...
February 20, 2003
Written by beerdedbastard
<P>So you want to be a Brewer…“WHY” I ask?</P>
<P>Are you a masochist in search of new pain thresholds to conquer? Do you have a compulsive cleaning disorder? Does your job suck so much that your daydreams carry you into a grand vision of what being a brewer or working in a brewery would be like? Do you think that all those women in the commercials actually work in a brewery? Are you searching for free beer? Or maybe you have even homebrewed a bit and said “Hey, that would be cool!”?
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<P>Oh sure, we walk around all day with our “Beer-hats” on. The straw inches away from our mouths, for whenever we need that nourishing sip. Only they are called swickles, not straws and they aren‘t on our heads. They are on fermenters holding up to, in my case, 150 barrels (a barrel is equal to 31 US Gallons) or around 5,000 gallons of beer! We have lots of “friends” & groupies... and go to all the festivals. We even know the secret of the never ending keg and get free beer wherever we go… (LOL!) Yea, right. We pay for it too!
While it is <U>VERY COOL</u> being a brewer, and the aromas of a brew in progress are awesome, it is not as glamorous as you might believe it is.
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Don’t get me wrong…I LOVE BREWING. I wouldn’t choose to do anything else at this point in my life. I am thrilled and thankful to have been given the opportunity to be a part of this industry. But it wasn’t easy getting here either. There is a lot of teamwork and personal sacrifice in our business for the benefit of the greater whole, so to speak. You can equate us to the starving artists of the world…except for the fact that we can consume our creations, and thus don’t starve. How do you think those monks survived? Beer was their nourishment. Our benefits come in small doses - a pint at a time. And I would just like to share some of what being a brewer is like in a production brewery. Oh, by the way, our “groupies” are mostly calorically challenged middle-aged men. That’s a Plus!
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Fresh brewed Wort
<P>First off, I’d like to clear the air about what a brewer does. A brewer does NOT make beer. A brewer makes something called wort. A bitter-sweet liquid made from water, malted (and some un-malted) grains and hops. Yeast makes beer! We just provide the medium they like and they create the carbonated alcoholic beverage we know and love. Yeast are nice like that and are very interesting to work with. They’re also nutritious, and I try to eat them as often as possible. Just another benefit of “real” or unfiltered beers. (My CAMRA 2 cents worth!)
<P>Our days begin early, and finish late. Sometimes in complete solitude. Grain bags can make great beds when you can only catch a quick nap between shifts. And beer doesn’t take a day-off either. It’s alive, 24-7 and must be watched over, like a child. It can move through the fermentation process smoothly or throw you a curve when a chilling system fails. (note: heat is created during the fermentation process and must be regulated.) Or maybe not enough yeast is pitched and you have to wait (and hope…) for a brew to finish out. There can be many variables, and the trick is in the manipulation of them for the maximum consistency. Brewing is a constant learning experience and I learn something new every day.
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Active fermentations take over the cellar!
<P>You are in wet boots and clothes most of the time. Splattered, stained and matted with a lovely mixture of yeast, hops and grain. They are washed while you wear them! You work in extreme heat. Hot and steamy conditions that can change to down right cold, when you need to work in a cooler and back and forth. Bending, lifting, climbing, reaching, kneeling, twisting, shoveling…you name it. Your body can be put through considerable punishment during a single shift. Not to mention the mental stresses that can occur at any given moment, like a boil-over. Boiling hot wort flowing out and over a brew kettle is quite an adrenaline rush. It also takes caution in getting it back under control. It can be scary stuff, with a huge maiming injury potential.
<P>A brewer must be resourceful and quick thinking. You need to tune yourself into the sounds and smells around you, to know if and what something is happening that should or shouldn’t be. Everything is on a schedule. Timing is essential in the brewing process to achieve maximum yields and if something unexpected happens, like a stuck mash or a slow run-off to the brew kettle, it can affect the rest of the day. Like a domino effect, one thing holds up the next, and so on.
<P>I was told when I first began my brewing career, that a brewer is a janitor 90+% of the time…It’s true! Cleaning, cleaning and then CLEAN it again! When you’re done cleaning one thing, it’s time to begin cleaning something else. Actually, you will already be cleaning more than one thing at a time anyway. Multi-tasking is a necessity in a brewery. Cleanliness is next to BEER-lyness, and there is always something in need of cleaning at a brewery. It’s a continuous process. A Fermenting vessel becomes empty and needs to be cleaned before re-filling it. A keg is returned empty and needs cleaning before being re-filled, etc…And yes, you do go inside some of the equipment.
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Going into the Mash/Lauter Tun. (Note: Lautering is the process of re-circulating the sweet wort back through the grains and modern screens to achieve clarification.)
<P>Like the Mash/Lauter Tun. A hot, steamy grain sauna. We joke about “charging admission” as a health SPA. (It’s great for the complexion…you know.) You may start with a couple thousand pounds of dry grain, but when your finished, you’re left to shovel out nearly twice that weight with it’s water content. It’s also hot and steaming at or above 160°F. This “spent grain”, as it’s called, then goes on to supplement the diet of local livestock. And no, there is never any alcohol in the grains. It is the sugars we extract and use from them, so the cows aren’t getting drunk!
<P>And the kettle…where you just boiled a 1000 gallons (depending on the size of your brew system) of caramelizing sugar water. Standing up to your ankles in the remnants of hops and proteins created in and left over from the brewing process. We call this trub (pronounced with a long u). This all needs to be hosed out before a clean in place or CIP can be run with chemicals, pumps and hoses.
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Trub waiting to be hosed out.
<P>A little known fact (outside of brewers) is that our brew kettles are bell shaped and thus produce a tone or resonance with sounds made while you are inside them. I like to hummmmm at different pitches while I work inside and create these “other-ly” sounds! It’s like meditation. You feel completely isolated while you are in there and don’t hear much outside noise. The Zen of Brewing…becoming one with the beer. I mean WORT! It’s also fun making sounds in the fermenters too, even though you don’t go completely inside those. It’s also not for the claustrophobic.
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Inside looking out of a Brew kettle.
<P>Cleaning chemicals and sanitizing agents in a brewery can be downright scary too…many toxic substances are used including caustics and acids, as well as many other less threatening cleaning agents. CO2 exposure is something you need to be constantly aware of…as it can asphyxiate you. Takes your breath right away. Although, it can be a quite a rush to take a morning whiff from a blow-off tube! CO2 is also held at high psi (pounds/square inch) in large stainless steel “cans” called fermenters and bright tanks that can rupture when allowed to become over-pressurized beyond their ratings, or implode from a vacuum created by sudden heat or cold. 15psi doesn’t sound like much until you start adding up all the square inches of a vessel holding upwards of 1000 gallons.
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Fermenter and Bright Tank. (Note: Most modern fermenting vessels have cone shaped bottoms for yeast collection, while bright tanks do not. Bright tanks are used for finished beers to be bottled or kegged from.)
<P>Liquid nitrogen (sometimes used) is so cold it burns…this and all these things require special training and care in dealing with them as well as personal protective gear, such as goggles, respirators and gloves, etc. You must be constantly aware of your surroundings. Pallets of kegs and glass bottles are stacked high and fork lifts are racing here and there moving product around. The noise level in a brewery can approach the loudness of working on/ or around jet aircraft. Heavy Metal concerts PALE (ha-ha!) in comparison. Even the grain dust from milling is flammable, and requires special precautions. The bottling line has it’s own share of injury prone areas associated with glass bottles filled under pressure, and high speed moving parts. The sound of a bottle exploding on the filler is like a mortar going off and can make you jump, clear on the other side of a brewery.
<P>Common injuries can include cuts, sprains, strains, broken bones, and my personal favorite…the back injuries. Then there are steam, hot water or hot wort and chemical burns. Smashed appendages (fingers, hands, feet and legs) between kegs are common. Even some areas better left un-mentioned have been squeezed between them. (Ouch!) A half barrel (15 .5 US Gallon) keg weighs over 150 lbs. and are a great source for a variety of injuries, just ask any of our drivers.
<P>DUI’s and alcoholism can both be constant risks in the “business”. Respect must develop for the product you produce. If it doesn’t, you risk the chances of falling under it’s influence, and not in a good way. The constantly changing laws and regulations concerning alcohol must be kept up with, and vary from state to state here in the US. I won’t even go into brewer’s wages…(Did I mention MENTAL STRESS?)
<P>And all of this is from a 21st century perspective. Brewing in the past was much harder and much more dangerous. I’m sure there were (and are still…) deaths connected with the process. Ever wonder how a “Dead Guy” ale got its name? In the days before stainless steel, mash tuns and brew kettles were made of copper and iron and heated over open flames. Fermenters and barrels (kegs) were made of wood and I imagine, but have not researched, that ruptures occurred and brewers may have actually drowned in their own beer. Lessons were learned from those days and progress has been made, making it a safer and more efficient process today.
<P>What it comes down to is a Love for a product and it processes. And if you can love what you are doing, then going to work each day isn‘t all that bad. That makes the rest of life’s challenges all that more bearable.
<P>That, and I have already made so much beer that I just can’t drink it all by myself…
<P>So I share! It is our biggest benefit after all and my greatest thrill…the “approval by consumption”, by our fans. I’ll suffer for that end.
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Larry W. Hazen
began his brewing career in his home state of Ohio, at the Willoughby Brewing Co. And also worked for the Pilsner and Crooked River Brewing companies there in Cleveland before coming to Stone in 2001.
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The noise level in a brewery can approach the loudness of working on/ or around jet aircraft. Heavy Metal concerts PALE (ha-ha!) in comparison.
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