A note from the desk of Eastern NC’s beer professor
BY JARED BARKLEY
Wednesday, May 29, 2019
If you believe what some of the beer TV commercials and marketing will show you, craft brewers are usually all big, beardy men.Standing around wearing aprons, chatting quite seriously with our beardy buddies. Giving stern looks to liquids in large glass tubes and sniffing big beardy handfuls of the finest, freshest hops and barley that were ever grown between the sandy shores of the home of the brave.
Ahhh … Work. Craft. Barrels. America.
So the customers come in droves. To make their pilgrimage in tribute to these wisened men of copper and steel. The Hemmingways of beverage-dom. And they sip from great pints of stout and IPAs, as they peer through the foggy brewhouse window. Hoping to see with their own eyes some small glimpse of the magic of these storied brewers performing their liquid alchemy. When like eager children at the first flakes of snow, with their eyes squinted and their noses pressed to the glass, at long last they finally see … the back end of some nerd with a clipboard washing out a plastic bucket.
But hey, the truth probably doesn’t sell as many six packs, right? In reality, we brewers are all different types of people. While I, myself, do happen to be of the beardy dude persuasion, not all brewers are bearded. Not all brewers are dudes.
So what makes a brewer? Or more importantly, what makes a good brewer?
Personally, I think it’s a combination of multiple things.
First, a good brewer should be willing to get in there and get their hands dirty. Day to day work in a brewery probably isn’t the backbreaking, soul crushing job that some careers are, but it can be physically tough on you. You’ll get a good workout, for sure.
There’s a great saying floating around the industry that I always like to tell my students: “Everyone wants to be a brewer until it’s time to do brewer shit.” I don’t know who said it first, but I think it makes a good summary.
Much of our time is spent cleaning, scrubbing, mopping, and moving around some pretty hefty gear. Kegs aren’t light. You’ll spend the vast majority of your day on your feet on a concrete floor. You’ll do a lot of bending and squatting. Breweries tend to get hot and humid pretty quickly. I’m reminded of a particular brewhouse that I used to work in that averaged a good 108 degrees most of the time. In the winter.
But if you don’t mind good, hard work, maybe you’ll make a good brewer.
Physical stuff aside, a good brewer needs to understand the science of their work. Here’s a fun experiment: Head to any brewery of your choice. Order a beer and really taste it. Make some notes and get a really good sense of what that beer is like. Go back again in a month and repeat. Head back for a third time one month later and compare notes.
If the beer isn’t the same, that may mean that somebody isn’t doing their homework. At its absolute base level, if you can mac-n-cheese, you can make a beer. The basic process is a pretty simple concept. Heat some water, dump in some stuff, drain, pour in more stuff, etc. Step by step, it’s not difficult to follow.
However, for brewers it is bit more complicated. We deal with agricultural products as our ingredients. This means a constant drift in things like water chemistry, enzymatic content, alpha acids, cell viability, temperature, time or about a ba-jillion (scientific term) other variables that come into play. The good brewer does their best to learn and understand these variables, and uses their knowledge of chemistry, biology and math to minimize those variables into that best-selling, repeatable flagship brew.
It’s a challenge of getting a consistent result from sometimes less that consistent ingredients. Customers are going to want your awesome Belgian Tripel they bought from you in September to be awesome again when they buy it in March — not to mention every time in between.
Do you like solving puzzles? You might be a good brewer.
So we have the hands-on stuff, and we have the nerdy brain stuff. And truth be told, with that combination, you could probably make some pretty good beer. But for me, I still think that there’s one piece left. That last bit that can push you from good to great.
That’s the passion. Maybe that’s the thing that those commercials are trying to capture? The love for it. As a brewer, I love what I do. I like to get in there and get my hands dirty. I get to create something that people can gather around and enjoy. I love that my job lets me stretch my brain and solve problems.
And at the end of the day, there is no better reward than to sit down with your friends and enjoy a great cold beer that you made. That’s the passion. You will never find a group of people that love what they do more than a room full of great brewers.
As an educator, I can teach the hands-on stuff. How to fill a keg or clean a mash tun. I can teach the science and math. The polysaccharides or how to manually calculate projected IBUs on paper. But I’m not really sure if I can teach the passion.
Luckily, I’ve never had too.
Jared Barkley is a full-time instructor of Brewing, Distillation and Fermentation Science at Nash Community College. When not in class or his office, he’s usually “conducting research” at his local bottle shop.