There’s no business like brew business

Like artists and musicians everywhere, homebrewers also chase the dream of going pro

Michael Memsic of Sanitas Brewing Company.
Susan France

Many dream of becoming professional artists and musicians, but there’s a slightly odder starry-eyed dream that has shared practice space in garages over the last 20 years: making it as a beer brewer. 

Just like those bands who feel they have mastered their chords and progressions, though, “homebrewers are a dime a dozen,” says Michael Memsic of Sanitas Brewing Company. And despite how good your friends say your award-winning homebrew is, there’s a lot more to it than recipe development. In fact, the best way to describe a professional brewer would be as a glorified janitor, plumber and mechanic. 

With the explosion of breweries in the U.S. (a 56 percent increase from 2010 to 2013, according to the Brewer’s Association), more brewers will be needed to meet the demand of jobs. So how does one build their resume to stand above the crowd?

In a small, rented space above a Chinese restaurant in Boulder, the homebrew club Hop Barley & the Alers meets monthly. Although a majority of the formal discussions are about food and beverage assignments and where the best new drinking locations are, a few individuals are there with larger ambitions. 

At June’s meeting, two of them, Orion Chandler and Trevor Johnson, sat on a back couch discussing their latest brews. Each are looking to become professional brewers, but that is where their similarities end.

Chandler has a degree in Fermentation Science from Oregon State and began working at a winery in Oregon after graduation where he eventually became head winemaker. He has since moved back to his home state of Colorado with his wife and daughter and works as a realtor, focusing on working with fellow homebrewers. He initially intended on getting a job as a brewer for a local brewery, but the $11/hour pay rate was not enough to support his young family. Chandler would still like to brew professionally one day, but it would have to be the right fit with better pay. 

“I really like the idea of an employee-owned brewery,” says Chandler. “In this way everyone is paid fairly for their labor and love of craft beer.” 

Johnson was born and raised in Boulder and dropped out of CU to pursue his passion of brewing. His friends that stayed were having trouble finding work after they graduated, which helped him realize he’d made the right decision.

“Having a degree didn’t equate to job security or happiness, so I decided to chase my dream,” says Johnson. He has since been shadowing at several breweries for the past three years, and approaches them with the pitch that he’d like to learn more about professional brewing. The breweries have reacted positively.

“To date, not a single brewery has refused to teach me how to do something or refused to answer a question, ever! Try to find that kind of love in any other industry,” Johnson says. 

He intends on opening his own brewhouse, Black Cat Brewing, once he and a group of carefully chosen advisers have raised enough money.

Which of these individuals has the best chance of becoming a professional brewer? It’s hard to say. Traditional jobs often require a set amount of education and several years of experience; however, brewing is by far no traditional occupation. To find out what it takes, two local brewers at Sanitas and Fate Brewing Companies in Boulder offered their advice.

The CEO and co-founder of Sanitas, Michael Memsic, began homebrewing in college at CU, where he decided one day he’d own a brewery. His first position was working on the canning line at Oskar Blues in Lyons.

“On paper, worst job ever,” said Memsic, referring to the inconsistent hours and $7/hour pay. However, “it was the greatest I had ever had,” said Memsic. 

He says it was a labor of love within a passion industry. After graduating he was out of the beer biz for six months, but returned by working the bottling line at Boulder Beer Company where he eventually moved up to the brewhouse the following year. It’s much more common for someone to spend 4-5 years on a canning line, or even more, before moving up to actual brewing, Memsic explains. Learning about process flow and what is happening at each stage of the business is how one gets experience. 

Memsic eventually left Boulder Beer to start Sanitas Brewing with several other brewers who came up much the same way he did, by either volunteering or working menial jobs in breweries to prove they had the mettle to work in the brewhouse. 

He will eventually need additional staff for his quickly growing brewery, and he’ll be looking for individuals with brewing experience, but most importantly, he’ll be looking for those who fit in with the culture and are willing to make a sacrifice. Memsic gives the example of their sales lead who sold a profitable liquor store to join Sanitas for a significant pay cut. 

“[He did it] to take something over with the promise that we’re going to do something significant,” said Memsic. 

Although education is important, Memsic prefers to educate his employees in the way he does business. 

“What I’m looking for in a brewer is somebody with experience, and somebody who has been here and hussled,” Memsic explained. 

He does say that if someone already fits in with their culture and has the education, they will be a step ahead, but the school of hard knocks is still the norm, and he’s much more willing to promote someone who has worked for Sanitas proving themselves. 

Fate’s head brewer, Jeff Griffith, also started out as a homebrewer, and after getting laid off as an engineer started working at Golden City Brewery in Golden, following a lead from a friend. All of his experience came from “on the job training,” said Griffith. He then went to work with Fate’s owner several years later to develop the brewing side of the business from the ground floor. Griffith is on his second assistant brewer, and says he looks for someone who can hit the ground running without much training. From an educational perspective, Griffith says it seems as though everyone has some sort of education as opposed to ten years ago when he started. He still says it isn’t necessary, but definitely plays a factor more so than it used to just because more people have it. The biggest barrier is learning how a professional brewery works, so the best way to break into the industry is to “ask around to see if they could do anything, because they’re not going to walk in the door and start brewing,” said Griffith. Cleaning kegs, bottling and packaging, “the little things,” are what an entry-level brewer should expect to be doing. 

“It’s not glamorous,” explains Griffith.

What both Memsic and Griffith agree on is that you have to have a passion for and dedication to the industry. Those first few years won’t be worth scrubbing kegs for minimum wage if you don’t. However, if you love working with like-minded individuals and can make the initial sacrifice, you may have what it takes. Although education is playing a larger role these days, fitting in with the brewing culture and having a penchant for hard work will put you in the best position every time.