What It Takes … To Become A Brewer!

Beer is a $101 billion market that, in 2012, created 360,000 jobs in America, according to the Brewer’s Association. Craft beer sales increased almost 18 percent in 2014, 75 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a craft brewery, and women ages 21-34 drink craft beer more frequently than the national average. And fifteen years ago, the Siebel Institute barely ever saw female students come in to study brewing – now they represent 20 percent of the school’s enrollment.

Women are taking back beer — and if you want to be one of the wave of women doing it, one of your best resources is Teri Fahrendorf, a brewmaster with 19 years under her belt, and the founder of the Pink Boots Society, a beer industry networking group for women. I spoke with Teri about what it takes to become a brewer, and here’s what she had to say:

Homebrew, Homebrew, Homebrew

“You can take your homebrewing hobby really, really far, and you can get yourself a lot of pre-professional experience that really applies,” Teri told me. Teri’s passionate on the subject of homebrewing, because it’s an accessible entrée into the world of brewing, a place for beer enthusiasts to gauge whether it’s the right career for them or not.

“Sometimes people fall in love with the idea, but I tell people, if you haven’t homebrewed and you think you want to go pro, that’s a dangerous thing. You might not like it,” she said. “When you homebrew and you have a boilover on the stove, and you’re scrubbing that pot and you’re scrubbing that stove and you go, ‘God, I hate this cleaning business’ — you’re gonna hate professional brewing!”

But if you can tolerate the cleaning for your love of beer (Teri notes: “It’s 95 percent cleaning!”), there are resources abound for homebrewers, not least of all homebrew shops, where the employees can help you get set up with a homebrew system that’s in your budget and give you loads of brewing advice.

The key to success with homebrewing, Teri said, is to constantly look for ways to learn. Pick up a book about homebrewing — or many books, and the American Homebrewers Association’s website, and their magazine, Zymurgy, while you’re at it. “Read, learn about it, absorb, become a sponge,” she said. “The more you learn about it, the better questions you’re going to be able to ask the next time you visit a brewery and have a brewery tour. It all spirals in a great way.”

Once you start homebrewing, you can join a homebrewing club, too. Teri said, “You’ll find people in there that can give you recommendations on the beers you bring in, how to improve them, they might have some equipment you can borrow to test before you upgrade, maybe you make new friends. They’re going to be critical of your beer, but in the best way, because they’re going to tell you how to improve it, too.” (And, easy peasy: The AHA has a search tool for local homebrewing clubs.)

Get Certified!

Even if you don’t have formal education under your belt, you can elaborate on your homebrewing experience by getting involved with the Beer Judge Certification Program. The BJCP hosts beer competitions that you can enter, first of all, with your homebrews. But also, Teri said, you should volunteer as a steward for BJCP competitions. Stewards deliver beer from the back-of-house where it’s being poured to the judges, then collects judging forms and brings them back to the person who’s entering scores into a computer to be aggregated.

“What’s great about that volunteer job is that you can see what the judges put down and you’re the only one who sees it. You gotta keep your mouth shut, but you can see which beers are getting good scores,” Teri told me. “Then you go into the back and you say, ‘Hey, is there any more in that bottle?’ And you can taste the beer, and start determining what a judge thinks is a good beer or a not-so-great beer, and start getting a more discerning palate.”

From there, you can get certified to be a beer judge with the BJCP. They host beer judge exams and link to a huge number of study guides and resources for the exam on their web site. “Just by taking that exam, you’ll have to study a lot and you’ll learn a lot. Then if you don’t get a great score, study some more and then take it again. And then, within that program, you can keep judging, and you’ll really develop your palate, and that’s really a skill you need to develop as a professional brewer.”

Get A Formal Education

The route Teri took to brewing involved homebrewing, but she also knew that it would be in her best interest to get an education in brewing — mostly because of her size.

“I went to the Siebel Institute because I had the feeling no one would hire me as an assistant brewer. I mean, what you want from an assistant brewer is you want someone with a strong back, and if they happen to be a weightlifter, perfect. And I was five-foot, 125 pounds,” Teri told me. “I thought, I better use my brain instead of my braun.”

It’s worth it to know that brewing is, for one thing, a very physical job, but it’s also very technical. When Teri originally toured Siebel and spoke with their instructors, she was worried that she wouldn’t have the necessary background, coming from experience in computer programming. “This was basically a finishing school for people who already had a food science background. I said, ‘I have a business degree. It’s a comprehensive major, but I don’t know if I could be successful in your program.’”

Their response was that their instructors were always around to answer questions, and they have a library on site, of course. Their concern was more that she have a math and science background, she told me: “They asked, have you had any math? Yes, I’ve had beginning calculus and statistics. Great. Have you had any biology or chemistry? Yes. Can you read a chemical formula? Yes, I’ve had a whole year of chemistry. OK, great! Then you should do just fine.”

Build Your Beer Resume

All of the above, Teri said, can go to work for you when you start looking for a job at a brewery. “Somebody who wants to go pro as a brewer at some point should start keeping two resumes — one is their regular job resume, but then you need a beer resume,” she told me. And then she unfolded this strategy in a sort of list of ideas:

“You can say, ‘I started homebrewing at such-and-such time, here’s a list of the books I’ve read’ — if you feel that they’re really important. ‘I started with a class brewing extracts, and now I’ve designed my own five-gallon all-grain system, I have visited Belgium and England and visited these breweries there, I have won a Blue Ribbon at the Illinois State Fair in the IPA category in 2015, I’ve entered X many competitions, I’ve won X many ribbons and medals for these X styles of beer, I’ve designed X many different recipes, including X, X, and X; I have stewarded X competitions, I’ve judged XX competitions, I’m a certified beer judge at the national level with the BJC program, I’m a member of my homebrew club, I’m a treasurer of my homebrew club for these years’ — all this stuff can go on your beer resume. And if you’ve learned stuff that all of a sudden you’re teaching people: ‘I’ve taught X number of homebrew classes to X number of people’ – and then start writing articles for magazines. ‘I’ve figured out a way to carbonate my beer using this cool new technique that nobody else is using, and I wrote about it and it got published in Zymurgy magazine.’ And then, ‘I attended the National Homebrewers’ Conference, I applied to be a speaker, and I gave a talk to the group about this new carbonating-genius MacGuyver gadget that I created, and now it’s the next big thing.”

“I mean, there’s a hundred things you could do to put on your own beer resume that’d look amazing,” Teri said. “If you’re doing things and not documenting it, you’re like, ‘Oh, whatever, I think I’m doing the right stuff,’ but when you really start putting it down and you really start categorizing it, and you see where maybe you had some holes. ‘I’ve never gone to a foreign country and explored Belgian wood-aged sour beers, but I feel that that’s really where my calling is, so I’m going to explore that, and I’m going to make a vacation to go there, and I’m going to visit X breweries and I’m going to put them on my resume.’”

Get Friendly With Some Professionals

By the time you do all of that with your interest in beer, Teri said, “You’ll have so much experience that when you go visit breweries, you’ll be asking the best questions, and you’ll be getting really phenomenal answers that’ll really help you refine your skills. In the meantime, you’re visiting your local breweries, and with any luck, you’re forming some friendships with the local brewers. First time you go, you’re gonna be kinda shy, and you’re just gonna go on a tour.”

But then, she said, make a point of meeting the brewers you admire. Ask who the brewmaster at your favorite local brewery is, and sit down with them to talk about your experience. “I recommend this, because I don’t think any brewer would turn you down, and I mean that. Then go back, six months later, and say, ‘Hi, I hope you remember me, I was wondering if you’d have ten minutes, I’d love to sit down with you and update you on what I’ve been doing, because I’d like to get your feedback on what I’ve been doing and I want to get your feedback again on what my next steps are.’ And that will only impress that brewer and with any luck, when they need an assistant brewer, they’ll think of you!”

It’s not a guarantee, of course, but the point is to form relationships. Teri had this very good piece of advice that applies well to life in general: “Be a human being who relates to human beings.”

Know That It’s A Gross and Dangerous Job

Like Teri said earlier, a lot of the reality of being a brewer has to do with getting dirty and doing a lot of cleaning — this is, after all, a food service job. “The glory is when people imagine what it’s like, but the work itself is hard, dirty work. And if you don’t like getting dirty – I have been sprayed with yeast, in the face in the ear, and I’m like, ‘Wow, I’ve got yeast in my ear.’ And brewing can be tedious, and it can be really messy and dirty, and you smell like brewery, and you gotta be sure you don’t get yeast on the seat of your car because then you’re like, Dang it! Now I gotta get this yeast outta my car seat.”

But beyond that, Teri has a mission of hammering home that brewing is dangerous. Within her first year of brewing, she was involved in a brewery accident, which she’s outlined in an essay on her web site. The experience sounds terrifying: The brewery was improperly designed, the system wasn’t right for their production needs, and the kettle overflowed, trapping her in a room with 50 gallons of boiling water gushing out at her. It filled her boot and caused her skin to peel off, leaving her with severe burns and, ultimately, skin grafts.

“A lot of times, because brewers are so passionate about their jobs, they’re more worried about the beer than their own safety. And that’s a habit we gotta break,” Teri said. Between 2007 and 2014, she told me, three craft brewers had died on the job, and practically no brewer goes without getting injured. “When you drink craft beer, there’s a high price that’s being paid. I’m not the only craft brewer that was burned out there. Pretty much every brewer that’s been in it for more than five years has a burn story or some kind of a story. But there isn’t a brewer that doesn’t have an injury. I’m kind of worried that a lot of people that are getting into it because it’s sexy — let’s face it, it’s a hot topic.”

Teri advocates for doing your own due diligence. “Never cut corners,” she told me. “You can’t just run into the brewery and start working. You need to put on your personal protective equipment. You gotta put on pants and a long-sleeved shirt, you gotta put on your rubber boots, if you’re dealing with chemicals you gotta put on a face shield or goggles at the very least, and rubber gloves, and you suit up before you show up. Or you could die, or you could get seriously injured. And you think twice: If somebody tells you to go do something, check in with your intuition.”

What If You Love Beer, But Brewing Isn’t For You?

Another point Teri made is that there are a ton of jobs in the beer industry besides brewing. “You can have an accountant who’s like, ‘Well, I love beer and I love the beer industry and I want to be a part of it,’” she said. “There are lots of career options. If you’re more technical-oriented, there’s lab techs. Some parts of it probably have more women — like lab techs, lab techs probably have more women than brewers — but then there’s owners, there’s beer delivery truck drivers, there’s sales reps that work for distributors, there’s all sorts of careers.”

And Teri knows this better than practically anyone, as the founder of the Pink Boots Society. She formed the organization after going on a road trip and guest-brewing at different American breweries along the way. Much of the time, the breweries had her work with other women brewers, and it dawned on them that they hadn’t known that the other existed — even though, at this point, Teri had been a brewmaster for 19 years, and these other women had spent several years in the business, too. So Teri started collecting names, and from there, the Pink Boots Society grew.

Once the name got around, though, women from all over the beer industry contacted her, wanting to join — lab techs, beer writers, women working in distribution. At the inaugural meeting of the Pink Boots Society, she said, “What we voted on was that we stood for three things: Women, beer, professionals. And then to be defined as a professional in the beer industry, you had to earn income from beer. You didn’t have to work for a brewery — like, I work for a malt company right now — and you didn’t have to support yourself, you didn’t have to pay the entire mortgage or rent.”

Now, she said, “We’re up to 1900 members of women beer professionals, and we even have, like, women beer jewelry makers — they have an Etsy store and they’re making beer and hops jewelry. And it’s not their day job, but they’re earning income from beer, so they can join. We’ve grown by leaps and bounds — I mean, we were 1400 members at the end of 2014, and we’ve been adding 150 members a month.”

So if you love beer but the idea of brewing is overwhelming to you, or just isn’t within your interest or skill range, know that you can apply the skills you already have to the beer industry. And, of course, the Pink Boots Society is there to help!

A Few More Resources!

Since Teri is an advocate for taking all the opportunities you can and being disciplined about learning, she wanted me to make sure to give readers a list of links where they can find more information about brewing and beer:

  • Barley’s Angels: If you’re a woman beer consumer, and you’re hungry for education about beer, Barley’s Angels has a few chapters that you can join — or you can start your own!
  • American Homebrewers Association: When you get into homebrewing, the AHA will be one of your best resources for advice, recipes, and local events, not to mention competitions, and their annual National Homebrewers Conference.
  • Brewers Association: The Brewers Association is for craft brewers, but even if you’re just getting into brewing, you can find a tremendous wealth of information about the industry here.
  • Teri’s web site, TeriFahrendorf.com: Teri has written a number of articles about brewing and the beer industry that she’s linked to on her site, including one about how to hire the best brewers, which will provide wannabe brewers with a lot of background on what breweries are looking for in job candidates.
  • Road Brewer: When Teri left her brewmaster job and went on the road trip that eventually resulted in the Pink Boots Society, she blogged the trip. Here, you can get a lot of behind-the-scenes information about some of your favorite breweries.
  • Pink Boots Society: If you’re a woman beer professional of any kind, join the Pink Boots Society! There, you can network with other professionals, get career advice, and apply for their brewing educational scholarships.

[Image via the Empowerment Project Documentary]

Thanks a million times over to Teri Fahrendorf for the tremendous amount of information she shared with us!

Do you want to know What It Takes to achieve your big goals? Send me a line at [email protected] and let me know what you’ve been dreaming of doing!