Brewmaster Defined

Every once in a while on social media, a conversation happens that discusses the merits of the word “Brewmaster” and what it takes to use it in one’s job title. It’s often said that any brewer can make a good beer once, but a brewmaster can make the same beer over and over again. Lots of people have written about it, like this take on it from my friend Teri Fahrendorf, this one from Stan Hieronymus or like this interview with Dr. David Ryder, all of which echo a lot of my thoughts below.

So here’s my opinion, for what its worth, on the term “brewmaster”:

It makes me uncomfortable to see people with very little professional experience or education being tagged as a brewmaster. I have often said that being an award winning home brewer does not make one a brewmaster. Being a head brewer in a small brewery without the benefit of education or exaperience does not make one a brewmaster. People tend to use the words “brewmaster” and “head brewer” interchangeably, but to me they are very different roles.

I didn’t want to be called a brewmaster in my first few brewing jobs because I knew I still had so much to learn. When I did New Products at Anheuser-Busch back in the mid 1990s, my official title was New Products Manager, but I was often referred to (especially by marketing) as the Specialty Brewing Group Brewmaster. I understood the logic, but this made me uneasy, especially when I sat in a tasting panel with some of the most accomplished brewmasters I have ever met, some of whom had 40+ years of experience brewing all over the world. And then when I joined Stone Brewing in 2006, I was hired as the head brewer. I took on more responsibilities every year, and my title changed accordingly, first to “head brewer and production manager”, then to brewmaster about 4-5 years into my tenure there. I worked hard to earn the title.

Here are some experience and qualities I’d like to see in anyone with the brewmaster title:

1. Real brewing education. What’s the hardest part of brewing? It’s managing the living process of beer fermentation. Running a brewhouse and creating recipes is easy compared to managing yeast health and yeast fermentation consistency! Brewers who get this are good brewmasters, and having a good brewing education will really help a brewer with understanding the key factors of fermentation. There are a lot of good brewing schools out there, and there is so much science behind the art of brewing that I struggle to vouch for any brewmaster that doesn’t have at least some professional training. At Stone Brewing I usually tried to hire brewers who had gone to school for brewing. To me this was a strong indicator of their passion for the brewing business and their ability to learn. That being said, there are exceptions. Some very scientifically-oriented and technically savvy home brewers and professional brewers have successfully made the leap to running a brewing operation, and these folks have earned their brewmaster title through their consistently excellent beers, rigorous self study, training, and ability to ask questions. In my later years at Anheuser-Busch, Chemical Engineers were preferentially hired to manage brewing operations. Their philosophy was that AB could teach a skilled engineer how to brew beer. Not a philosophy I generally agreed with, but for a highly complex and technical operation like theirs, it worked to a large degree.

2. Brewing Experience. Nothing beats time spent in a brewery for developing great brewing skills, knowledge, and problem solving techniques. One of the great things about craft brewing is that when you have an issue, there’s most likely someone out there who has seen it before and will help you solve it if you ask. The more experience you have, the more you have seen, and the more you can draw from to work through current issues. What’s the right amount of experience? I think it varies greatly depending on job history and skills developed, but for me it took over 20 years.

3. Desire to learn. Any brewmaster who thinks that they know it all is a fool. I always learn something by talking with other brewers, it doesn’t matter how big or how small they are, everyone’s experiences are important and can help you come up with ideas to get better at what you do. I’ve often told my friends and peers that if I’m ever in a job where I’m not learning anymore, its time to for me to move on. Professional organizations like the MBAA and Brewers Association are great for continuing education. There’s a reason many of the world’s best brewmasters always go to the technical conferences that these organizations put on. They provide a great opportunity to learn.

4. Desire to teach. This is something I think is very important. I’ve had lots of great mentors in my career, and I think it’s important for an experienced brewer to give back and share what they’ve learned. In the long run, anything an experienced brewmaster can do to help anyone else who is brewing beer is a good thing for all of us in this business. A willingness to answer questions from other brewers is something I’ve always admired in brewmasters and is something I have strived to do myself.

5. Ability to lead. This is a key strength of the brewmaster. Being able to set brewing quality standards and procedures and train the brewing team how to adhere to them is so crucial. Selecting professionally focused, excellent brewers for the team and educating them as much as possible is critically important for any brewmaster’s success. And an effective leader also needs to be be able to manage and direct their brewing team’s career growth and development. I love it when I see when brewers leave their breweries to become very successful brewmasters somewhere else. You know they had good leadership, training and mentoring at some point during their career.

6. Problem solving ability. Every brewer will occasionally have beer flavors or brewing and packaging processes that aren’t up to quality standards. A good brewmaster can diagnose the issue, and take steps to correct it through process adjustments or ingredient changes. This is where education and experience become so valuable. What’s important in a brewmaster is the ability to first recognize that there is a problem, and then being able to use their knowledge to correct it. This often requires advanced technical skill and sensory skill, as well as diagnostic skills and problem solving training. And a brewmaster must also have the good sense to dump a batch if it cannot be rescued. We’ve all been there. Its very difficult and it’s heartbreaking, but it’s sometimes the only right thing to do. A brewmaster who ignores a known quality issue, dismisses feedback from consumers, or knowingly and willingly releases sub-par beer has failed.

7. Sensory skills. Part of the problem solving process requires sensory analysis, this is how most off-flavors are discovered. Understanding how your beers should taste and then addressing situations where the beer is not “true-to-brand” is a key skill. Running formal taste panels is a must in any quality brewing operation. Training the team on how to taste their beers from ingredients through every step of the process is an integral part of sensory. At Stone Brewing, there were many times when problem fermentations and beer flavor/balance issues were discovered early by the brewing team. They knew when to escalate the concern, and this allowed us to solve the issues and rescue more beer than if we hadn’t had trained brewers checking the beers along the way. And a good understanding of beer flavor, hop flavors, and fermentation flavors and how they relate to each other is necessary to create recipes and good beer.

8. Forward Thinking. At Anheuser-Busch, we referred to progressive brewmasters as “forward thinkers”, which I always thought was a great term. This is about having the ability to analyze brewing processes and situations that appear to be working just fine, and come up with a better, easier, safer, more cost-effective or more technically advanced ways of accomplishing the same end result. It also refers to being able to plan, both short term and long term. Complacency is the enemy of any brewmaster. A brewmaster should always evaluate how things are done and look for opportunities to make them better. The phrase I hated hearing: “We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way”. Asking the question “Why?” is a good practice.

9. Technical expertise. Having some brewery engineering and design skill helps make sure you get the equipment you need to brew the beer you want to brew. Being able to ensure equipment is sized properly, and is of sound design for your beers is an important skill to have. The ability to evaluate build quality and supplier options for new equipment is also very important. I know what I want in brewing equipment, yet I don’t always know the best way to get there. That’s where the technical skill comes in. I have a lot of admiration for brewmasters that possess excellent technical expertise.

10. Listening. Being aware of trends in the business, responding to the feedback on your beers from consumers and sales team, and generally just paying attention to what happens to your beer once it leaves the brewery will make you a better brewer. Ignoring consumer complaints is a recipe for disaster. The best brewers track and categorize consumer complaints so they know where to focus and prioritize their continuous improvement efforts. A brewmaster needs to get out in the field, taste their beers at the retail level and discuss them with their sales team and with consumers, and avoid living in the vacuum of their own taste panels. Another part of listening is related to talking with other brewers who, more often than not, are quite willing to share their failures. One of the best days I ever spent was with Scott Jennings, brewmaster at Sierra Nevada’s Asheville brewery. When we were just starting the design work for the Stone Brewing Richmond brewery, he spent almost an entire day showing us “everything they did wrong” to help us avoid the pitfalls they experienced.

Originally posted on January 9, 2017

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