Are you the Brewmaster?

It’s a common question we, and other brewers get. The short answer is, “No”. The long answer is the remainder of this post.

The word “brewmaster” is often used as a job description in the U.S., probably because it sounds more fun than “Director of Brewing Operations”. However, consider how the Germans treat the term. As Garrett Oliver says in The Oxford Companion to Beer: “The title implies the successful completion of some formal brewing education and the attendant degree.” Such a degree, like the Diplom-braumeister from the University of Munich in Weihenstephan, encompasses 2 years of study, 64 weeks of internship, and requires 3 years’ working experience under a certified brewing engineer.

This, to me, is a much more meaningful meaning. As implied by the constituent parts of the word, a Brewmaster is one who has truly mastered the craft, and should be distinguished from one who merely brews. To honor the difference, many U.S. breweries, ours included, use titles like “Brewer” or “Head Brewer” instead.

So who should rightfully be a Brewmaster then? In the U.S., we don’t have equivalent degrees to the German system. There are shorter programs, like the International Diploma of Brewing Technology at Siebel in Chicago and Munich, which yours truly attended, and there are 2- and 4-year degree programs cropping up at a small but increasing number of Unis, but these haven’t earned the prestige of the German schools and they lack the crucial intensive and lengthy apprenticeship.

An obvious way to properly earn the title is to learn German and dedicate a few years to earn a degree at Weihenstephan. But how else? In my opinion, in the absence of formal designation, a Brewmaster follows that ambiguously unambiguous definition of, “You know it when you see it”, particularly in the eyes of one’s colleagues and peers.

It’s someone who has put in the time: 10,000+ hours of hands-on, brains-on brewing, including hot-side, cold-side, packaging, lab-work, quality control, R&D, maintenance & repair, troubleshooting, process improvement, and training others. It’s someone who’s achieved recognized excellence in brewing. It’s someone you could hire to build and run your brewery from scratch, make great beer consistently, and make no major errors along the way. It’s someone who can control a process of nature in a god-like way, containing the myriad possible things that can go wrong. It’s someone who could tell you how your already well-functioning brewery could improve upon brief observation, or upon simply tasting your beer.

Perhaps this is setting the bar a bit high, but it ensures that nobody can achieve the title without earning it. This is the standard that we should require of anyone claiming to be a Brewmaster.

Of the 6000+ breweries open today in the U.S., more than half of them opened in the last 4 years. It’s hard to imagine that the number of true Brewmasters has grown at a similar pace. Indeed, I can speak for our brewery and say that we do not have a Brewmaster at the helm. When people ask if I am the Brewmaster, I specify that I am “The Brewer”. This is not just because I like to make a spectacle of my admirable humility, but also because I fall incredibly short of this mark, thus the sad, shriveled up vestige of a conscience inside me will not allow me to claim otherwise.

Sometimes, I make mistakes so dumb that I shouldn’t be worthy of calling myself a brewer. I’ve flooded our walk-in cooler with detergent (I caught that on video, thank God). I’ve unleashed a geyser of barrel-aged stout, from which I’m still finding debris almost a year later. I’ve unwittingly built a bomb in the form of an over-pressurized cask. I’ve even sprayed my poor assistant brewer in the face with acid solution (understandably, he has since left our operation). Even providing for a range of interpretations of the title, I think we could all agree this behavior is uncharacteristic of a Brewmaster.

On a more routine basis, I’ve made less spectacular but still consequential mistakes. I’ve under-pitched yeast, resulting in prolonged fermentation and/or purchasing of additional yeast. I’ve under-aerated our wort, resulting in poor yeast health and ultimately in a batch of beer down the drain. These mistakes were painful, but over the course of my first 100 batches of beer as a professional brewer, they should have been expected, and in spite of how much we think we’ve learned from them, it would be foolish to think they’re the last.

As with many crafts and trades, brewing historically followed an apprenticeship model. You would work several years under a master craftsman, and through experience and observation his/her wisdom would be passed down to you.

While I’m not technically an apprentice, I still think of my job as being an apprentice of the craft. Rather than learning from my master, I learn from my more-experienced colleagues. We’ve done collaborations with other breweries in Houston and elsewhere, and this provides a fantastic opportunity to observe, and be observed by, great brewers. When I graduated from the Siebel program in Munich, the great Professor Michael Eder told our class, “There will be other brewers who make better beer than you. Do not resent them. Learn from them.” This piece of simple advice adds a whole new dimension to the benefits of finding great beer – working with and learning from the brewers who make it is extremely rewarding.

The way I see it, I’m one year into a long apprenticeship, fraught with mistakes but rich with wisdom to be had in a craft that seems indefinitely broad and deep. A frustrating yet rewarding journey, and at the end of it somewhere is a prestigious title that will fit as naturally as OJ’s glove.

In the meantime, please do your part in the endeavor to restore meaning to the word. Next time you’re at a craft brewery and you meet a cocksure 20-something who calls himself the Brewmaster, ask him what he has done to earn the title.

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