With roughly 7500 craft beer breweries in the United States—a number that continues to grow—it’s clear consumers like their ales and lagers. And as more of these breweries pop up in towns and cities every month, it’s up to brewmasters to constantly produce new beers to satisfy demanding (and evolving) palates, maintain a sterile workspace, and properly operate all the complex machinery that pumps out your favorite IPA. To find out what goes into owning and operating a brewery, Mental Floss spoke with a number of brewmasters about what their days entail. Here’s what they had to say about taste tests, oyster beer, and getting doused in hop sludge.
1. A lot of brewmasters started out as home brewers.
While brewmasters sometimes attend college to study chemistry or even specific brewing courses, a fair number get their start in their own homes. “When I started, I would say about 50 percent [were home brewers],” Tom Kehoe, co-owner of Yards Brewing Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, says. This was back when there were only around 649 breweries in the country, according to Kehoe. That number has only grown with time, and now he says as many as 90 percent of current brewers experimented with home brewing before moving on to larger productions.
While home brewing can be a good start, Kehoe says that there’s a limit to how much you can learn in a garage setting. “The basic knowledge of how beer is made is exactly the same. However, good brewing practices need to be learned on site. The environment working in a brewery is a lot different than brewing at home.”
One example? Size. According to Jeremy Moynier, brewmaster of Stone Brewing in San Diego, California, people are surprised when they see the scale of some brewing operations. "A home brewer is used to making a few gallons," Moynier says. "We could be making a 250-barrel batch [at Stone]. Each barrel is 30 gallons."
2. Brewmasters use sound almost as much as taste to evaluate the brewing process.
Breweries come in all shapes and sizes, but all of them implement a lot of machinery, stainless steel vats, pumps, and bottling lines to concoct their brews. It becomes a symphony of sorts, according Moynier. And if one instrument sounds off, he can tell.
"You use all of your senses, from taste to sound," he tells Mental Floss. "Breweries are noisy, and there are sounds you get attuned to. If something sounds wrong, you know there’s a problem somewhere. Your senses being in tune are important."
Once, Moynier heard an unusual squeaking noise in the factory. He discovered that the tank that held the crushed malt was backed up, which would eventually ruin the conveyor belts if no one noticed in time. Thankfully, Moynier picked up on that change in noise, and the problem was corrected before the machine required a more expensive repair.
3. Brewmasters are always trying novel flavors. Even oysters.
There’s no shortage of creativity among brewmasters, with breweries constantly experimenting with different flavor profiles, from tea to chocolate to fruit. "There are so many different styles, flavor, and aroma profiles you can hit," Moynier says. "We’re constantly learning about new ingredients.” One that impressed Moynier recently was an oyster stout, a style that was originally billed as a beer that simply paired well with oysters more than a century ago, but has since evolved to include actual oyster meat and stock in modern recipes. This one came from Liberty Station, one of Stone Brewing’s locations in San Diego. "It was pretty fascinating," he says. "They got a real briny, oyster thing going."
4. Sanitation is one of the most important parts of being a brewmaster.
The stereotype of brewmasters sipping beer all day and hovering over batches is slightly misguided. According to John Trogner, co-owner with brother Chris of Tröegs Independent Brewing in Hershey, Pennsylvania, most of the job is making sure beer is made in clean conditions. “People usually think you’re sitting around all day dreaming up recipes and tasting beer,” Trogner says. "That’s a very small component. Physical cleaning is probably 80 percent of it. Sanitation is paramount. It’s like a chef keeping a kitchen clean. Workers spend most of their time scrubbing."
Just because the breweries are kept clean doesn't mean the brewmasters are quite as lucky. Depending on the valve and your luck that day, that could sometimes mean an unintentional beer shower for workers. "I’ve taken baths in yeast and beer sludge," Trogner says of his early days, explaining it's a hazard you face when you're opening the valves on the brew tanks.
5. Brewmasters know they're expected to bring beer to most gatherings.
Like any other profession, brewmasters can sometimes be greeted with an expectation that their services and goods are free for friends and relatives to enjoy at gatherings and family events. "If it’s appropriate to bring beer, I will," Kehoe says. "And sometimes when it is not so appropriate. I have brought beer to a business networking breakfast and somehow it turned out to be a great icebreaker. I find that people are disappointed if I don’t have at least some beer at the ready."
6. The job can make you critical of other beers and even food.
Working to perfect beers all day can have an effect on how brewmasters regard other beer options. "I still love beer, but it changes the way you approach it," Moynier says. "You pick out a flaw, and it will bother you. It might ruin your enjoyment. But if you find a beer you really like, it can also make it more enjoyable."
A brewmaster doesn’t just develop a sense of what makes for a good beer; they’re also constantly thinking about what type of food pairs well with certain beers. "It definitely affects the way you taste things," Moynier says. "It’s made me a pickier eater. You’ll think about how food will pair with beer sometimes, where you wouldn’t necessarily think about that before. It made me appreciate how things go together."
7. Brewmasters know names and logos can make or break a beer.
With so many beer options, it’s imperative for brewmasters to use marketing as a way of setting up a consumer’s palate before they sample anything. For Tröegs's Haze Charmer, which offers pineapple and grapefruit notes, the brewery went to great lengths to describe how the "haze" of the recipe carries hop oil into the mouth.
"Haze Charmer emerges from a soft, swirling cloud of oats and unmalted wheat. Vigorous dry-hopping adds a second phase of haze, propping up the oils of Citrus and El Dorado," the website description of the beer reads.
"The name is a critical component," Trogner says. "Consumers are getting to know it before they try it."
The right—or wrong—name and design can make all the difference. Trogner promoted a cherry, honey, and chocolate ale around the holidays and called it Mad Elf, with bottles and packaging decked out in cartoon images of a tipsy elf enjoying one too many. It's become a perennial hit.
"It’s a celebration of the holidays," Trogner says. "Mad Elf is kind of part of social webbing, which is nice to hear. Grandmothers come in and buy five or six cases for family coming over for the holidays."
Similar beers with different branding didn't fare as well. "We’ve done beers like Mad Elf out of season and it didn’t have near the fervor or excitement," he says.
8. A brewmaster associates a beer’s personality with color.
According to Kehoe, light and dark beers each give off a distinctive personality trait depending on their color, which comes from the grains used. "To me, the color of the beer is the mood of the beer," he says. "Light color is fluid and exciting; darker [is] slower and more filling and relaxing." Amber is more middle-of-the-road and more versatile. "[It] can be whatever personality that you want to project in the moment."
9. Smells are a big inspiration for new beers.
Don’t think brewmasters develop recipes based just on tasting other beers; it’s more of a multi-sensory experience. Trogner says that most beer ideas come from everyday life. “We’re not sitting around and looking at other types of beer,” he says. “It’s more about an experience, like having an amazing dish at a restaurant. Or you might be hiking and smell something floral in the air, like pine.”
10. Yes, brewmasters sometimes drink early in the morning.
While downing beer is probably not as common an occurrence as you might think, brewmasters are still expected to sample their wares before it goes out for distribution. According to Moynier, those executive samples can happen at odd times of the day depending on schedules.
"Tastings can happen at six in the morning," he says. "We also have structured tasting and daily taste panels to approve beer about to be packaged. Three times a week we have a brewmaster taste panel where we focus on new beers we’re trying out for release or changes to recipes. There’s an executive panel once a month with [Stone's founders Greg Koch and Steve Wagner]."
Or, as Kehoe puts it, “I don’t drink all day, but I do drink every day.”