Things I’ve Learned From Working in a Brewery

Beardlong

Clearly, this man works in a brewery. Just look at his beard!

For the last two and a half years, I’ve worked in a brewery.  I don’t talk about it much because this is a homebrewing blog, and I don’t want my posts and discussions to stray into the world of commercial craft brewing. However, I’ve learned some things from my time in a brewery that translate to the homebrewer’s world.

1) Your hands are filthy!
Wash them, all you want, with anti-bacterial soap.  You can even soak them in your brewing sanitizer solution of choice.  They’re still disgusting carriers of filth and muck. Why?  Because your skin is constantly producing oils and sloughing off dead skin cells. At the brewery, any time we’re about to touch anything that will come in contact with beer, we’re required to wear vinyl gloves — preferably vinyl gloves that we’ve quickly sprayed with Iodophor.  Any time those gloves touch something disgusting (which is essentially anything and everything that isn’t assuredly sanitized), we’re required to change into a new pair of gloves.  Why?  Because your hands are filthy!  And we have the petri swabs to prove it.

2) Lactobacillus can ruin your day…or month
Contamination concerns are always in the back of a brewer’s mind.  Wild yeast and various bacteria are everywhere.  And even if you open your fermenter to find something strange growing in your newest batch of homebrew, Lactobacillus is, by far, the most nightmarish offender.  After my experience dealing with Lacto in a commercial brewery, I’m convinced that if I ever encounter a Lactobacillus contamination in my home brewery, I’ll simply have to burn all my equipment and the apartment, and start over.  It never seems to goes away.  Go head, and sanitize your equipment.  I’ll wait.  Feel better?  Well, don’t get too comfortable.  More than likely, those bastards are somewhere, patiently lying in wait, ready to make contact with something (most likely, you) that will, in turn, make contact with your brewing equipment.  And you’re right back to where you started.

3) Nothing cleans like Caustic Soda
The primary active ingredient in most caustic soda is sodium hydroxide.  Wait, wait, wait. Am I talking about the same stuff that’s in Drano?  Yes, I am. Without a doubt, caustic soda is an excellent detergent for breaking down organic material.  Granted, this isn’t something you want to fuck around with.  Don’t be an idiot.  Wear a face shield and chemical gloves if you’re going to handle this stuff.  Given the opportunity, it will absolutely melt your face off.  But, it will also melt the face off of all that autolyzed yeast, hop trub, and whatever other caked-on gunk is in your fermenter from that double IPA you forgot about 8 months ago.  It will even get rid of the smell.  You needn’t worry about imparting trace odors of roasted barley to your delicate pilsner, right after a monstrous imperial stout. Treat your bucket to a nice caustic bath (diluted appropriately, of course), and it’s like you’re working with a brand new bucket!

Take that, un-scented OxyClean!

4) Beards are obligatory?
As a homebrewer, you’ve no doubt thought about working in a brewery in some capacity. If you manage to land an interview with a brewery, apparently it helps if you show up with a beard.  I have absolutely no explanation for this, but it seems consistent.  I don’t mean to suggest that correlation equals causation.  But there’s A LOT of correlation with regarding the “beard = brewery employee” phenomenon.

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2 Responses to Things I’ve Learned From Working in a Brewery

  1. Good to hear from someone who actually does this daily. I’d be interested to hear more of the differences as well as things that crossover from homebrewing to commercial brewing. For example, as a habit, do you find yourself wearing vinyl gloves when brewing at home or are you much more lax about it?

    And thanks for the laugh regarding beards! It does seem to be a “thing” apparently. Haha. As a guy who can only manage a half-decent goatee, I envy those majestically bearded brewers out there!

    • Ryan G says:

      Hi, Bryan. Thanks for the feedback!

      Honestly, yes. I’ve taken to wearing gloves. But only during transfers. I haven’t found much of a need to wear them on brew day. Bottling days are where I feel like the most potential for contamination from my hands can occur. I have moved away from vinyl to nitrile gloves, however. They’re a bit more durable, and they also just look cooler. Hehehe…

      I’m not saying they’re necessary. But it’s a habit I picked up from commercial brewing, and a box of nitrile gloves are pretty cheap, and can be found at Home Depot or Lowes. And I like that my hands are taken out of the equation. The trick is knowing that wearing them is only half the effort. A quick spray with StarSan keeps my grubby mitts beer friendly.

      Outside of that, the truth is that aside from the scale, and some of the equipment, the process is virtually the same. Any solid homebrewer, with a good grasp of all-grain brewing, would have very few problems transitioning into a commercial brewery. They’d only need to learn which buttons to press, and which valves to open. A bit of confidence doesn’t hurt either. There’s definitely a sense of “Holy shit! I could easily fuck up 30bbls of beer, if I’m not paying attention!”

      Best part of working in a brewery is definitely free yeast! I usually fill a growler full of yeast when I’m dropping a cone. My primary fermentations take off like a rocket!

      I wish I could help you with the beard scenario. However, I will note that I’m the token male at a brewery that’s staffed mostly with women. They’re all fucking killer brewers, with a ton more knowledge than I have. Jess has a Masters degree in microbiology, and has
      definitely taught me more about yeast than anyone I’ve met in the industry! If the trend of seeing more women on the brew deck continues, and I hope it does, the beard might eventually become a shadow function of the industry!

      Cheers, brother. Happy brewing!
      -Ryan

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