What it takes to be a rockstar brewer

Chances are if you are reading this, you have probably met a brewer at some point. The rising popularity of ‘Meet the Brewer’ events, beer dinners and beer launches mean that these odd and often semi-reclusive creatures are allowed out to meet the public occasionally. Most of you will have even lived to tell the tale.

I brewed beer commercially for four years at various breweries making everything from traditional British cask beer, American and continental style beers in keg and bottles. It has given me an amazing grounding to do what I do now. As they say, know your product, selling it becomes easy.

I still miss brewing. I daydream about it now and again, then I remember more about it and I’m glad I’m not brewing anymore. You see it is terribly easy as a beer drinker to turn up to an event, see the brewer in his branded t shirt, smiling and having a laugh, drink his beer and proclaim him a rockstar; some quasi-alchemist who has the Midas touch. Malt, hops, water and yeast are transfigured at his touch into something mythical, beyond the powers of the ordinary man to create. This I’m afraid is an illusion. You see, the difference between making good beer and bad beer is fairly miniscule really. There is no one thing that you can do in a brewery to make a beer one hundred percent better. There are however probably a hundred things you can do one percent better that will, cumulatively have a massive effect on the beer quality. This naturally takes time and effort.

Working in a brewery with a crew of other people is much the same as being a chef in a kitchen or being in the forces. Everyone in the crew has a special area of skill or responsibility, be it wort production, filtration, cellaring or packaging. You all rely on each other. If one person is slow or fucks something up, it knocks on to everyone else. Shitty filtration run because someone didn’t add the precoat keiselguhr properly? The fermenter now isn’t empty, so the guy brewing has to delay mashing in. He’ll go home two hours later tonight because of it. It extends further than that. Drayman hasn’t collected all the empty kegs and casks? Great, nothing to package all that filtered beer into. Running a brewery is like spinning plates. One lapse in concentration and you are firefighting, trying to catch up.

I don’t miss that part of it. What I miss is the blokey in jokes. I miss the creative swearing, anyone who tells me that ‘cock juggling thundercunt’ isn’t pure poetry is wrong. I miss the way repetition, exhaustion and lack of sleep and too much caffeine put a hysterical, hilarious sheen on things. Something has broken and needs fixing, you are going to be in the brewery another two hours. You can laugh or cry. You laugh because well, fuck crying. I miss the camaraderie that you only get from spending fifty hours a week locked in the same room as four other guys.

I think the closest I have come to finding someone write about this shared experience is the leader of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a twelve piece post rock band. Asked what being in the band with that many others was like, he replied:

‘Your car breaks and you take it to the garage – dirty room, five mechanics maybe, car keys hung on nails next to the front counter. Two cars on lifts, one car in the corner, all the other cars parked in the back. Everything and everybody is covered in grease, everyone’s smoking like crazy. They have to fix 20 cars before 5pm, or else the backlog will fucking break everybody’s back until Christmas. The parts suppliers roll in every half-hour or so, mostly bringing new brake pads and flex-hoses, but bumpers sometimes, oil-pans, headlight assemblies or timing belts.

In a good garage, the whole mess of it almost collapses all day long. Dudes yell and argue, everything’s going wrong and why are we doing this anyways? The hose won’t fucking fit, or the screwdriver slips and you lose the hose-clamp somewhere beneath the undercarriage. The sun starts to set and the floor gets littered with burnt bulbs, spent gaskets, oil, and sweat, and brake fluid. Someone’s hungover, someone’s heartbroken, someone couldn’t sleep last night, someone feels unappreciated, but all that matters is making it through the pile, the labour is shared and there’s a perfect broken poetry to the hammering and yelling, the whine of the air compressor kicking to life every five minutes or so.

It all seems impossible. But somehow we make it through the pile. The cars run again. The cars drive away. Rough day but now it’s done, and everything’s fine; everything’s better than fine. Tomorrow we’ll do it all over again. You deal with the Volvo, I’ll deal with the Toyota. Heat and noise. All day, every day, until it’s quiet again. We fix cars until we die. We love fixing cars.’

It takes a special kind of person not to mind doing that day in, day out. Finding that guy who’ll stay an extra half hour to scrub the black mould off the floor from round the back of the fermenters because he knows it will make his beer that one percent better.

That, that is the essence of a rockstar brewer.

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