What Does It Take to Go Pro?

by Katie Sloan | Last Updated: May 20, 2016

Amateur - Professional signpost with sky background

We are homebrewers, loud and proud. And we usually have a few things top of mind:

  • Our next killer recipe
  • Our mash efficiency (ugh what is it really?)
  • “I want that cool new doodad!”
  • And, of course… going pro

“Would I ever do it? I mean, my friends think my beer is the awesomest so I bet I would be a great brewer!”

I have been a homebrewer for almost four years and I won’t lie, I have thought about what it would be like to go pro.

Could I do it? Would I do it? Should I do it?

There are a few reasons I have never taken those thoughts too seriously:

  • Manual labor: never been my thing, sounds kinda hard.
  • I am new to this world of beer. Yes I know a lot, but I will never know enough.
  • Money: I don’t have enough. Do I know anyone who does?

I finally had the hands-on opportunity to answer these questions for myself.

Some background: I spent the last month as The Bronx Brewery Intern. I left my position as the Tasting Room Supervisor and joined the brewing team to learn the ropes.

Why the hell not? Isn’t it every homebrewer’s dream? So, it’s my dream right? Right?

Oh no…what did I get myself into?

From the top of the canning line, I really have to work on my selfie skills...
From the top of the canning line, I really have to work on my selfie skills…

Here are the people I spent the last month learning from. I created names for them because who knows if they want their identity tied to my grand experiment internship and storytelling?

The Boss

  • Brewmaster/Owner
  • Has a masters in brewing science- so he knows his shit
  • Whenever he is on the floor, super helpful and full of good information

The Professor

  • In charge of intern program
  • A technical person, great to go to with questions
  • Always gave me the time and space to work problems out for myself
  • Used to be a homebrewer

Party

  • Super supportive
  • Trusted my abilities
  • Helped my self esteem
  • Used to be a homebrewer

The CC (Certified Cicerone(R)- just ask him)

  • Knowledgeable
  • Always double checking my work
  • Kept me on my toes
  • Used to be and still is a homebrewer

This team was awesome to work with. (Take note that all the brewers started as homebrewers). Each of them in their own way taught me something about how to work in a brewery. It would not have been the same experience without them.

If you are reading this, thank you guys!

What is the brewery like in The Bronx?

There are a lot of different sizes and types of breweries out there. One thing I learned early on is brewing on this system does not translate to me understanding any other system at any other brewery.

I have a better idea of how to approach a new system and what different pieces could possibly look like. But no matter what, just like new homebrew equipment, I would need a training period on any new system.  

A very tidy view of the brewery
A very tidy view of the brewery

Outline of The Bronx Brewery:

  • 20 bbl, three vessel brewhouse  
  • Two, 20 bbl fermentors
  • Three, 40 bbl fermenters
  • Two conditioning tanks
  • One bright tank
  • A canning line
  • A keg cleaning and filling machine
  • Lots and lots of tri-clamps, pumps, and hoses

How does the process at a brewery differ from the home-brewery we are used to?

Let’s start at the very beginning:

Recipe formulation

  • Home: As a homebrewer, I am the creator from start to finish. I decide the flavor profile and ingredients I want. I go to the store and modify as necessary.  
  • Brewery: The brewers have contributed to recipes in the past but overall they are creating the same beer over and over again. There is a set lineup and set ingredients that get ordered as needed.

Milling in

  • Home: We buy, max, 15lbs of grain, mill it at the homebrew store and bring it home on the subway. Not the most fun, but not overwhelming.
  • Brewery: Wow this step is hard. The bags of grain are 50-55lbs. You are milling at least 15 bags in at a time. The bags are located across the brewery space from the mill room. There are three stair steps involved. And on top of all that the mill room is loud and hot. All that being said it might be the next workout craze… I found it kinda fun and got super sweaty!  

The Mash

  • Home: We pour the grains into our 10G cooler while our strike water pours, by gravity, out of our pot. We stir twice early on, start our vorlauf at about 55 minutes, and continue the recirculation for 10 minutes after the mash is over.
  • Brewery: There is a grist hydrator that connects the grist case to the mash tun, so that is where the grain comes in contact with the strike water. There are rakes in the tun that are much better at stirring than our little spoon. They are on for 5 minutes, then there is a rest phase, and then the vorlauf is started. It runs longer than our vorlauf at home, but that makes sense considering how much more liquid they are dealing with.

The Transfer

  • Home: Most home-breweries use gravity. I happen to have recently acquired a pump which is amazing and speeds up all our transfers.
  • Brewery: They are always using pumps. They have three pumps attached to the brew house alone, along with two rolling pumps and one diaphragm pump which does not need to be primed, pretty cool.

The Boil

  • Home: We boil our wort for 60 minutes in an 8 gallon pot. We like Fermcap to keep from ugly boil overs on our stove top. We straddle three burners, which gets us to a boil pretty damn fast.
  • Brewery: They boil the wort for 60 minutes in a huge kettle that can hold well over 20 bbls. There are steam jackets that get the wort to a boil also pretty damn fast.

Whirlpool

  • Home: At home we stay in our boil kettle. We used to use our spoon to give the boiled wort a good stir then let it sit and settle out for 10 minutes. Now we have developed a method with our pump and hose that gets it going a bit faster. We still let it sit for 10 minutes and settle out before our transfer.
  • Brewery:  There is a separate whirlpool vessel. It takes a bit longer for it to settle out so this step is lengthier in the brewery. Considering it is the only clarifying step, it’s worth the wait.  

Cooling

  • Home: This is another place that we recently stepped it up in my own home-brewery. We previously used an ice bath with a giant ice cube (frozen soda bottle) then a copper immersion chiller and now we have a plate chiller that is amazing.
  • Brewery: A huge plate chiller, all 20 bbls chilled and transferred in an hour. This is also where the oxygen is added, right out of the chiller before it gets to the fermentor.

Pitching/Fermentation

  • Home: Depending on how well we plan our time we will make a starter or just buy two smack packs.
  • Brewery: Has two brinks that hold the yeast that has been reharvested. They will use the same yeast up to six times. They check the viability every time and calculate how much to pitch based on the cell count. The yeast gets added to the bottom of the fermentation vessel before the wort is transferred. Then the wort is added to the bottom as well. This area is one of the biggests differences from homebrewing to professional. We at home are not conducting yeast cell counts, at least not a majority of us.

Cleaning

  • Home: Scrub, scrub, scrub. There are lots of little pieces here and there that have to be cleaned and set out to dry before being stored. The pot and the carboy are always fun to clean. And don’t forget the kegs! (Shit I forgot the kegs, gotta clean those tomorrow). Most of the brew-day is cleaning.
  • Brewery: CIP’s are amazing. No scrubbing. You rinse, you add water and your chemical (caustic for cleaning, or a sanitizer) and you set a timer. One more rinse when you’re done with the caustic and tada, clean! As for the small pieces, there are two containers that hold caustic and sanitizer respectively. Is it dirty? Throw it in the caustic, rinse after then toss in the sanitizer, ready to use.

Packaging

  • Home: Bottling can be a real pain in the ass. You have to sanitize all the bottles, hook up the filler, cap them all…you know what I am talking about.
  • Kegging is not as bad, but you still have to clean all the little parts and pieces, put it together and sanitize and purge.
  • Brewery: Canning is just as much of a pain in the ass as bottling for a few different reasons…
  • The canning line is a toddler…You look away it will do something wrong. The cap will skip a can, then you’re gonna get sprayed. While you are fixing that problem, the cans get stuck in the rinse section of the line. Then while you are fixing that another can goes through upside down and the whole line stops. You get it out and boom you’re out of lids and it starts all over again!
  • Kegging is faster here just like at home. Flip it upside down, hit fill, flip it off the fill head and get it on a pallet.
  • Disclaimer: full half barrels are heavy…I didn’t do the flipping off the machine because I did not have a pair of steel-toed boots. Sixtels and Euro kegs are much easier to move for someone my size.
The best part about canning? Fresh beer!
The best part about canning? Fresh beer!

I learned a lot about how all of these pieces and parts work, but I had my own unique challenges.

Yes people I am bringing it back, I am a female brewer and there challenges that are different than those for men learning to brew professionally. (Sorry it’s true).  

The Bronx Brewery has never had a female intern before me. There was no example for me to follow.

How did I handle these challenges?

40bbl fermentors

  • I cannot reach the back most clamp to shut the lid. The tallest ladder does not allow me to reach it.
  • It is not worth it, so pick your battles. I know how to tighten the clamps on the tanks. I do not have to prove I can do this. I was not afraid to ask for help when needed. If I ever have my own tanks in my own brewery I know to check the ladder height vs the tank height. I will make sure I can get there.

Lifting large/heavy items

  • It is harder for a smaller person to lift the same amount of weight as a larger person. NO ONE FREAK OUT ABOUT THIS! I know this is not a 100% true statement. I am generalizing here. Compare me, 5’3” 120lbs to Jon, 6’4” 190 lbs. Our exercise routines are about the same (mostly sitting and a touch of walking here and there). He has more mass, he therefore can create more force and lift more.
  • I tried to keep my limits in mind…
  • While moving grain bags across the room, I got them to my shoulder for easier moving, no strain on my arms or back.
  • When lifting an item from the floor to a higher location, I used my legs, keep your back as straight as possible, put the strain on your lower body, it is stronger.

The hoses are a pain in the ass

  • These hoses are big, and heavy, thick walls for when hot or cold liquids are flowing through them. The biggest problem I had with them was getting them on a high hook to dry.
  • Find the right hook, there were hooks that were about a foot lower on different vessels which the Professor finally pointed out to me one day. And did that foot make a difference!

Oh the pallet jack…

  • This stupid piece of shit! I could not drive it to save my life! The number of times I got stuck in drains on the floor! Ugh!
  • I had to tell myself to go slow, and push with my legs. (Except when going over drains then push super fast!) When it is piled so high you can’t see the other side, just take it one step at a time, and be safe!

Working with a bunch of guys

  • They are guys, they will make inappropriate comments and drink a bit.
  • Keep a sense of humor. Guys are not always trying to hurt your feelings. (Aaaaaaaand sometimes they are so keep an eye out don’t let them walk all over you). Usually in my experience, yelling something like “I see the tip” across the brewery when you see the top of the hop cone in the whirlpool will earn you a bit of respect.
  • You cannot keep up with their drinking, so don’t try. Yes, shotgunning that beer sounds like a good idea… but is it? (A little more respect earned).

Ok but the question remains — would I ever do this? Is it a viable option for an inspired homebrewer?

A good place to start is the question:

How does the job compare to the hobby?

At the end of the day, a job is a job. You have to show up in the morning and finish your assignments before you leave in the evening. There can be less creativity involved. Some tasks can become repetitive. But hey, you are getting paid to make something awesome, and that can be pretty awesome.

While homebrewing, you are not getting paid but you do get to enjoy the fruits of your labor. And you get to choose what those fruits are (guava acai pomegranate DIPA anyone?). Although with less consistency and control, they might not always be the sweetest fruits.  

There seems to be a bit more organization involved in the real life brewery. There are dirty and clean hoses to deal with. Deliveries to put away and orders to be picked up. Grain bins that must be moved around hoses busy transferring beer.  

At the home level, you need to keep it organized that one day a week you brew. Those other days, out of sight out of mind. There are not as many pieces and parts to keep track of, if you have hoses you have the one set, once done with them you clean them and put them away.

Why I would not want to go pro

There is still so much to learn. I am just not there yet. I know so much more now after this past month, but the more I learn the more I appreciate what I do not yet know. I would want more time and experience before declaring myself a pro.

I have a strong feeling that if you are seriously thinking of going pro you need to be fully aware of what it is going to entail. I am on my way but not there yet.

Why I would go pro

I had so much fun! There are so many interesting things happening in a brewery any day of the week. I enjoyed the process way more than I thought I would. I found all the moving pieces and parts fascinating.

The physical labor was not as awful as I assumed. Even the more “boring” days were not so bad. There was always something interesting happening. See bottling above.

I also learned I can hang with the guys and that the guys valued my knowledge and opinions. I got to be involved in conversations about processes and flavors. I have the right mind for the job if not always the right sized body.

Conclusion

Could I do it? Yup.

Will I? Who knows. It might be a possibility in the future, but it is definitely not happening tomorrow.

I will let you know when I get there!

Katie has a passion for all things beer. She worked at The Bronx Brewery as the Tasting Room supervisor and helped develop homebrew classes to be taught there. She came to homebrewing through the Cicerone® program. She is a Certified Cicerone® but does not plan on stopping there. She also has taken the BJCP exam. She teaches children’s dance classes in her spare time and used to be a professional dancer herself. Katie resides in NYC where she makes it work in her small apartment with plenty of help from her boyfriend Jon and the homebrewery cat Merlin.