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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Confessions of a New Brewer

The following is an article written by budding brewer Sam Corbeil as it appeared in the Fall issue of TAPS: Canada's Beer magazine. Corbeil left the cushy business environment to follow his dream of brewing beer for a living. It is a well written article that I am happy to post here for all you readers to enjoy.

It’s been two and a half years since I left the comfy confines of the cubicle for the hard stainless steel of the brew house. Two and a half years since I traded in the dress shoes and the mouse pad for the rubber boots and the spray hose. And what have I learned? I’ve learned that many of the romantic fantasies that go along with brewing are just that, fantasies.

When I first thought about leaving the day-to-day, humdrum of the corporate world, I imagined the life of the brewer to be an idyllic one. I imagined a Brew Master to be a jolly old German man wearing overalls and a plaid shirt. He would have a magnificent, grey beard hanging from his chin and a proud beer belly earned over many years of dedicated work inside the brew house protruding from his mid-section.

In my mind I daydreamed him strolling amongst endless grey tanks, roaming calmly and knowingly amongst them. Every so often he would stop at a tank to take a sample, letting the golden liquid pour slowly into his glass. He would then hoist the glass aloft, staring longingly into the beer looking for slight imperfections that only a master eye could detect. Only then after determining that the liquid was in pristine shape would he sip it. Letting the beer dance around inside his mouth he would search again for any mistakes. After swallowing it, he would nod his head approvingly, letting the world know that this beer was perfect and ready to be released to the world.

This was it! I’ve found it-the perfect job for someone who loves beer. This was going to be the life for me. I was going to throw off the oppressive shackles of the rat race and join this idyllic world of brewing. I was going to become that bearded, beer bellied old German man!

Well it didn’t take long for this dream to be dashed. The moment I entered my first class at the Certified Brew Masters Course at the VLB in Berlin, I learned that not all Brew Master’s are old and German. They aren’t always men either. They come in all nationalities, all shapes and sizes and in both sexes. As I looked around the classroom I could see faces, both men and women, from nations all over the world: Japan, Turkey, America, Canada, Korea, Spain, Portugal. Beer brewing wasn’t a duty left solely for the Germans; it was universal.

The classes themselves weren’t quite what I had envisioned either. In our first lesson we discussed Polymerase Chain Reactions and the DNA of specific strains of barley. In my pervious life I had a Bachelor of Commerce. My limited knowledge of the sciences ended in twelfth grade high school. And now here I was, half way around the world thinking I was going to be learning about sipping beer out of vessels and learning to nod knowingly. This was hardcore science. Chemistry, microbiology, brewing mathematics; these were just some of the areas of study. Brewing wasn’t going to be as easy as I had pictured. Brewers need to wear many hats; a scientist is just one of them.

The tattered and frayed remnants of my brewing dream world were given their death blow upon my return from Berlin. Beginning my first job as a brewer here in Canada, I quickly learned that brewing wasn’t going to be as easy as just walking around a fermenting room and randomly sampling from tanks. It was real work; real hard, physical work. Lifting malt bags, scrubbing dirty tanks, spraying grain soaked floors and removing steaming piles of spent grains are just some of the daily duties. But getting splashed with hot wort, pinching your hand in valves and getting harsh chemicals like caustic on your arms and face are just some of the perks that go along with the job.

Sipping beer out of tanks didn’t seem to be on the daily itinerary.

It also became very apparent that the corporate world paid a great deal better than the brewing world. For all this hard work and heavy lifting, I was never going to get rich brewing beer. As a brewer working in the craft brewing industry, you have to keep in mind that these are small businesses working on small budgets. It doesn’t leave much room for wealthy brewers.

What had I done? This fantastical, idyllic brewing world of my imagination was not to be. Why had I given up the cushy life style of the corporate world to do twice the work for half the pay? Honestly, some days I don’t know. Many days it’s a struggle. Long hours in a sweltering brew house can cause all sort of problems. Like a severe case of diaper rash. At that point, your only hope to make it through the day is to walk around in a “penguinesque” waddle so the inside of your legs stop rubbing together. Diaper rash can cause a man to have some serious doubts.

Brewing is a love-hate relationship and some days the scales start to tip in favour of hate. Some days you need reassurance. On a recent bout of self doubt I turned to a friend I met at brewing school (Shout out’s to Tree Brewing in Kelowna, they make great beer! Their Spy Porter is brilliant.) and asked him for some words of advice, this is what he said, “We got out of our old jobs and into this field for one reason…we love beer. Sure, it turned out that the grass wasn’t quite as green on the other side, but the product, the people, but mostly the product is what keeps us going.”

And he’s right. Brewing beer isn’t about the money. It isn’t about the grueling work. It’s about the love of beer. It’s about creating a product that’s going to be enjoyed by many people. It’s about knowing that you’re putting a smile on someone else’s face.

Maybe I won’t become that bearded, beer bellied old German man. Maybe it was all in my imagination. In fact, I’m not German and I can’t even grow a beard. A beer belly I can do, but a beard not so much. But I do know that I will continue to brew beer. I’ll continue to do it, because I love it.

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