Over the last decade or so, brewing has become a modified meritocracy. The best brewers and the beers they make continue to rise to the top, but talented brewers with specialized knowledge rise faster. When Mike Piorunski came up in the business, he was mostly knowledge and determination, but over time cultivated that into a job brewing for one Evolution Craft Brewing, of the most significant brands in the region.
Although there is a general arc of people who go from accomplished homebrewer to professional brewer that wasn’t the route Mike took. Instead, he was driven as much by his love for other people’s beer as by his interest in making his own. He was brewing at home and pursuing one of several different non-beer jobs when he tried and succeeded in getting a slot serving beer in the taproom at the (then) recently-opened Evolution Public House.
During his early shifts there, he was able to focus more on beer taste and serving practices. While Mike continued to learn about beer, he also got to work on his ability to talk about craft beer with old hands as well as those new to the culture. Throughout he was working full time in another industry but was increasingly certain he had the talent and drive to build a career in beer. From his perspective, continuing education could be a big part of that, so he entered the Cicerone program.
A class of professional beer servers
The Cicerone program started simply enough, as a movement that would help restaurants cultivate better knowledge among wait staff. The comparison to a wine sommelier is not unfair, but neither is it completely accurate. Cicerones learn about beer styles, pairing and tastes, flavor profiles and glassware, but they also learn about the inner workings of the various kinds of delivery systems, and not just kegs. For example more complex systems, like the kind the have at Evo, can be tweaked to improve efficiency, reduce foam, etc.
For Mike, this was the right direction for him at the time. It gave him the opportunity not only to better understand the intricacies of choosing and pairing beer, but it gave his mind a focus. Mike comes across as a little quiet, but one wouldn’t say shy. His enthusiasm for beer at all stages of production is apparent and he gets excited at the opportunity to share knowledge, rather than just enumerate facts. For example, during our talk he showed me how to tell if a glass is clean using salt (wet the glass, sprinkle in salt; it won’t stick to oil residue). At the time he was making a larger point about glassware, but what came through was that he doesn’t want to show off how much he knows, he wants other people to know and understand more as well.
Leveling up, beerwise
Mike got about as certified as was reasonable and, during that period, was elevated to full time at Evolution. Having mastered most aspects of the taproom, he made the leap and came to Evo full time. As it turned out, instead of spending his free time in the taproom, he spent it in the brewery. Hanging around with the brewers and getting to know both the ins and outs of large-scale professional brewing at Evo. He supplemented his practical experience with a more formal education, which increasingly is becoming the norm.
Beer is by no means fragile, but it is easy to mess up. As the scale increases so too do the opportunities for infection and waste. Making good beer every time has become the norm over at Evo and the higher standards of the beer drinkers translates to the brewers. When Geoff DeBisschop, who was the company’s first head brewer, left a few years ago, Mike was ready to take the opportunity to move from slinging beer to brewing it.
He clearly loves the gig and gets a ton of pleasure out of brewing. Working as a brewer at Evo means taking into serious account how well any particular beer (or potential recipe) will go with food. It is an overall experience there. Mike’s training as a Cicerone is invaluable from this perspective, but there’s more too it than that. Having been educated as a beer server, he understands the challenges people face when trying to select and describe beers, having a fuller picture of the way service fits into the continuum between fermenting the beer and drinking it puts him in the particular position of being able to effect both.