Making a lot of good beer is even more complex than you might think. At Dogfish Head there is a constant battle against infection and bacteria. Plus, no matter how cool it sounds from the outside, brewing the same large batches regularly can be a lot like driving a long-haul truck, a fight to rise above the routine and stay alert against the odds.
This isn’t an analogy that appealed to Amanda Petro, who still is relatively new as a brewer for Dogfish Head in Milton. It isn’t just that she’s new to the game, but rather she knows what true tedium is like, having spent the early part of her microbiology career in the pharmaceutical industry.
Her colleague, Aimee Garlit, who came to Dogfish Head as a quality control expert after finishing up her Ph.D. told me that, for microbiologists, there aren’t a ton of career options. You can teach, work for the government or go into the private sector. Private sector jobs that aren’t essentially government contractors usually are pharma-related (chemical companies also employ microbiologists, but in similar capacities).
Garlit said she couldn’t imagine working for a pharmaceutical company because the mundanity of it would be soul crushing. Amanda could imagine it because that’s what she did before switching over to beer.
Amanda was amused that Garlit made exactly the same analogy. The two weren’t friends and hadn’t discussed the transition between the two fields. She is young, and looking down the barrel of a career in the drug industry was tough, so Amanda packed up her stuff and shipped out to UC Davis to learn to be a professional brewer.
Brewing still has a bit of a “boy’s job” connotation, she said. But it has been changing rapidly in her experience. When she was first starting out, people were a little surprised to hear she made her own beer. By the time she got to UC Davis, though, it wasn’t odd although there was by no means a representative proportion of women in her brewing class.
“It was just me,” she said. “But the guys just treated me like another brewer.”
The microbiology helped.
Many people, when they go to brewing school, struggle most with the microbiology aspect of it. At UC Davis, and most reputable brewing programs, the assumption is that you already are a competent, experienced brewer. You’re there to learn efficiency, how to run a sizable brewing apparatus, how to troubleshoot and the microbiology of the brewing process.
The nuts and bolts of dealing with beer-ruining or beer-enhancing bugs is often the most difficult part for brewers in training. For Amanda it was the least challenging, which left her the time and opportunity to focus on the other aspects of the process even more intently.
When she came to Dogfish Head, she got even more training. Before brewing their first batch, everyone spends time in the lab, which drives home the importance of the process as well as acts as a reminder about how seriously the brewery takes infection.
Dogfish Head has what might best be described as a company homebrewer encouragement policy. It’s a 10 gallon setup where employees–from brewers to sales people to bartenders and greeters–are encouraged to brew and test out new beers. There’s a program that vets beers and acts as an additional R&D arm for the brewery.
Amanda likes to book time and brew on it when she isn’t brewing in the main system. Lately she’s been interested in beer/wine hybrids because they’re challenging as well as complex. Mostly, though, the brewing time helps reinforce her enthusiasm for the gloves-on/gloves-off aspect of her job.
She isn’t tiny, but she’s short and, although it isn’t her defining feature, Amanda’s small frame accentuates the enthusiasm she clearly has for being a brewer, as if there’s more excitement than she reasonable can expected to contain. For her, the explanation is more about how cool it is to feel appreciated.
“I’d like to think it’s because they know how much I love working here,” she said.
But there’s probably something else going on that gets at the culture in a more dynamic way.
Amanda locates herself in beer’s history. For instance, she likes to remind people that, except for over the last 150 years or so, brewing has been women’s work. She sees herself as part of that tradition, upholding the notion that women provide what always has been an important and necessary part of the human culture and diet.
Additionally and importantly, though, there also is an excitement that revolves around being part of a new industry undergoing its own industrial revolution. The Baby Boomer’s generation has gummed up the works at the top of education, government and industry. For the scientists of the future, running an end-around the process increasingly means embracing brewing as an industry that requires, appreciates and rewards their talents.
As more people like Amanda have productive careers in brewing, it will grow as an aspirational position. In the late 20th century, women were encouraged to go into business and law. The fact that so many increasingly are migrating toward science and, therefore, brewing with hardly any notice or turbulence is gratifying and exciting.