Happening:
Wendeborn 486b9ca80399b3eb8f1c63ebaf52f1f58300c16fb11bc0a52be95c7c634b8c44

First Draughts


Robert Alan Wendeborn

What makes a good brewery great? Shared vision, values

[Editor’s note: This is part of a series exploring the lives of brewery employees. Next up: Brewery employee at-large] There are some parts of a brewer’s day that are the experience and worry and joy of the brewer and the brewer alone and can only be witnessed in agony or awe or horror by others. But there is a lot of day-to-day stuff going on in a brewery that is the experience of every employee. These are shared tasks, shared environments, and, if the brewery is really on point, a shared vision for the beer, shared values for existing in the world, and a shared culture of activities, food, and all forms of art (I know this last part sounds like some kind of pseudo-mystical religious cult, not a beer factory, but good breweries are like big families).

Like I’ve said in the past few columns, brewers and production people typically arrive at work earlier than most employees. Some of this is because steps in production can take eight to 12 hours per task, and you’ll typically have to break that up over more than one shift to share the workload. It may be because production interferes with a restaurant’s operation. Many brewpubs’ brew days happen during the week and are wrapping up as they open for lunch. This is because brewing equipment can be loud and the environment hazardous for customers. But it’s a regular part of the day for non-production employees to be aware of brew schedules, even at very large breweries.

In fact, at very large breweries, employees are hyper-aware. The logistics of everything from brewing to packaging is perfectly timed: new grain is ordered to arrive as soon as old grain runs out, empty kegs and cans sometimes arrive the day of packaging to save the most warehouse space. The lab workers collect data from brewers, cellar people, and packaging, then run tests to ensure the beer is true to target at every step of the lifespan of that beer. Every seasoned employee is tracking the beer as it’s making its way through the brewery.

And they’re all aware of the quality, because every good brewery has a quality control person in charge of running sensory analysis, and they will hound you constantly to participate. And if you’re a good brewery employee, you will attend. You will know your beer inside and out. You will be able to tell the difference between a three-day and five-day crashed beer. You will be able to tell the difference between 1-week-old and 1-month-old beer. And even if you’re not a great brewery employee in the sensory department, you will all know the beer from the tap room.

Yes, everyone will know the beer from the tap room. The warehouse folks, the in-town sales reps, the dirtbags in packaging, the lunch shift servers, the lab staff, the nerds in offices, and brewers and cellar people will converge at quitting time to the tap room for beers. Even if you’re an overnight brewer, you will still get a beer from the tap at 6 a.m. This is communion for the brewery worker. This is your reward. Beer is either free or steeply discounted for employees, at least for the better breweries.

Good, cheap/free beer goes a long, long way to employee satisfaction. It costs the brewery relatively little, but it’s a huge perk for the employee. In my years of working as a brewery employee, this single perk adds a ton of social capital to any job in the brewery, and allows breweries to hire better employees in every facet of operation. Would you rather be an accountant for a toilet paper company, or a beer company? Deliver packages, or deliver beer? Be a process operator in a natural gas plant, or a process operator at a brewery? The work is very similar, but brewery workers are taking home beer at the end of their shift.

The last part of a shared experience at a brewery, at least at the very good ones, is what makes things feel more like a family than a company: the shared vision, culture, and values. It is probably the most important, as those aspects keep employees stoked, they drive innovation and growth, and they allow everyone in the brewery, from packaging line to owner, to be able to raise a glass and say to each other, “This is why we brew the beer we brew, how we brew it, and where we brew it.”

Robert Alan Wendeborn is a former cellar operator at Ska Brewing and current lead cellar operator at Tin Roof Brewing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.