[Editor’s note: This is part of a series exploring the lives of brewery employees. Next up: Brewer, part 2.] When you use the phrase “in the weeds” as a non-brewer, you may mean that you are really busy with work. Oh man, all this paperwork! Numbers! PTS reports! Ugh! But if you are a brewer, when you say you are in the weeds, there’s some real shit going down, and there’s paperwork on top of it, too. The workflow for you as a brewer is a mix of a manufacturing facility, a lab, a warehouse, a restaurant, and a sewer treatment facility, all rolled into one fabulous over-glorified and over-romanticized shithouse of a job. For every step of the process there is documentation, quality control samples, team communication, verification of previous work, removal of spent yeast, grain, trube, and general waste, a shit-ton of cleaning, and you have to do all of it while actually brewing the beer. When one thing goes wrong, whether it’s your fault, the fault of equipment or materials, or fault of the brewing gods actively trying to smite you, your day turns to complete shit. You are not just in the weeds, you are being strangled by them.
One little thing going wrong in the order of production could set off a chain reaction that sets you, and maybe the rest of the brewery, back hours. Maybe you didn’t pay attention to the grain out of the mash tun and you end up with a mountain of hot, sticky grain all over the brewhouse floor. You have to grab a shovel and start scooping. Meanwhile, the cellar folk are taking pictures and giving you shit while your kettle reaches boil. Of course it boils over. The entire brewery hears you yelling hot [expletives] into the rafters, as you are trying to kill the steam to the kettle, shovel grain, and warn anyone around of the hazards of 200-plus degree sugar water. Oh yeah, did you remember to take down stats on your pre-boil wort?
Maybe the manway door of the fermenter that you’re currently filling with wort is faulty, or maybe it wasn’t closed properly after being cleaned, and as soon as the wort level gets to the manway, it starts spurting wort out onto the floor as you try in vain to close the damn thing. You try your hardest to stay clean the entire time, spraying everything up and down with sanitizer. Maybe you dip yourself up to you armpits in sani so your whole arm can go into the manway and flip the door around with the hopes that the door was just upside down. Maybe it’s all for nothing and you have to dump the batch. Maybe it’s just FUBAR. Maybe it’s not. Maybe you saved the day.
Maybe the boiler goes down. Maybe a mash transfer pump starts shorting out. Maybe the glycol chiller gets too hot. Maybe the power goes out. Maybe a water main bursts down the street. Maybe a belt on the mill breaks. Maybe the cistern pump goes out and no water can go down any drain, lest it come back out the drain with everything that previously went down the drain.
Maybe it had nothing to do with brewing. Maybe a tour comes through and one of those nerds slips and falls. Maybe the lab assistant loses their shit and quits in a rage. Maybe you have to shoo some homeless dude out who keeps trying to smoke cigs in the tasting room. Maybe the toilet in the brewery office overflows. Maybe there’s a fight in the parking lot over who gets to take home low fills. Maybe you’re hungover and the act of making beer gives you PTSD from the night before.
It’s not really the act of being in the weeds that’s so difficult. The hardest part is seeing your coworkers see you struggle, because no one wants to create more work for anyone else. If you’re in a good brewery, everyone is busy, busting their ass to make, package, and sell beer. If you make a mistake or something goes wrong in your sphere, no matter where in the order of operation you’re at, someone will help you out, because it’s all going to come back around in the end.
Robert Alan Wendeborn is a former cellar operator at Ska Brewing and current lead cellar operator at Tin Roof Brewing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.