Becoming a brewmaster

Central Oregon brewers dish about what defines the master

By Megan Kehoe / The Bulletin


Published Mar 11, 2014 at 12:01AM / Updated Mar 11, 2014 at 06:13AM

On Thursday, Jimmy Seifrit arrived at work to find that the boiler wouldn’t start up.

He spent the early part of the morning on the phone getting repair people out to the brewery to fix the problem. He then oversaw the removal of decommissioned tanks that were bound for Boise. After that, he spent time working out the details of contracts with hops companies. Later, he met with members of a construction outfit to discuss the brewery’s expansion.

All of this before lunchtime.

It was just another morning for the 10 Barrel Brewing Co. brewmaster.

The road to becoming a brewmaster is often a long one, in most cases requiring a combination of experience and education. But what actually makes a brewmaster a brewmaster has become a topic of discussion at many breweries of late, as American craft brewing continues to move forward into unprecedented stratospheres of growth.

The meaning of the title and what it represents have evolved over the years. Deschutes Brewery founder Gary Fish says there are numerous interpretations of the term, many of them not up to par with what brewmaster actually signifies in countries like Germany and England, where the tradition is thoroughly established.

“The term of brewmaster gets misused a lot,” Fish said. “It’s similar to the term ‘chef.’ In the culinary industry, the term has a specific meaning. Only those who go through a certain amount of training and have a certain amount of experience are entitled to the term.”

Fish, who is not a brewmaster himself but has overseen half a dozen carrying the title since he started the brewery in 1988, said he considers a true brewmaster a person who has at least seven to 10 years of experience brewing, and who also has a brewer’s education to complement that.

“Words have meaning, and if you call yourself a brewmaster, it doesn’t necessarily make it so,” Fish said.

“I’m not the brewmaster police,” Fish said. “I think people can call themselves anything they want to be called. A lot of people start up their own brewery and put a lot of sweat and blood into it, and feel like they want to be called that. And who can blame them?”

Day-to-day work

Although the title may suggest days spent in the brew house, refining and experimenting with flavors while brewing up classics, the truth is that very little of a brewmaster’s day is actually dedicated to brewing. Seifrit said much of his job has to do with logistical planning, damage control and solving any problems that arise while making the 16,100 barrels of beer 10 Barrel Brewing Co. produced last year.

“It means wearing multiple hats and doing a lot of things in a short period of time,” Seifrit said. “ Maybe the hardest part about it is that we don’t get to brew as much as we’d like. It kind of kills me that I don’t get to brew more beer.”

John Van Duzer, the head brewer at Cascade Lakes Brewing Co., said his 50-hour work week mostly includes scheduling brew sessions, overseeing production brewers, dealing with contractors, buying equipment from vendors and sourcing materials.

“I’m actually brewing very little these days,” Van Duzer said last week. “It’s an unfortunate side of the job. If you talk to other brewers, a lot of them say the same thing. It’s tedious. There’s a lot of scheduling and shuffling. Sometimes it’s like putting a puzzle together and making it all fit.”

Paul Arney, who held the position of assistant brewmaster at Deschutes Brewery before leaving to start The Ale Apothecary in 2011, said he left in part because he wanted to focus on the actual brewing rather than managerial duties.

“Just like a lot of vocations, you spend 15 to 20 years learning a skill, and then the next step is managing people,” Arney said. “Which a lot of times has nothing to do with what you spent your life training for.”

At Deschutes, which currently has two brewmasters who share the duties, Fish said the position means being in charge of the technical aspect of the brew process and managing the staff so operations run smoothly.

Competition for the head brewer or brewmaster jobs at mid-level to large-scale breweries is stiff, said Seifrit, as they require a combination of skills, including the technical know-how, the brewing knowledge and the logistical vision. At the same time, Seifrit said the expanding craft beer industry offers plenty of opportunities for the rising number of graduates coming out of brewing education programs.

The right background

Many brewmasters agree that a brewmaster needs both practical experience and an educational background in brewing. Arney said education most certainly helped him climb through the brewing ranks . When Arney started at Deschutes in 1996, he had completed one of the nation’s top brewing programs but didn’t have a lot of practical experience. He represented a transition of sorts at the brewery, when young brewers with educational backgrounds began to be hired alongside brewers who had worked their way up from the cellar room and bottling lines.

“I learned that education plays a really good role in setting a benchmark,” Arney said. “You come out of school with the understanding of specific principles. It’s a good, basic jumping-off point. But my real education, as the case with almost every brewer, came at the brewery. Your biggest learning opportunities happen when stuff goes wrong, and that’s not something you can get by sitting in a classroom.”

Recently, The Ale Apothecary hired its first staff brewer, and the brewery is paying for his brewing education courses at Oregon State University in Corvallis .

Van Duzer worked his way up from washing kegs at Deschutes Brewery in 1994 to brewing there, then attained certification at the University of California, Davis, before eventually taking a position at Cascade Lakes Brewery. He said getting a degree in brewing science isn’t completely necessary to become a head brewer, but he said it depends on the brewer’s ambitions.

“The majority probably do have brewing educations of some sort, but it’s definitely not a requirement,” Van Duzer said. “There are plenty of talented brewers who haven’t received an education and took a kind of working-class route.”

Seifrit thinks the requirements for the position have changed to the point where most large-scale facilities view brewer education as a crucial step.

“I think it’s almost a necessity now to have a degree,” Seifrit said. “You used to be able to put time in at a brewery and roll into a position like (head brewer). If you want to work at a brewpub, then it’s no big deal at all not to have a degree. But if you’re at a production facility like here or at GoodLife (Brewing Co.) or Worthy (Brewing Co.), then you need to have a degree.”

Dean Wise, the head brewer and founder of Below Grade Brewing, is a self-taught brewer who started home brewing in 1992. He has had no formal training in brewing, and said as the brewery starts to produce more beer he has considered taking brewing courses in a formal setting. He’s also considering being an intern for a few days at a large-scale brewery.

“I guess when it gets to the point when you start producing beer at a larger scale and you start wondering — ‘What am I getting myself into?’ ­— is the point when you’d start contemplating something more,” Wise said. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Evolution of a title

Seifrit, who was a former senior brewer at Deschutes, said that while his official title at 10 Barrel is brewmaster, he considers himself to be a head brewer, despite the fact that he has nearly 18 years of experience brewing and a certification from the Siebel Institute of Technology in brewing.

“I actually hate the term, to be honest,” Seifrit said. “I’ve always found it to be hoity-toity.”

Seifrit said the meaning of the term has evolved in the past two decades. In the 1990s, the term referred to a brewer who oversaw production and had at least 25 years of experience brewing. Then at some point in the early 2000s, the meaning of the term morphed to the point that the brewers at brewpubs are now sometimes called brewmasters, he said.

His definition of a brewmaster sides with the older version of the term: someone who has at least a quarter of a century experience and oversees a staff of at least 20 at a large-scale brewery.

Wise said he’s not sure what the distinction is between a brewmaster and head brewer, and that the distinction between titles most likely refers to the scale of the brewery. As the sole brewer at Below Grade, Wise’s duties run the gamut, from bottling to keg-washing, to developing recipes and then brewing them. Though he wears many hats, Wise says he prefers to be called head brewer.

Arney doesn’t consider himself a brewmaster either, despite holding a bachelor’s degree and a brewmaster certification from UC-Davis, and 18 years of experience brewing.

“To me, a brewmaster is somebody in charge of a very large production brewery who’s been around the block,” Arney said. “They’re more cerebral — they’re the visionary. To me, ‘master’ means somebody who has this inhuman amount of information. They have to be this almost omnipotent person around the brewery — this apparition that can be anywhere at any time.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0354, mkehoe@bendbulletin.com