As an active homebrewer, I often wonder what it’d be like to turn pro. Would it be fun, or would my zeal for beer be damped by crushing monotony? I sat down with Geoff Towne, founder of soon-to-open Zauber Brewing to find out. Geoff started as a traveling salesman for a packaging company, servicing breweries and wineries in New York and Pennsylvania (let’s be honest – that sounds pretty damn boring next to “Brewmaster”). He really “dug their jobs” a lot more than his own, and was surprised at the scale of microbreweries, saying, “You can do this on a small scale and still make money at it? I thought you had to be huge.” He was bit by the homebrew bug, and soon decided to go pro.
Armed with an undergraduate degree in biology, he packed up and moved across the country to go through UC Davis’ Master Brewing program (or, as Geoff puts it, to get his “smarty-pants degree”).
“I loved it. It was an eye-opening experience on so many levels. I went to UC Davis thinking I wanted to work with one of the big breweries, and I walked away thinking, ‘No way.’ I actually got an offer from Anheuser-Busch that I turned down. I really dug the craft beer scene in California, and felt I wouldn’t enjoy working for the big guys as much.” (Protip: Geoff did mention that the BMC crowd hires the best looking people, so if you like to dip your pen in the company ink, consider the big guys.)
To be fair, the actual work of brewing is not nearly as interesting as the final product. A brewer is, as Jeff puts it, “90% janitor and 10% artist.” Day 1 is an ‘organizational day,’ assembling the requisite ingredients, double-checking the recipe, and making sure the equipment is in order. Day 2 is a cleaning day (yeah, that’s it: a whole day of cleaning – sound fun yet?). Finally, on Day 3, yeast meets wort and beer is born. Followed by more cleaning. And then you get to babysit the beer. “A lot of it is being very conscientious and methodical. It’s very easy not to do those things, like checking cell counts, because you don’t strictly have to. Everything should work out fine. But if you don’t keep up with these cleanliness issues, and watching yeast counts and such, eventually you’ll get burned. It’s not hard to make beer, but it’s extremely hard to do it well.”
Science is science; making beer is roughly the same everywhere. So why did Geoff turn down Anheuser-Busch to work at Great Lakes? Two words: “Company culture.” Brewers are largely easy to get along with, “they’re motivated guys who know what they’re doing.” But when a company is saddled with an overbearing owner or stuck in a rut with a dearth of experimentation, the job can become tedious and boring. “On the other hand, you can put up with a lot of shit when the brewery is at the bottom of the ski slopes. But you can’t get away with that in the midwest.” So what is the ‘rockstar’ job in brewing? Geoff thinks it’s Sierra Nevada, but even that colossus of craft beer is not without shortcomings. “It’s very hard to move up. No one ever wants to leave.” Sierra Nevada’s success might have something to do with this.”The places that have a better culture tend to rise naturally.”
After a two year tenure at Great Lakes, Geoff spent a year with the Boston Beer Company (aka Sam Adams). Now he’s set his sights on the Ohio beer market which he thinks has not yet reached maturity. “I can statistically show that Columbus is way behind the trend. Portland, Oregon is about the same size as Columbus. They have over forty breweries. We have, what, four, five? I think what I can do is maybe bring some new flavors here. Flavors that I know are successful but difficult to find here; maybe I could scratch out a living doing that. People’s tastebuds are the same everywhere, it’s just an issue of exposure. But what I really like are the category-bending beers. New Glarus has a beer, Crack’d Wheat, which is really just a wheat beer. But to a beer geek like me, it’s a German style hefeweizen with American hops. I think that’s really cool.”
He likes their business strategy, too. “New Glarus has a really strong following in Wisconsin. That’s what I’d like to do, really focus on the Ohio market. Anything beyond that is just gravy. But it’s really hard, starting a brewery, and it’s not a straight line. Seeking investors is one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had.” Focusing on Ohio and the Columbus market is central to Geoff’s plan for success. “A lot of breweries have an owner who says, ‘This is the type of beer we’re going to make.’ I’d like to use my small size and flexibility to my advantage, and let the community help me decide what there’s a demand for.”
I asked Geoff about his favorite beers, but getting an answer out of him was like prying a bottle of Westvleteren 12 out of his hands. Finally I asked, “So if you walk into the store, what are you most likely to walk out with?” He offered up an answer I could empathize with: “I’m a bit OCD. It’s a bit of a process. Am I into German stuff this month, or am I on a Belgian kick? Or I just see something interesting. But I like category-bending beers, like Flying Dog Raging Bitch. I also have standards, my go-tos, but they’re beer geeky ones. My favorite of all time is Duchesse De Bourgogne.”
Clearly, opening your own brewery is “a bit of a process” as well. Brewing may be more grunt work than glamour, but at the end of the day it’s no different than most professions. You want competent management, fun coworkers, challenging work, and a relaxed, engaging company culture. And if you can’t find that, start your own brewery.