Have dreams of joining the booze business but not a single clue about brewing or distilling? Not to worry—it takes a lot of hands on deck to get alcohol on shelves in the year 2015.
Thanks to America’s booming interest in craft beer, small-batch spirits, and the wine, there are plenty of oddball job opportunities these days, many of which didn’t even exist until a decade ago.
Making booze evokes images of burly workers hoisting giant bags of grain or sweeping floors of malting barley, but many of today’s jobs are trending more toward the more niche, white-collar, highly skilled gigs.
So, if you have a good nose, a keen eye for bacteria, or like lighting moss on fire, you too could soon be working in the wonderful world of alcohol.
There’s only one way to make a spirit—by distilling it—but there are countless ways of making stills. Pot stills, column stills, alembics: these aren’t just names, they’re also unique shapes certain distilleries believe are best for producing their products, whether that’s whiskey, vodka, or something else altogether. Very few companies in the world have the skill to “heat and beat” custom-built stills into these shapes at an industrial level. Louisville’s Vendome Copper & Brass Works is the largest maker, supplying stills to booze-makers both gigantic and minuscule throughout the booze-producing world since 1912. (Photo: Vendomecopper.com)
Industry: Brewing, distilling
Notable example: Kimble MacDonald (Laphroaig)
Apply if: You like cereal more than even Jerry Seinfeld does
In order for a grain like barley to ferment, its starches need to be converted to sugars. This process is achieved by allowing the raw grains to partially sprout, then heating them in a kiln. Back in the day, a maltster would have likely been an old Scot who liked lighting peat moss on fire. Now, though, maltsters usually have advanced degrees in science and agriculture and spend their days sourcing grains (if not helping grow them), steeping and germinating the seeds in water, raking malthouse floors, and drying the malt until it’s usable for a mash. In America hardly any brewery or distillery malts their own grains any more, instead sourcing giant bags from places like Briess in Wisconsin and Weyermann in Germany.
Hops are an integral ingredient in beer and perhaps the most important one in fueling the IPA-crazy American craft-beer revolution. Just like any plant, hops grow in nature, usually in temperate places like the Yakima Valley and the Hallertau region of Germany. But there are also laboratories and research institutes—like the John I. Haas, Inc.’s Hop Breeding Company—where the “labradoodles” of the hops world are being created. Whether to generate better yields, become more pest-resistant, or just taste more delicious, a slew of experimental hops have been produced by breeders over the last few decades. Some have been home runs, like Citra (first cultivated in 2007), while others still have generic names like Experimental Hop #06277. Whatever the case, it’s hard for any drinker to be against these kinds of GMOs. (Photo: Indiehops.com)
Back in the day, if a distiller like Jim Beam (yes, he was real) needed some yeast to ferment his hooch, he’d sit on his porch trying to “wrangle” some. For the most part, those helter skelter days of yeast control are over. Now, if you walk through the backrooms of just about every major brewery, winery, or distillery, you’ll find some employees that look a little different from everyone else—in stark white lab coats, wearing gloves and goggles, staring intently at slides. Alcohol-making is big business and the product needs to be perfect every time, so most places now employ a team of highly-educated microbiologists who analyze samples, making sure everything yeast-wise is correct, and nothing microbially incorrect has found its way into a batch of booze. (Yes, they often need to taste these lab samples, which is surely a whole lot better than analyzing blood work.) (Photo: Realdoctorstu.com)
This spring The Atlantic told the fascinating story of Nancy Fraley, a woman with a self-proclaimed “freakish sense of smell” who now offers “Nosing Services”—it says that on her business card—to various craft distilleries. This means that, literally, she sniffs a new distillery’s product to try and determine what they are doing right and, more likely, what needs to be improved in its process. Fraley is believed to be the craft distilling world’s sole sniffer, though it’s a gig that’s existed in the wine industry for a while. We sure hope her nose is insured. (Photo: LinkedIn.com)
— John Gill (@BarrelBroker) March 11, 2014
Industry: Brewing, distilling, wine
Notable example: John Gill
Apply if: You’ve got the mentality of a used car salesman, but the liver of an oenophile
Since the laws governing bourbon necessitate aging in brand-new oak barrels, all bourbon distilleries buy their barrels either directly from massive cooperages like Independent Stave, or make their own in the case of Brown-Forman. But what about Scotch distillers or mezcal makers or craft brewers that want a previously-filled barrel to age something in? These folks often need to hook up with a barrel broker, a wheeler and dealer who finds homes around the world for used barrels. One such broker is John Gill, a Milwaukee man whose business is literally called “The Barrel Broker.” He manages to “recycle” tens of thousands of barrels a year.
Do you like blowing shit up? Uh huh. Do you like blowing shit up to help improve intoxication? Even better! You might not realize it, but numerous wineries are now aging their vintage stock in caves due to both their aesthetic beauty and often perfect storage climates (around 60 degrees with high humidity levels). Some of these caves were created naturally, but others need to be man-made. That’s where dynamiters like Napa Valley’s The Cave Company come into play. Unfortunately, you can’t just be an adult Beavis and/or Butthead with a case of TNT on hand. Dynamiting massive rock formations is—no surprise—a tad dangerous, and it’s best if geologists and engineers supervise these very precise explosions, tunneling, and mining efforts. (Photo: Thecavecompany.com)
Because this is America, the so-called land of the free, you are of course absolutely not free to name a beer anything you want. In fact, the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) goes over literally every single commercial beer label, deciding whether to allow it to go to market or whether it could possibly be seen as misleading or objectionable by consumers. Believe it or not, until recently this job was held by a single man named Battle Martin who personally approved around 30,000 different beers per year (no, I don’t think he got to drink them all). The good news is, Martin retired last month after 11 years on the job. The bad news: The job posting has already been filled, and not by you. (Photo: Sixpacktech.com)
They say those who can’t “do,” teach. According to Woody Allen, those who can’t teach, teach gym. But, believe it or not, many of the world’s top brewmasters aren’t just bearded burnouts who taught themselves brewing in their garage or dorm room. In fact, many of them have attended schools like the famed Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago. They may not have a football team worth a damn, but places like Siebel (and Oregon State University’s Fermentation Science program among others) offer courses like Brewing Microbiology, Beer Production and Quality Control, Raw Materials and Wort Production, and even Start Your Own Brewery. Likewise, the professors are hardly ones that couldn’t “do,” as many faculty members like Matthew Brynildson (the current brewmaster at Firestone Walker) and Randy Mosher (famed author of Tasting Beer) are some of the most acclaimed professionals in the entire industry. (Photo: ucdavis.edu/Karen Higgins)
Made a stop @otherhalfnyc for their stout day with 5 different barrel aged stouts on draught. The In Absentia aged in Rye barrels was on point, also picked up a limited bottle of this farmhouse ale aged in French Chardonnay barrels, and got to meet the Other Half furry mascot “Gangster Cat” #otherhalf #craftbrewnyc #brooklyn #nyc
Industry: Brewing, distilling
Notable example: Gangster Cat (Other Half Brewing Co.)
Apply if: You’re a feral cat that wants to get off the streets
The only job on this list that also entails living at the office full time, mousers are cats that keep breweries and distilleries clean. But they aren’t quite furry janitors. As breweries and distilleries are often in cool warehouses packed with bags of delicious grains, they can attract mice. That’s not good for business. Mousers typically have free reign over the entire facility, sleeping on these bags of grain during the day, playing with visitors to the tasting room when it tickles their fancy, then going to work at night. These third-shift workers keep breweries and distilleries free of varmints, and they play an integral part in assuring your beer and whiskey gets made. There’s even a Scotch distillery mouser in the Guinness Book of World Records for most career mice kills (an astounding 28,899!).
Aaron Goldfarb (@aarongoldfarb) is the author of How to Fail: The Self-Hurt Guide, The Guide for a Single Man, and The Guide for a Single Woman.