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What It's Really Like to Be a Craft Beer Brewer

In our 9–5 series, we ask inspiring #bosses what a day on the job entails. This week, Erin Kloos, craft beer brewer at Grand River Brewing in Cambridge, Ont., gives us a glimpse into her grind

female craft beer brewer

(Photo: LJ Medlicott, LJStudios)

Age: 28

Education: High school diploma and more than six years of on the job learning. “I grew up in the cellar,” says Kloos.

Length of time at current gig: Less than a year

How would you describe your job? I’m a brewer at Grand River Brewing in Cambridge, Ont., which means I’m in charge of making their beer. Right from the brew house to the cellar and then to the production line, I’m a supervisor-brewer kind of chick. We do a lot of experimentation too, so I’m involved in a lot of the research and development as well. I’ve only been at Grand River since last November but this is my sixth year in brewing, filtration, blending and packaging.

How did you get your start? After graduating high school and traveling around a bit, I came back to Waterloo, Ont. and got a job on a whim slugging cases on a return bottle line. It was a 12-hour night shift in the middle of the summer at the Brick Brewing facility in Kitchener, Ont..

What did you do between graduating high school and returning to Kitchener-Waterloo? I underwent a pretty significant weight loss. When I was in high school, I was almost 300 pounds and then I started cycling and eating healthy. I started developing my palate and enjoying beer and wine and life. After high school, I traveled around a bit. I rode my bike a lot. And I played a lot of music in a bunch of bands. I was enjoying being a 20 year-old girl but then I came back to Waterloo because I needed to grow up and settle down so I got the return bottle job. I haven’t gotten out of beer since.

How did your career develop from that first gig? I was very, very keen. I loved the environment: machines are humming, beer is being made and there are these huge octopus lines of a million bottles flying by. I worked so much overtime starting on the return bottle line, which is the lowest of the low in beer. I fed that machine for a couple of months and from there, I became a machine operator and worked hard at understanding the mechanics and learning how to troubleshoot. My attitude and my aptitude got me noticed in the cellar and then a supervisor pulled me onto his team and it launched my career. I started in filtration soon after and never looked back.

Can you explain what filtration and cellaring is in the beer-making process? When you make beer, there’s a whole team behind it. The brewer and the filtration operator usually work very closely. Essentially, you have to think of it as the hot side and the cold side. Brew is hot side. Filtration and cellaring is the cold side. You can’t make beer without a great marriage between both sides.

And now that you’re a brewer, you’ve worked both sides? Yes! The majority of my career was on the cold side in filtration [filtering out suspended yeast, undesirable residual hops and other stuff from a vat of beer] and cellaring [cleaning tanks and maintaining equipment]. I’ll never leave that part behind because it’s so important to the brewing side. And it feels nice to be able to walk into a facility and know that I have the capability to create a beer, to cellar that beer, to jump on a can line and package that beer, and then to jump on a forklift and put that beer on a truck. I’m a single 28-year-old who has barely any friends [laughs], so I’ve put my whole life into making sure that I can run the hell out of a cellar and a brew house.

female craft beer brewer

(Photo: Samantha McIntyre)

What’s a typical day like as a brewer? I’m usually up at 4:30 a.m. I cycle into work from Waterloo to Cambridge, which is about 30 km and takes a good 50 minutes. You have to think about so many things when you’re on the floor brewing—temperature differentials and addition rates—so it’s good to get that bike ride in. The sky is pink, it’s nothing but countryside on one side and the Grand River on the other. Then I get in at 6 a.m. and the first thing I do is mash-in.

What’s that? Mashing-in is milling ground up malted barley into the mash tonne to produce wort [the sugary liquid that will be fermented by the brewing yeast to produce alcohol]. It’s the very beginning of your brew each day and it’s a solid half hour of standing on a platform with a big rake stirring the big pot of mash. It’s like 150 degrees Farenheit and super messy. There’s tons of grain, you’re covered in dust, you’re sweating and you’re jumping off the platform, running machines, trying to pay attention to differentials and temperatures that can’t vary past two degrees, but it’s so nice and high energy. It’s the best way to start your day.

What comes after the mash-in? From there, I have to test yeast viabilities [to ensure the yeast is active enough to survive the brewing process] and make sure that my other tanks that are on the production line are cooling properly. Beer doesn’t always turn out the way you want it to, so you have to consistently check in to see where it’s at.

Does “checking in” involve a lot of tasting? Yes! The proper method to taste is to put it on the palette and to spit it out, so that’s often how I’ll often taste, but sometimes at 6:30 in the morning, I will have a sip because after that bike ride and the mash-in it’s nice to have a nice cold drink!

What’s the atmosphere at the brewery like? It’s go go go. It’s like you’re eating half of a sandwich while your arm is in something and you’re holding a glass of beer. Very rarely do we get a chance to actually sit down and have a break but at the end of the day, even if you’ve been there for 12 hours and everything has fallen apart, you still get to have a nice, cold pint in the hospitality room that’s attached to the brewery.

When does your day typically end? Grand River has had a lot of growth in the last while which is phenomenal to see for a tiny brewery. Usually, my work ends at 2 p.m. but I typically don’t leave then. Instead, I’ll jump over to the cold side and start processing the brands that have fermented, cleaning them up [a.k.a. filtration], and carbonating them to get them ready for their packaging operators to put them in a can, bottle or keg the next day.

How do you unwind outside of work? I do a lot of yoga. After work, I can usually be found at a Bikram or Moksha studio and later at an awesome pub with a 700-page textbook on brewing and a great pint. Then a beautiful bike ride home to get ready for 6 a.m. the next day. That’s my perfect evening.

Do you ever get sick of drinking beer? I don’t ever see myself getting sick of beer. Maybe if I do, I’ll haul myself to Prince Edward County or up to Niagara and start doing wine!

What do you wear to work? I’m blessed that I can just wear denim and a t-shirt or tank top. At my previous brewery, you would walk in and have five uniforms waiting for you, one for each day. Everything had to be tucked in. You had to wear gloves, hairnet, the whole thing.

It sounds like there’s quite a scientific side to the job. Have you always had a interest in math and science? I was quite nerdy in high school, always the kid who took the advanced science class.

What do you think of the way you learned versus post-secondary learning? If I had gone to university [first], I don’t know if I would be as proficient an operator or brewer because I learned from so many talented people on the job. I worked with a group of women at [Brick] who were so generous with sharing their wealth of knowledge with me.

Is the industry generally more men than women? It is predominantly men. [Brick] was a male environment but it wasn’t scary. There was a lot of respect. Never once did I put a huge bag of grain on my shoulder and have a man step behind me as if I was going to fall backwards. The reason I’ve done well in a relatively short period of time is because of people, the majority of whom have been men, who haven’t been afraid to share their knowledge with a woman.

Also, in my experience, some of the most incredible packaging lines have been run by women. It’s been so positive for me to grow up in this atmosphere where the women kick ass.

What’s the most challenging part of your job? In production, the nature of the beast is trying to keep up and in such a small outpost, you become an “everyman”—you need to be able to fix everything on your own. When something goes wrong that falls outside your scope of knowledge or skill set, that can be difficult. And sometimes people say harsh things about the beer you make! I sweat and I’ve bled and fallen and cried over beer and sometimes people just hate what you make. It can be tough.

What is the best part of your job? When people come to me for my opinion. To be at a point where people seek you out for your advice is amazing. I’ve never lost my love for my career and so to see it grow in somebody else who I know is going to make an incredible operator or brewer, that’s when I really love my job.

In an earlier version of this post, FLARE incorrectly stated that Grand River Brewing was located in Guelph, Ont. We regret the error.

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