In September 1905, Robert Wahl spoke to alumni of the Wahl-Henius Institute of Fermentology, one of America’s few brewing academies, for almost an hour in a talk titled “What Education Should the Brewmaster Receive to Meet Modern Requirements?” Calling “brewmaster” a time-honored appellation, he made a detailed case for the importance of both education and experience.
“Conceptions on matters zymotechnical have changed with facts newly brought to light by scientific or technical investigations,” he said, “and have found quick application by the progressive practitioner, who is much more willing to accept the dictum of authoritative science than formerly.” A century later there’s still more to learn, and mastering it all takes at least as long.
The need for such skills is obvious. The number of operating breweries in the United States grew from 2,475 at the end of 2013 to 5,301 as 2017 began. Cameron Lippard and Seth Cohen, professors at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, conducted a survey in 2015 that found 31 universities and community colleges that offered various courses, certificate trainings, and degree programs in brewing or fermentation sciences. Two-thirds of these programs started after 2012 or were still in development in early 2015. (There are even more now.)
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights. Sign up for our award-winning Daily Dispatch newsletter—delivered to your inbox twice a week.
Lippard and Cohen noted that “there is no formal education or certification necessary to call oneself a brewmaster or to work within the industry.” To provide evidence, they surveyed 50 members of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild who self-identified as brewmasters. Most of them had a four-year college degree, but only three had degrees related to fermentation sciences, which include chemistry and bioengineering. Three-quarters of the group had no formal training in brewing before entering the industry, while 90 percent had been home brewers.
The authors called this particular story, from one of the brewers surveyed, common: “My trajectory into my current position was really about friends urging me to make my beer. I had brewed for about three years, and I was serving my beers [at] every party I went to … people loved the beer, and my friend, who is now the owner, said, ‘I got the money and you’ve got the beer.’ That’s when we opened our brewery.”
The Master Brewers Association of the Americas (MBAA) published the results of Lippard and Cohen’s survey—in an article titled “More to It Than Beer: The Pedagogy of Fermentation Sciences”—in its Technical Quarterly because its education committee agrees with two of the authors’ conclusions. First, it’s necessary for students and employers to assess the actual value of so many newly minted programs. Second, there’s a need to “define qualifications for jobs from brewing technician to packaging manager … to brewmaster.”
Although formal certification may not be necessary to claim the title brewmaster, certification programs do exist, and their requirements help frame any discussion about the skills and experience needed. That discussion begins with the understanding that while the terms brewmaster, head brewer, master brewer, and diploma brewer may seem to mean the same thing, they quite often do not.
It takes three years to earn a certificate as a diplom-braumeister or diplom-ingenieur in Germany and requires training in a brewery and a malt house as well as in a classroom—usually at a technical university in Berlin or Munich—and an apprenticeship at a brewery. Of course, there is also a final exam. The brewmaster does not necessarily hold the highest position within the brewery, depending on its size, but sometimes reports to a technical director.
Urban Chestnut Brewing Company co-founder Florian Kuplent has had many job titles since earning master’s degrees in malting and brewing science 20 years ago from the Technical University of Munich. He’s worked in breweries in four countries, including at Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, where he and David Wolfe started Urban Chestnut in 2011. Now his business card includes “brewmaster,” though “technical director” would also be accurate. “The reality is you have to be involved in … [every aspect] whether you are big or small,” he says, echoing a point Wahl made in 1905: “The trouble is, that of the brewmaster too much and too little is expected.”
Damian McConn’s Summit Brewing Company business card reads “head brewer,” which makes perfect sense to him because he was born and educated in the British Isles. There a head brewer reports to a managing director and the board of directors. “Responsibilities run the gamut, from overseeing production and supervising employees to developing new brands; from working with suppliers to interacting with wholesalers and customers; from articulating the attributes of the business to embodying the values of the brewery,” he says. “That’s essentially my role at Summit.”
Roger Ryman, head brewer at St Austell Brewery in England, noticed the cultural divide between the United States and the United Kingdom 15 years ago. “The main person in [a] brewery [in America] was the brewmaster. … The brewing operators were all referred to as brewers, and the senior brewer was the head brewer,” he told BEER, a quarterly magazine of the Campaign for Real Ale, last summer. “When I introduced myself to my hosts [in America] as head brewer, they looked seriously underwhelmed, so I quickly Americanized my title to brewmaster.” He understood that the use of the word itself was a result of the influence of German immigrant brewers. In fact, for the first 10 years after the Master Brewers Association (since renamed) was founded in 1887, German was the official language at its annual convention.
The Siebel Institute in Chicago and Doemens Academy in Munich have a two-campus, 20-week master brewers program. It includes seven weeks of brewing theory and business-related instruction in Chicago, followed by 13 weeks in Germany for hands-on brewing and specialized lab experience. There is no title at the finish line. “Our students will normally, after they complete our master brewer or other advanced-level programs, being humbled by the education, call themselves ‘brewers,’ as once they take the program, they realize what it takes to truly be a brewmaster,” Siebel director of education John Hannafan wrote via email.
The London-based Institute of Brewing and Distilling does administer a master brewer examination, but it’s for brewers with considerable technical experience who have already passed the IBD diploma brewing examination. The diploma exam consists of three parts, each of which is three hours long. “If you can pass all three, you can put ‘diploma brewer’ after your name. I don’t think there can be anything [that gives someone] more pride than that,” says Michael Lewis, Ph.D., who began teaching at the University of California, Davis, in 1962. UC Davis was the first American university to offer brewing courses, beginning in 1964.
Dr. Lewis established the UC Davis Extension’s 18-week master brewers program in 1990, designing it to prepare students for the IBD’s diploma brewing examination. The course readies potential brewers at a micro level, so they can answer questions such as this: 1) Explain the physical principles underlying the mash separation process; and 2) With reference to these principles, compare and contrast the design and operation of a traditional mash tun, a lauter tun, and modern mash filter.
Speaking at the 2014 Craft Brewers Conference, however, Lewis emphasized the macro level as well, suggesting that brewers need deep knowledge (from study), clinical thinking (from example), clear communication (from practice), and robust wisdom. “We insist that you learn the necessary skills,” he said, “and that you grow into being a professional.”
All that doesn’t clear up the confusion surrounding the use of the title brewmaster. “The person making beer in their backyard can call themselves a brewmaster (and many of them do!) as we do not have a rule of exactly what one is or certification to do so (as in Germany),” Hannafan wrote.
“It’s a very fluid sort of term,” says Alastair Pringle, who worked for 25 years at Anheuser-Busch. “For some people, ‘master’ means the person in charge.” He now grades IBD diploma brewing exams and says that “ was the busiest year ever. Everybody wants into craft.” Pringle also consults with breweries on matters related to quality control and teaches applied microbiology at Maryville University in St. Louis. Not all of his students are headed into the brewing industry, but those who are receive instruction that goes beyond science. “Any of those [new] programs need practitioners,” he says. “There are things you can’t teach. You have to experience them.”
Garrett Oliver, who long ago laid claim to the title of brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery, emphasized the importance of experience during his keynote address at the European Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference. He described “fronting”—when a new brewery presents itself as something it may expect to be but isn’t yet—and conjured up the image of a peacock spreading its feathers. He then made it clear there’s no substitute for time.
“But you haven’t got it. You haven’t got it yet, not five years in, not 10 years in. Let me tell you—not 15 years in,” Oliver said. “Only now, after 20-some-odd years, am I getting anywhere near being the brewer that I’ve wanted to be, that I said I was.”
In the BEER article about the role of a head brewer (and by extrapolation, a brewmaster), John Keeling, longtime head brewer at Fuller’s Brewery in London, added one more component: tradition.
“In the past, with all the big brewers, others in the industry could name the head brewer. They were people who would leave a legacy, which is something important for a brewer to do. The head brewer stands for the integrity of the brewery,” Keeling said. “The modern head brewer to me is the person who keeps the standards, philosophy, and values by which we make our beer. Here at Fuller’s, they generally have a longevity behind them; we like to make head brewers rather than hire them.”
Wahl was not speaking to future brewmasters in 1905, but to those who had already taken the title. “Let us work together for the advancement of the education of the brewer and with it for the advancement of the position and standing of the brewmaster or technical director,” he told them. “Let those who come after you reap their heritage of your experience and knowledge.”
Stan Hieronymus has been writing about beer since 1993, including hundreds of articles for scores of publications and eight books – the most recent being Brewing Local. Find him on Twitter.