Cool Jobs: I make beer

Brewers tell tales of mixing art and science, creating new recipes, enjoying their jobs and looking forward to the next challenge.
I'm going to let you in on a little secret about the relationship between editors and writers. Sometimes an editor's story assignments and his or her attempts to instill enthusiasm for them are met by writers with, um, let's say, a little skepticism.
So, when my editor said, "Let's do a story about beer makers. Have fun with it. Let's let everybody know what a cool job it is."
Well, my writer's skepticism kicked in. Making beer? Fun? Sounds hot, loud, and there must be a lot of heavy lifting involved. I must admit, I didn't know much about beer making, but I knew it would take more than an editor's words to convince me of the craft's coolness.
After talking to three Michigan brew masters--one in the Upper Peninsula, one in the northwest part of the state, and one in the mid-Mitten--I am willing to admit my skepticism was unfounded. Based on the descriptions of what these guys do for a living, the fun they have doing it, and the joy they get out of folks enjoying the finished product, it definitely is cool to make a cold one. Or in these guys' case, barrels and barrels of cold ones.
"Oh, there's a lot of work involved, but it most definitely is a cool job," says Tom Dulex, brew master at Keweenaw Brewing Co. which has two sites--one in South Range strictly for brewing and one in downtown Houghton for brewing smaller quantities than the South Range site and for serving it up to thirsty customers. "I love it, the challenge of trying to get a beer just right.
"You're kind of like a liquid chef, getting the perfect recipe to get your beer just exactly the way you want it to taste."
Dulex speaks in KBC's Houghton facility, amid the hum of beer in the brewing stages, in the middle of a mash, you might say. There are six stainless steel vessels brewing away, two of them encapsulated in copper as a nod toward the copper heritage of Houghton-Hancock.
"It's an intense job, it's challenging, and you have to love what you're doing," Dulex says. "And that's what you'll find with just about any brewer you talk to. They love what they're doing. I know that's true with me, anyway."
Keweenaw Brewing Co. is owned by Dick Gray and Paul Boissevain, and between the two brewing locations, it produced about 9,770 barrels of beer last year; about 9,000 in South Range and the other 770 in the KBC Houghton microbrewery/taproom.
KBC's six core ales--Pick Axe Blonde Ale, Red Jacket Amber Ale, Lift Bridge Brown Ale, Widow Maker Black Ale, Olde Ore Dock Scottish Ale and November Gale Pale Ale--are available in canned six packs at the Houghton taproom, and also in stores across Michigan, Wisconsin, eastern Minnesota and northeast Ohio.
"Beer has become the story of my life," Dulex says. "I can't drink like a normal person. I'm stopping at different microbreweries, tasting, trying to figure out what's in them and talking to the brewer if he's around."
Sam Oswald, 26, head brewer at the Midland Brewing Co. in Midland, also likes to make stops in other cities at microbreweries to discuss the craft with his beer peers. In fact, he recently visited New Holland Brewing in Holland as part of a group tour with the American Homebrewers Association to trade and introduce new brews.
"I'm definitely one of the younger brewers around, and there's always something to learn from the guys who've been around a while," Oswald says. "But, I've found it's a very tight group. Other brewers are always willing to share techniques; there are no real proprietary secrets."
Oswald likes to remember what works and what doesn't, so he jots down notes and keeps an ever-growing notebook at Midland Brewing Co., owned by Pete Hayes and Keith Lawrence. The microbrewery produced 900 barrels last year, and expects to put out a little less than double that this year. You can find Midland Brewing Co. beer at the Midland brewery--which also serves food--and at various locations throughout Michigan.
"Michigan is one of the biggest states for breweries, and there are a lot of good craft beers out there and more beers are being made all the time," Oswald says. "You really have to stay on top of your "A" game or you're going to get overrun. That's why we put such an emphasis on quality."
One of the less-romantic-but-highly-important parts of the job is cleanliness, says Oswald, and he's a stickler.
"You have to keep everything sparkling clean or the beer just isn't going to turn out right," he says. "You asked if this was a fun job, and it really is, but the cleaning isn't one of the most fun parts of it."
Oswald's recipes include the "regulars;" Copper Harbor Ale, Dublin Street Stout, Red Keg Amber Ale, Midland Pale Ale and Brothers IPA. There are also about six other seasonal beers that are introduced throughout the year.
Speaking of introduction, Brian Confer, 46, and his partner Rick Schmitt, introduced Stormcloud Brewing Co. in Frankfort in July 2013. Confer says he expects by the first anniversary of the opening of business, he will have produced 700 barrels.
Not bad for a beginner. Well, that may be a bit misleading. Confer, like his aforementioned peers, homebrewed for years before going pro. He agreed that the job is "a ton of fun," but in the same breath says, "Sometimes it's not fun at all."
"There's hard work, it's hot, sweaty, lifting, safety glasses, part of it can be a lot like a manufacturing job," Confer says. "But the part that makes it so much fun is the mixture of art and science, and you are constantly learning. It's a challenge every day, you always are tinkering, trying to improve, tweak a recipe.
"You'll get one result if you try one thing, and a different result if you try another. That's the fun of it. The challenge, the mystery of what you might try next to improve the product."
Stormcloud has 15 different beers available at the Frankfort location as well some at select Traverse City area spots. All the beers were made at Stormcloud's Frankfort site, with three vessels, six fermenters and two brite tanks. The brewery is not visible from the tasting room (pub), but there is a patio outdoors, which allows customers to see the beer making process in full motion.
"Rainmaker" is Stormcloud's flagship beer, the recipe Confer has been working on the longest. He says there are many beers on his current list that he tinkers with, but he "likes where we are with Rainmaker. I like to keep that pretty consistent."
Consistent. Ok, boss. You were right about beer making. It is a cool job. Mr. Editor, I will try to be a little more consistent about fending off that dreaded skepticism. But. I can't promise it. I'm a reporter. What can I tell ya?
Jeff Barr is a freelance writer who has lived in Michigan for more than 46 years. He can be reached by email at or on Twitter, @jeffbarr88.
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