I Want Your Job: Brewer
'We've got to get the beer out'
Thursday 13 March 2008
Gordon Wilkinson, 56, is head brewer and production manager at the Copper Dragon Brewery in Skipton, Yorkshire
What do you actually do?
I'm responsible for all aspects of producing beer. I'm in charge of buying the raw materials of malted barley and hops, brewing the beer, and packaging it. I have to monitor the beer very closely during the brewing process to make sure we get consistent high-quality batches. We make cask-conditioned beers, so there's no pasteurisation involved, so hygiene standards are paramount.
What's your working day like?
My morning starts at seven, when I open up the brewery. My first job is to make sure our delivery vans are loaded with barrels and on their way to pubs around the country. Then the production staff arrive, and we start brewing. We mill the malted barley, and mash it with hot water. This sits in a mash converter for 90 minutes, while the starch in the malt is converted to sugar. Then we pour off the resulting sugar solution, and boil it with hops in a copper kettle.
The hops provide bitterness and flavour. After it's cooled, we add yeast and oxygen to allow it to ferment. Fermenting takes about six days, and needs to be closely monitored. Brewing is a job where there's no definitive schedule – the time I leave work is dictated by the stage the brewing is at. You can't rush it.
What do you love about it?
Working in a small brewery, you get to see all aspects of production and distribution – from the malt and hops coming in, to the beer going out. You have control of the whole process from start to finish. In a larger brewery, it tends to be more specialised.
Although I've been brewing for 30 years, no two days are the same. There's variety from day to day, with different problems that need solving.
What's not great about it?
Because it's a leisure industry, we have to work when most people are on holiday. It's taboo to take a holiday during the Christmas season, because that's when people are celebrating and want to drink more. You've got to get the beer out to the punter.
What skills do you need to do the job well?
Most brewers tend to have a background in science – a degree in chemistry or microbiology will stand you in good stead, especially if you're looking for a job with a big brewery. There's an excellent postgraduate degree in brewing and distilling at Herriot-Watt University. You should be flexible, and prepared to work long hours – when we put our first brew through the plant, we didn't leave work until two in the morning.
If you cut corners with the fermentation process, the beer won't taste right, so you need to be methodical and logical in how you carry out each stage of brewing the beer. Tasting skills come with practice, so most brewers go through some form of taste training.
What advice would you give someone with their eye on your job?
Go to different breweries, and ask for advice. A lot of it is down to meeting the right people. Opportunities in the brewing industry are dwindling, partly because beer is available cheaply at the supermarket, so fewer people are buying pints at their local.
But small microbreweries are still popping up, and if you're prepared to work hard and ask questions, they'll help you. If you want to work in a big brewery, a lot of them run graduate schemes.
What's the salary and career path like?
An assistant brewer in a small brewery might start on roughly £17,000-£18,000 a year. Large brewing plants run 24 hours a day, and their employees work shifts – so you might work up to team leader, then perhaps manage a department.
For more information on careers and training as a brewer, visit the Institute of Brewing and Distilling at www.ibd.org.uk; the Food and Drink Sector Skills Council at www.improveltd.co.uk; or the British Beer and Pub Association at www.beerandpub.com
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