Interview with a Brewmaster

Ever wanted the about being a brewmaster? Well, thanks to Aaron Stahl and, we can bring you the insider information. Hope that you enjoy it as much as we did!


What do you do for a living?

I make beer.

How would you describe what you do?

Well, brewing is about 80% cleaning, so some say we’re glorified maids. I don’t like that term, but you have to be exceptionally clean in the brewing industry, so you’re always cleaning something. Whether it be circulating chemicals in a tank to clean it and then circulate chemicals to sterilize it and then, or maintaining your draft lines need to be clean because bacteria can build up in them. So you’re always cleaning something. Even during a brew day anywhere the beer or wort”before it’s beer it’s wort”comes in contact, you have to make sure that chemical passes through those pipes or hoses or valves and fittings.

…it’s still work but it’s work that you love. It’s not like you wake up in the morning like, Oh, crap! I got to go make beer today!

Besides that, there’s small amount of paperwork involved. You have to do your paperwork for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Twice a month, they get paperwork sent to them, and they get $7 a barrel that we produce. The state gets a percentage of beer that we sell and so there’s a small amount of paperwork. I’m not a desk-type of person, and a nightmare job for me would be sitting in front of a computer, in an office. So this is neat because you’re always on your feet. It’s very physical work, but you’re doing something different. Creating recipes is a fun part of it. When I was searching for jobs and I ended up here, I liked the pub environment and a smaller system where I can use my creative freedom. I can create new batches of beer, keep the customers on their toes as what’s coming out next; different styles, that kind of thing.  And then taking existing recipes and tweaking the recipes slightly to try and improve them. And the only way to really do that is change one small thing at a time. You can’t, change your water treatment and add different hops or different yeast strain, all three things, and then expect to know what the difference is. You have to do one subtle thing at a time. When I was searching for this current brew job, I had been offered positions in a micro brewery or production plant, where it’s basically a beer factory at that point where you’re, you know, at 2:10, you start this pump and at 2:30, you move this lever and do this. And you’re brewing the same beers day in day out, and you got the bottling line and the tagging line. That’s not a good job for me to have. I really like the small pub environment where I can come out and say hi to the customers, or you see a sample platter go out and you could approach the table after they’re half-way through them, and find out what they like, what they didn’t like, and what could I do to make it better kind of thing.

What does your work entail?

Typically, nine to five. Brew days are always longer. Brew days here tend to be about ten hours. There’s not so many events in this area because there’s not a lot of breweries, but coming from Chicago, it seemed like there was a beer event every weekend, and I would attend as many as possible to spread the word for the pub and get people introduced to Craft Beer in general. But they’re long, labor-intensive hours.

…that’s one of the beautiful things about brewing. It’s as complicated as you want it to be or it’s as simple as you want it to be. I’ve had great homebrew from extract formulas and I’ve talked to people who have Doctorates in Fermentation Science that make great beer…

I like to fall into a schedule where I can get weekends off. That’s not going to happen here just because we do tours on Saturday. So typical days off here would be Sunday, Monday”because those are your slower days and because Monday we’re closed here”so that makes sense.

How did you get started as a brewmaster?

I have a pretty unique story. I mean, most people homebrew and develop a love for it and decide to seek it out as a career and go to school for it. Mine is completely different than that. My father was a school teacher, and he started collecting beer cans in the ’70s when it was real popular¦And since he had summers off, we would actually camp at campgrounds as a family vacation, and tour breweries. And in each brewery, we went to get a couple of cans for his collection. And we were doing this since I was like four or five years old. Now this is the early to mid ’70s when there weren’t brew pubs or micro breweries, they were all very large industrial-size brewing facilities. And growing up in the Chicago area, there were really none in Chicago to speak of, so we would go to Stroh’s in Detroit and we’d go to Hamm’s in St. Paul. And we’d see Pabst and Schlitz and Miller in Milwaukee, and we would go to Lacrosse, Wisconsin where they had Old Style¦ And we would tour all these plants all around the Midwest pretty much. And it left a huge impression on me as a young boy, walking into these breweries and seeing these tanks that go up seven stories and the smell of beer on the ground and the cold rooms and the smell of the wort boiling with the hops. And I could remember being in a mid-sized brewery in O’Clare, Wisconsin. It was like a 50-barrel brew house, pretty small compared to some of the other large ones. And the brew master was giving the tour”and a big burly German guy with a big beer belly and wearing suspenders and stuff looks at his watch and he’s like, Oh, it’s time to add the hops. And he’s like, Hey, kid. Come here, and he points to me”and I was about seven years old at this time”and he says, Climb up this ladder and I’m going to hand you this bushel of hops and dump it in, but don’t fall in the kettle. And I remember climbing up the ladder and looking at this big tank boiling and squirting¦I dumped in the bushel of hops, and I remember being seven years old and thinking like, This is what I want to do when I grow up. And so, freshman year, I sit down with your guidance counselor in high school and he’s like, So what do you want to do with your life? kind of thing. I said, I really want to be a brewmaster, then he looks at me and he like throws his pen across the desk and folds his arms back, and he said I’ve been doing this for thirty-two years and I’ve never heard anything like that. I’ve heard, I want to be a bartender or I want to work as a beer distributor kind of thing, but I’ve never heard anybody say that. And he’s like, Well, let’s check it out. So he gets down on his primitive Apple computer at that time and lo and behold, there’s actually a school in Chicago that teaches how to make beer. And this the Seibel Institute of Technology and they’ve been teaching how to make beer since the 1870s. And for the longest time, you either went to Chicago, Illinois to learn how to make beer or you went to Munich, Germany where you better speak fluent German because they don’t have English translators. So I’m like, That’s great!. We looked further into it and the courses were quite expensive. At that time, it was about $10 or $12,000 dollars to go attend an eight-week course where you’re basically there nine to five and you’re just inundated with a plethora of information. So, in high school, I took a lot of math and chemistry and biology, and ended up going to community college where I furthered my chemistry and biology thinking that this is what I’m going to need. I ended up getting a job at UPS to kind of pay bills while in school, and save my money to go to beer school. And right before I turned 21, at my hometown of Burlingame, Illinois, a small brew pub opened up called the Wine Keller. And I’m like, This is unbelievable! There’s actually a brewery in my hometown. But I wasn’t 21 yet. So, as soon as I turned 21¦the owner had a free tour and tasting to promote his new company, and they’d been around for maybe a year at the most, and I went there with my family and my girlfriend at the time, and did the tour. And the brewmaster was a German guy named Udo, and during the tour, he had mentioned that his son Christopher was the assistant brewer, but he was attending college in August and he needed someone to fill his shoes. And I thought, No way! This is unbelievable! So after the tour, I pulled him aside, introduced myself. I said, I’ve always had a love for beer. I’ve wanted to be a brewmaster since I was a kid. I’m saving my money to go to beer school, and he’s like, Oh, that sounds great, he’s like, Why don’t you start tomorrow? And I mean, literally, I had been 21 for three or four days and I’m working in a commercial brewery now. So I was part-time assistant apprentice for six years. During those six years, there’s numerous brewmasters that came and went. As it turns out, this German named Udo was quite a stickler to work for, wasn’t very people-friendly. And I was still working at UPS at the time so I never did attend a beer school, but I learned hands on from numerous brewmasters, some who have gone on to open their own very prominent breweries themselves. So then it came down to a career choice in the mid ’90s of Am I going to drive a brown truck the rest of my life or am I going to make beer? Well, driving a brown truck, you’re a teamster, you get union, you get great benefits, you make great money, and then I’m thought, Well, then I’m dealing with, brown packages, wearing the same uniform every day, doing the same route every day, in Chicago weather and Chicago traffic, and thought, I want to make beer. So, I bounced around quite a few breweries in Chicago, the last one ended up canceling the brewing operations on me with four days’ notice. And I had an eight-month old daughter at the time, and my wife who worked for the same company, got let go as the party planner, so we were both without a job kind thinking, What are we going to do? So I got my resume together and the owners of this brewery actually contacted me through a person who had done some brewery work here. And then I did a phone interview, they sent my family down back in July to check the area out, see if you liked it. They made me a nice offer, and I accepted and sold my house, and I’m here now.


To read the rest of Aaron’s interview, visit his site here.


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