Somewhere in the hearts and minds of craft beer geeks lay their version of the ‘American Dream’ and I want to postulate it goes a little something like this:
Beer geek tries craft beer and it is love at first sight. They begin to try all kinds of craft beer until they hone in on their style. Beer geek gains knowledge on all things craft beer becoming a de facto expert. Friends, families and strangers are amazed and impressed by their wisdom. Beer Geek learns to home brew thinking they can improve upon their favourite beer by adding one more hop. They turn their kitchen/garage/attic into a makeshift brewery alarming neighbours who believe a meth lab is moving in next door. Despite this, beer geek makes beer and it is good. Said beer is taken out to allow others to experience the wonder of their creation. Beer Geek is discovered by a benevolent (and independently wealthy) benefactor devoted to the craft and together a brewery is launched. Success follows quickly. They spend their days dreaming up new and exciting beer flavours while Molson and Labatt drive up truckloads of money to buy out the brand. Beer geek is awash in the endless cycle of fame, fortune and bottomless beer whilst pursuing that ultra-glamorous lifestyle of a craft brewer.
Okay, okay perhaps this is just my guilty disillusionment so what is it really like being a brewer?
Behind the Scenes at Big Ridge
To find out more I caught up with Tariq Khan, brewer for Big Ridge Brewing Company in Surrey, British Columbia, to get some insider information on the brewed realities.
Big Ridge Brewing Co. has been operating for 12years and Tariq has been brewing there for five. Big Ridge is a production brewery brewing beer for consumption on site. They opened at their original location in 1999 and moved across the road to their present location in 2010. Big Ridge also has an adjunct liquor store, located on the same block, that carries a pretty impressive selection of craft beer. The brewery is owned by the Mark James Group, which also operates Yaletown Brewing Co., Brewhouse in Whistler and Flying Beaver in Richmond.
Like many of us, Tariq started out as a home brewer before receiving training at the Brewlab, a centre for beer excellence, situated in the United Kingdom. Here, Tariq tells me, he gained hands on experience in a very small class, and upon graduation he literally had the keys to a brewery thrust into his hands. Sink or swim is apparently an effective teaching tool for both brewers and swimmers. As a brewer at Dark Star he gained familiarity with many classic UK beer styles. Tariq also spent some time in Montreal, Quebec not as a brewer per se, but as one of us regular folk soaking up the incredible craft beer community situated in la belle province.
I asked his opinion on the necessity of formal training for brewers and he pragmatically noted, in our local beer scene there is a healthy mix of schooled brewers and experienced (self-taught) brewers. When considering an investment in a brewing degree, the cost of the program and the potential salary at the end are realities that should be considered. Brewers at a production brewery like Big Ridge can make a living but you should probably temper dreams of a summer home in France. The being said there is a wide variant of earning potential depending on the size and scale of the brewery, if you own your own facility and the popularity of your beer, of course.
When I went to visit I found Tariq in the small-ish brewing room at the back of the pub. It is solitary work, minus the window onto the bar area, so you are pretty much alone with your thoughts and your equipment. A couple of days a week are devoted to the act of brewing and the rest of your time is spent cleaning, transferring and general maintenance/monitoring. I always tended to equate beer, and by extension brewing, as a social activity but aside from the occasional brewery tour or annoying beer geek you are on your own with the business at hand. Luckily, Tariq mentioned there is a real camaraderie amongst the BC brewers who support one another’s efforts to grow the craft beer scene so you are never really alone.
We went over the various pieces of equipment and ingredients used so I could get a rough idea of how things function on a brewing day. For my fellow home brewers, just think of everything on a bigger scale with lots more toys to ensure things are working. Tariq ‘claims’ he has never lost a batch in his entire brewing career but that may be what they tell the groupies (just kidding).
Quality control, interestingly enough, is Tariq himself so knowing your beer styles and your off-flavours is a critical part of being a good brewer. This saddened me a bit since I had imagined a Willy Wonka-esque contraption where you insert a drop of beer and a printout emerges telling you if its’ good or bad.
I was also curious to know how much leeway the brewer has on deciding what beer will make it to the bar. Tariq notes, in a production brewery like Big Ridge, lager is the fastest moving brew so brewing the lager on a regular basis affords him the opportunity to try his hand at styles he personally enjoys like his cask conditioned IPA.
While I was visiting, Big Ridge had their lager, IPA, hefeweizen, porter and the casked IPA available – bonus for me was the chance to sample while I toured. Big Ridge also produces seasonal beers, which afford Tariq a chance to exercise his skills. Tariq also regularly send kegs down to the Alibi Room.
We chatted a bit about the ethical obligations of brewers to create beer that is suited to the brewery and its’ clientele and surroundings. For instance, I was curious if Tariq felt comfortable producing a high-alcohol beer in a suburban brewpub that is not on a major transit route. I think we both agreed that these realities temper how far someone is willing to experiment. Big Ridge also implemented a complimentary shuttle bus to address this issue.
Overall, I have to say Tariq gave me the impression he is very happy with his chosen profession and has no regrets about the path he has taken to get there.
A Vegan Aside
I would like to take a moment out here to reveal one of my ulterior motives for visiting Tariq …he is a vegan like me (I thought he was a Trekkie too with his ‘Wrath of Khan’ beer but turns out that name was not his idea -I forgive him though). As a vegan there are some ugly issues we have to contend with as beer drinkers namely what is being used to clarify the beer we’re drinking. I was very excited to learn Tariq brought his vegan ways into Big Ridge where he brews with something called Biofine instead of the traditional gelatin products or isinglass.
For those of you who may not know, isinglass is a substance obtained from the swim bladders of fish and used as a means to clarify the beer and wine. Isinglass is widely used in Britain and Canada but in the United States, particularly here on the West Coast, there is a growing awareness of alternative products largely due to consumer pressure to limit the use of unsustainable animal products. I really want to draw some attention to this since I hope other brewers and beer drinkers in British Columbia will take the time to ask more about the production of their favourite craft beer.
For a while now I have been toying with the idea of enrolling in a college course on brewery operations so I was grateful for the chance to chat with Tariq about the day-to-day realities of being a craft brewer. There are still many aspects of the work I find appealing but at the same time I think I garnered a better understanding of the nature and limitations of the work. I strongly encourage anyone considering beer as a career to spend some time with those in the field and benefit from their wisdom.
Tariq, thank-you so much for being so very generous with your time and knowledge (and thanks for the beer!).