Carolina Beer Guy: Experience, education key in landing local brewery jobs

HOPS QUEEN: Highland Brewing Co. brewer Katie Smith had prior brewing experience that helped her get hired for her current position. But local industry representatives say other skill sets, including manufacturing experience, translate well to the brewery setting.
HOPS QUEEN: Highland Brewing Co. brewer Katie Smith had prior brewing experience that helped her get hired for her current position. But local industry representatives say other skill sets, including manufacturing experience, translate well to the brewery setting. Photo courtesy of Highland Brewing Co.

Want a job working at a local brewery? While there are many more employment opportunities in the Asheville-area beer scene than when local craft brewing began in the mid-1990s, getting hired can be challenging. A solid education, previous experience and a willingness to work hard can open doors. Also important are realistic expectations and accepting that immediately landing one’s dream job is unlikely.

When Highland Brewing Co. turned on its equipment in 1994 in a cramped basement space under Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria on Biltmore Avenue, there were just three employees. And one of them was founder Oscar Wong, who didn’t mind delivering kegs or handling other lower-level positions.

Today, Highland has about 50 full-time employees, says company President Leah Wong Ashburn. And around the region, an estimated 2,000 men and women are working in the local brewing industry, according to Kendra Penland, executive director of the Asheville Brewers Alliance, the nonprofit trade group representing local breweries and beer-related businesses. More than 70 breweries, both large and small, have opened in Western North Carolina, a number that continues to grow each year.

The days of simply walking in the door and asking for work are generally long gone, brewery owners and brewers agree, though some sort of background is extremely helpful. “Sometimes, it doesn’t have to be brewery experience,” Ashburn says. “It really depends on the position you are interested in.”

She notes one entry-level position is in packaging. “We are generally looking for folks who have experience in manufacturing — it doesn’t have to be at a brewery,” she says. Highland posts employment positions on its website. Applications are filled out online, and interviews are then scheduled. Entry-level employees start at $10 an hour.

“We do phone call interviews as a first step, and then you would meet with a group of people [at Highland],” Ashburn says. “I would also recommend going to the brewery. You should come by and see how the brewery feels. The size of the company is going to be a different fit for different people. It is really about that fit and the culture that you find.”

Current vacancies at Highland include sales positions and retail account manager. One job that is not open is head brewer. Highland has left that position vacant since the departure of Hollie Stephenson, who took a job in August as U.S. head brewer for Guinness in Maryland. Ashburn says a team of current Highland employees continues to handle Stephenson’s duties.

When applying for a brewing industry job, Penland recommends that potential employees give serious thought to why they want to be in this field. “It is hard work and it is fulfilling work,” she says. “You are creating a special product and being part of an amazing culture. But it is not easy work. It’s long hours. You are lugging stuff around. It’s not just a glamour thing.”

She continues, “You need to get to know breweries that feel comfortable to you. That is the best way to know about opportunities. Not everyone will get to be a brewer. There are a lot of important jobs, everything from cleaning and maintenance to packaging and the retail side.” But even with many possible positions available, Penland stresses the importance of education. “I’m not saying it’s impossible to get work without it, but I think it’s really difficult,” she says.

Programs like the Craft Beverage Institute at A-B Tech have pumped many highly trained brewery employees into the market. “There is a very good workforce out there,” says Mike Rangel, president of Asheville Brewing Co. “We can seek a more experienced person.” Still, he echoes Penland’s advice that potential hires should know what awaits them at a brewery.

“Ninety percent of it is cleaning and sanitizing and resanitizing,” Rangel says, but he notes that the financial rewards can be high for a skilled brewer. “If you come on as a full-time brewer for us, you can start at $40,000,” he says. By contrast, entry-level jobs at Asheville Brewing pay $12-$15 an hour but may also lead to brewing jobs. Between its two locations, Rangel’s company employs 160 men and women, including servers. “We have people who are exceptional in any position,” he says. “We try to accommodate them. Some of our brewers have come from [being] delivery drivers.”

Similar success stories have occurred at Wedge Brewing Co., where founder Tim Schaller has seen employees go from washing kegs to brewing. “You learn along the way,” he says, pointing out that he regularly reaches out to A-B Tech for hires. “These are still entry-level jobs. You will be washing kegs, but these are people who have shown enough interest to complete two years of school.”

Asheville’s biggest brewery, New Belgium Brewing Co., currently has a crew of 131. While spokesman Michael Craft says no openings are available at the moment, he recommends checking the company’s website for job listings. Oskar Blues Brewery in Brevard has 70 on staff, says spokesman Aaron Baker. “It is a little more common to find someone who has worked at a few breweries before applying at Oskar Blues,” he says. “The most important thing in hiring is enthusiasm and a willingness to ask good questions and take ownership.”

Even the smaller local breweries maintain staff. Archetype Brewing in West Asheville has eight employees, most of whom work in the tasting room. The business posts most job openings on Craigslist, says owner Brad Cassanova. “We recently had a posting and had a great response and wound up with lot of qualified candidates,” he says. For the more technical jobs, he advertises on probrewer.com, an online beer industry resource.

To work in the tasting room, some sort of bar experience is essential. “At least in pouring and serving,” says Casanova. “Showing up on time and being professional is not something that we want to teach.” Archetype offers its hires first-level cicerone training to enable them to get to know craft beer styles. With effort, an Archetype employee can move from the tasting room into beer production, he says.

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About Tony Kiss
Tony Kiss covers brewing news for the Xpress. He has been reporting on the Carolina beer scene since 1994. He's also covered distilling and cider making and spent 30 years reporting on area entertainment. Follow me @BeerguyTK

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