In the craft beer world, no job is more prized and sought-after than the position of head brewer.
But around Asheville, these positions have tended to turn over with some regularity. The most recent departures have been Brandon Audette, who moved from One World Brewing to 12 Bones Brewing, and Jeff “Puff” Irvin, who’s no longer with Black Mountain Brewing but remains the director of the Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast at A-B Tech.
None of today’s lead local brewers are in the same jobs they had when the Asheville brewing scene was born in in 1994 with the opening of Highland Brewing Co. John Lyda, longtime head brewer at Highland, is now with Irvin at the CBI. Doug Riley held that position at the long-gone Two Moons Brew-n-View pub, which became Asheville Brewing Co. He’s still with the establishment as a co-owner, but is no longer brewing.
The head brewer job differs at each brewery. Head brewers will often “mash in” and make the beer, while others have assistants who do much of the brewing. A head brewer will often create new small-batch beers and handle new orders of grains and hops.
Making the same beer exactly the same way, day after day, can be tedious, but Carl Melissas says there’s a creative challenge in always getting it right. The longest tenured head brewer in the Asheville area, he’s been with Wedge Brewing Co. since 2007 — even before it opened in 2008 — and previously worked for Green Man Brewery.
“There have been frustrating and times here and there where I briefly thought about [moving on],” Melissas says. “But I never really considered that seriously. I got lucky [at Wedge], but it’s been a lot of hard work.”
While Melissas has stayed put, he notes that nine assistant brewers have come and gone at Wedge during his employment.
Ben Pierson, however, has brewed at 16 or 17 breweries, including Green Man (twice) and the now-closed Lexington Avenue Brewery. He currently owns Swamp Rabbit Brewery in nearby Travelers Rest, S.C.
The reasons for brewers moving on are varied. “They don’t get along with the owners,” he says. “Or their spouse or family has to move for one reason or another. Or the owner think’s he’s paying too much and decides to get someone cheaper. Or someone offers you more money — that’s happened to me. I guess I’ve been lucky. Every brewery I’ve worked at, I’ve been allowed to run the brewery like it was my own.”
John Stuart was a steady force at Green Man for 12 years before moving to Nantahala Brewing Co. in Bryson City in February 2019. He feels that as more breweries have opened in Western North Carolina, more opportunities have emerged for brewers to wander from job to job without leaving the area.
“They move around for a lot of reasons,” he says. “Money, obviously. Who doesn’t want to move up? Or there could be situations where they don’t get along with certain people. Some brewers move because they want more creative control. Some move because they want less — it’s not as important to them to be in charge. Or you are in a situation where you need health [insurance].”
At Nantahala, Stuart is the director of brewing operations and currently its lone brewer. “It’s the slow season right now, and we are not doing a lot of brewing,” he says.
Stuart expects Nantahala to hire someone to do the brewing soon, a job for which, he notes, qualifications differ from brewery to brewery.
“Some places require someone being able to fix things that break and wear a whole bunch of hats,” he says. “At some of them, the brewer is also working on the packaging line [and/or] driving a forklift. At some very small places, he’s delivering beer [to accounts] or representing the brewery at festivals.”
Stuart says Nanathala will be looking for someone with solid brewing experience. “For us, an established brewery with a lot of brands, it would be difficult for us to say, ‘Come on aboard! We know you’ve never brewed before, but we’ll teach you.’ But I can work around someone who hasn’t had formal training.”
John Silver may have worked for more local breweries than anyone else in Western North Carolina. He’s been at Pisgah Brewing Co., Catawba Brewing Co., Hi-Wire Brewing, French Broad River Brewery, Oskar Blues Brewery and now has his own Homeplace Beer Co. in Burnsville.
“It’s a competitive game out there now,” he says. “There are a lot of talented brewers in a place like Asheville. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right fit.”
Irvin recently left Black Mountain Brewing after about 18 months. “My wife is having another baby in April, and I need to be around to help her,” he says.
In his opinion, brewers sometimes seek a job change to challenge themselves with a better position and better pay. “The challenge of it is making something over and over again and to make sure the beers taste the same every time,” says Irvin.
Audette worked at One World in various roles for about five years before accepting a position at 12 Bones in October. “It’s a definite change of pace,” he says. “It’s definitely more chill, and there’s more money. 12 Bones has allowed me to be more focused on making beer. It just felt like the right move for me.”