This past summer, I spent almost six weeks interning at a microbrewery about an hour east of Brussels called Brasserie de Marsinne. Here in the land of beer, I learned how to brew and perfect a Belgian amber ale called Leopold 7.
I spent my weekdays absorbing as much knowledge as I could about brewing, and took advantage of my weekends exploring Belgium and nearby countries.
During my many hours brewing Leopold 7, conducting quality tests, cleaning tanks, experimenting with new beer recipes and learning French, I came away with some valuable experiences that forever changed the way I view the beer industry, both in America and abroad. Here's what went down.
1. No, I didn't drink beer all day
A common misconception about brewers is that you brew and drink beer all day long. While special occasions and quality assurance do call for drinking, most days I went home without having any Leopold 7.
We brewed, on average, three days per week. The rest of the week I spent cleaning, bottling, filling kegs, conducting tank transfers and experimenting with new beer recipes.
2. Things always go wrong
That's just the nature of working in any food production facility. The first week I was there, we were having some issues with the boiler that heats up the brewing system. The following week, the power went out during the mash (when the grains are heated with water to extract fermentable sugars). On my last day, one of my fellow brewers put in the wrong hops at the beginning of the boil (oops).
The sign of a good brewer is recognizing when things go wrong and responding appropriately. For example, when the power unexpectedly went off in the middle of the mash, we had to assess how stable the beer was based on the current stage of the mash. Then, we needed to decide how long the mash could last in the kettle at that temperature before we compromised the integrity of the beer.
3. Brewing systems are extremely intricate
Apart from technical/mechanical errors, there's also a huge potential for human error. Brewing systems, regardless of their size and automation, are all quite complex. There are so many types of systems that are all at different levels of automation (some can operate from your couch at home via your iPhone, while others you've gotta manually open every single valve).
However, the level of automation does not exempt the brewer from understanding, at the most basic level, how your system works (so you know how to fix it when things go wrong).
The system I used in Belgium employed a temperature-programmed mash, but you still had to manually open all the valves to transfer your mash, wort or beer from tank to tank. There was a total of over 20 valves. And yeah, you use them all. I spent half my time scared sh*tless that I'd open the wrong valve and something like cleaning solution would mingle in with my beer.
4. Belgians have two-way bottles
I was very surprised to learn that Belgian breweries, from Duvel to Brasserie de Marsinne, all reuse their bottles. That means that when they are recycled, they are returned to the breweries for cleaning, sterilization and refilling.
The larger breweries, such as Duvel and Brouwerij Huyghe have adopted state-of-the-art technologies that inspect each bottle coming out of their cleaning systems with cameras and lights that detect any residual dirt and/or bottle imperfections.
However, at Brasserie de Marsinne, all of this inspection occurs by human eye. Now, there are some pretty gnarly things that people leave in their bottles and lots of little creatures that love to dwell in empties. Bottling days were never complete without the smell of moist cigarette butts and the image of fly eggs engrained in your memory.
5. There's a reason why men dominate the brewing industry
But that doesn't mean women can't brew. Muscle and height are valuable physical traits when in a brewhouse. In Europe, the typical weight of base ingredients, i.e. malt and sugar, is 25 kilograms (55 pounds). Each brew of Leopold 7 required 20, 55-pound bags of malt that you had to dump into the mill one after another.
The solution: lifting weights. Can you say "squats for days"? After filtration and after you remove the spent grains, you have to take out the filtration plates for cleaning purposes. They're awkwardly big, made of stainless steel and you have to reach in a manhole that was well above my shoulder level.
The solution: a stool.
I interned alongside another female brewer. And you bet your a** she did everything the men did, despite her small stature. She's a damn good brewer who never shied away from a physically demanding task. So yeah, it's no surprise that the brewing industry today is predominately male, but women are definitely making their mark.
6. Days are long, but super rewarding
Working an 8-hour day on brewing days is simply out of the question at a small production brewery. Realistically, if everything goes according to plan, then maybe you'll get out by 5 pm or 6 pm (I arrived at 8 am everyday). But I think that only happened once during my six weeks.
Bottling days were, by far, the most physically demanding. I hand-packed 9,000 bottles into crates of 24, and then loaded those crates onto pallets. I came to fully appreciate beer after bottling days when I got back to my apartment and cracked open a cold J Belgian ale.
Overall, my time in Belgium working in the brewery and immersing myself in Belgian culture reignited my passion for the brewing industry. When I committed to the brewing major at UC Davis two years ago, I had no clue what it took to produce a quality beer.
If you ever get a chance to tour a brewery, do it. I guarantee it'll change the way you view beer and enhance your drinking experience. And, heck, you'll even make some lifelong friendships along the way. Cheers!