Believe it or not, drinking and writing about beer is not my full-time gig. But beer still finds me, even in my day job at a global automation technology vendor. (It doesn’t hurt that it’s a German company.)
One of our top engineers, Matt, is also an avid homebrewer. As a resident beer buff, I often get to try his test batches and offer feedback. One day we discussed how many brewers start out in engineering, listing several examples. The conversation was brief, but the idea lingered.
Engineers, of course, are details people. But there must be more to it, right? And do many folks involved in beer making actually come from engineering? I tracked down some Minnesota brewers with engineering backgrounds to find out.
How many engineers are in brewing?
A non-exhaustive list of Minnesota breweries with engineering professionals includes August Schell Brewing Co., BlackStack Brewing, Lost Sanity Brewing, Tin Whiskers Brewing Co., Uncommon Loon Brewing Co., Urban Growler Brewing Co. and Utepils Brewing Co. This excludes folks from broader STEM fields and those who received brewing engineering degrees but don’t identify as engineers.
The list highlights people like Deb Loch, master brewer at Urban Growler in St. Paul. She put in 20 years as a biomedical engineer and product manager, then received a degree in brewing and went to work at Northern Brewer, the homebrew supply store.
She noticed engineers made up a good share of customers and often focused on gear more than others. That made sense to Loch.
“When I transitioned to brewing, I never transitioned out of engineering,” she said, adding she’s an analytical, problem solver by nature.
“It wasn’t like I stopped doing any of those things. I just applied it to a different situation.”
Why do engineers make good brewers?
Two key themes were process and measurement. These are critical for recipe development, reliable production and fixing issues with ingredients or equipment, said Schell’s brewmaster Dave Berg, a former aerospace engineer.
“In the brewhouse, we measure temperatures, volumes, pH, specific gravity, to name a few. In fermentation, we measure temperature, pH drop, specific gravity drop, the time it takes to reach attenuation,” he said. “Knowing what your targets are and what to do for something out of specification is critical for consistency.”
Brad Klatt, co-owner and head brewer at Uncommon Loon in Chisago City, sees the craft’s multidisciplinary nature as another key reason. “Brewing contains a number of mechanical, chemical, electrical, controls/automation and microbiology sciences,” said Klatt, who retired after 36 years in engineering to open the brewery.
Collecting data at each step and using that to enhance the brew is also critical, said Jeff Moriarty, founder and president of Tin Whiskers. The downtown St. Paul brewery also draws on Moriarty’s electrical engineering career in its branding, with a pint-wielding robot mascot and beers titled Short Circuit Stout, Reverse Breakdown Maibock and the Bot IPA series.
“Brewing beer is also very science-based,” Moriarty said. “I like to think of it as engineering, but with beer instead of electronics.”
How to enjoy beer like an engineer
Are there any lessons non-engineers can apply when tasting beer or homebrewing? Pretty much all of the engineers-turned-brewers responded something like: Sure, but why?
Jordan Nordby, lead brewer at Utepils in Minneapolis, emphasized her chemical engineering knowledge wasn’t her most important tool. “It is having the mindset to know that things can always be improved and being able to see those opportunities when they present themselves,” she said.
Still, Nordby suggested homebrewers add a light lager or blonde ale to their rotation. These seem simple but don’t hide mistakes well. Stick to the recipe, don’t dump in extra hops, taste carefully and make intentional changes, she said.
“Do you want to know how different yeasts change the flavor of beer? Split your wort in half and ferment each half with a different yeast,” she said. “There are a lot of ways to experiment with recipes. But it is important to make sure you have the basics down first before going crazy with styles.”
The engineers’ main advice was to calibrate your palate. Don’t limit yourself to specific styles. Try to describe what you’re tasting. And always remember to enjoy each new drink and brewery — don’t turn it into a science fair.
As Klatt put it, brewing is highly technical, but beer itself remains more ethereal.
“While engineering is an important skill set, equally important is appreciating the art and beauty in crafting beer,” he said. “I’m continually in awe of the miracle that combining four simple ingredients – grain, hops, yeast and water – can produce such a magical beverage.”
James Figy is a writer and beer enthusiast based in St. Paul. In Mankato, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University and a World Beer Cruise captain’s jacket from Pub 500.
Update: Tin Whiskers unfortunately closed in May 2022.