Good Beer Hunting

Fervent Few

Fervent Few — Raising The Bar

In recent months, GBH has reported on some pretty disheartening stories about how breweries treat their employees. This week, we’ve asked the Fervent Few to help create a better standard for working in the industry while sharing their stories of what it's like to work in a brewery. That idea broadened greatly as the group took hold of it, resulting in some spirited back and forth and some newly opened eyes.


Chase Brooks: “I would like to address this question with real information to create a baseline argument against the theory that this business cannot produce enough money to pay staff decent wages. Please do not interpret this information as self-promotion or a pat on my own back—we have room to do better here, too.

I am part owner of a small regional cider company that sells zero product at retail (we do not have a taproom or retail store), 100% of our product gets to consumer hands via distribution (at a 25-30% margin to our distribution partners). We use all the same packaging and cellar equipment as a comparably sized brewery. We utilize the same packaging formats and price points as most local breweries as well (16oz can 4 packs) that retail for $10.99-12.99. We do business in a high cost metro area (Boston). As such, our space costs us well above average per square foot. In the past, I have been privy to the cost of wort for many local breweries making hop-forward beers and selling them at higher margins than we do—that wort comes at a comparable cost to our raw cider off a tanker truck (within 20%), though it does not include cost of dry hop additions. Our “cost of fermentation space” is theoretically similar to any other local brewery—conical fermenters, brites, and glycol.

We pay our employees a minimum of $45K plus health if they are salaried, and $15-$18/hour relative to seniority and skill if they work hourly (packaging only). We strictly do not use volunteer labor and allow all of hour employees off-site work at our promotional events for an additional $20/hour.

It is not impossible to pay people living wages in this business. We are not a “hyped up” local brand and at no point in the last year have we sold out of inventory on any given product with a 3,500-barrel production YTD. It is possible to make this business benefit your employees.

I would like to add for clarity that we are sometimes capable of augmenting fermentation space with plastic fermenters and that we are capable of achieving less loss in production throughout than your average brewery. Simultaneously, I think the operation without retail does a pretty good job of equalizing our operating conditions and profit margins.”

Caldwell Bishop (replying to Chase Brooks): For better or worse, what you’re describing is pretty comparable to pay at nonprofits I or others I’ve known have worked at.

At least from my experience and others I’ve known, $15 or even $18 an hour isn’t a living wage in expensive cities like DC, Boston, SF, NYC. I think with current tax codes, that nets you around $1,100-$1,300 a month if you’re working 40 hours a week (calculations from ADP).  Even doing a house share situation is probably going to cost you $700+ a month. Add in food, insurance, and transportation, and you’ll be lucky to break even.

I’m definitely not trying to be critical of you specifically. But I think the notion by policy makers that $15/hour is an acceptable minimum wage in major metros is ridiculous. And so if an industry aspires to treat its employees well, they should really look at the cost of living where they operate and adjust wages based on that.

But that still brings me back to: how much money is there really in beer or brewing in general to pay people more? I assume prices would have to increase, but are there enough consumers willing to pay that to make it realistic?”

Chase Brooks (replying to Caldwell Bishop): “Very glad you pointed this out, it’s exactly where I was going with ‘we can do better here too.’ It’s true: our wages aren’t incredible. In more than a few cases, they simply don’t stand up to what some of our employees could make in other fields that I would argue they are qualified to work in. Sharing our compensation structure was to put it in perspective vs. the status quo in craft beer right now—largely in response to what I know to be average compensation at regional breweries around me and via Brewers Association surveys and writing from people like Bryan Roth. It’s not uncommon to see breweries offering people pay hovering around $30K for full-time work and around minimum wage for packaging, rates, which I think takes advantage of people. Even as someone paying 40-50% better than that on average, I know we’re still not exactly shining stars with regard to employment stats overall.”

Maia Kazaks: “I'd like to see fair pay for every worker regardless of industry. In many cities, minimum wage isn't a livable wage. In smaller towns, pay might be even lower, but employees have to travel farther for work or necessities and the money may not go too far. In the brewery, or as an optician, bus driver, hops field worker, senator's aide...if you work full time, you should be able to live a standard life off that without extra welfare. I'd like to hear if the folks working in the factory beer jobs (blue collar industrial beer jobs) are able to live off their income, as they are employed by a much larger company than the typical ‘craft brewery.’"

Richard Meletto: “There is always one part of this debate that I think is often ignored. For simplicity, let’s talk about the 25-30% margin Chase talks about. Most companies operate around that level as a base standard. But let’s not lose sight that 25-30% of $30 is much more dollars than 30% of $0.78. Just showing that at each stage of the business there’s different challenges.”

Andrew Novak: “I work in the industry as a salaried cellarman and live in Cleveland and can barely make rent between myself and two other roommates. I love every second of my job, but it's hard justifying the long days when I don't make overtime and it’s routine to stay at least an hour past your shift. I think everyone in the cellar, including myself, work a part time job in addition to our brewery job to make ends meet, which result in 16-hour work days between two work places on certain days.”

Wayne Pelletier: “The top of the wine and distilled spirit markets are priced way above high-end beer. I get that the crafts are not equal, but hops and barrel aging are expensive. Right now, beer customers are trying to have it both ways. We want $10 IPA six packs while bitching about industry wages. It’s a math problem. Revenue per can/bottle has to go up dramatically to offer better wages. Consumers should get comfortable with higher prices.”

Ben Huey: “Being a consumer it’s hard for me for to comment on non-customer facing staff. (Or, really, on any aspect regarding the business of running a brewery, for that matter.) All I can say in that regard is that I hope they’re paid so they can live comfortably for the area they live in. In regards to ‘front of the house’ staff, for me, it’s pretty apparent to see how employees are being treated at an establishment by seeing how they interact with customers. If employees aren’t being valued and/or compensated appropriately, their disposition is likely going to reflect that. I do not think it’s incumbent upon breweries to disclose their compensation structures to their customers.

I tipped when I went [to Trillium] because their staff was always very hospitable and I wanted to see their business succeed. So in my mind Trillium created a positive work environment that lead to positive experiences as a customer. Experiences that I’m willing to pay a premium for not only because of the quality of the beer, but because it feels like I’m contributing to something that is beneficial to my community. I think that’s what we should all hope for when it comes to craft beer. That and free beer for employees.”

Matt Paonessa: “I often make the joke to people that one of these days I'm going to get sick of it, that the romance of being a craft brewer will wear off (hell, it's already starting to), and I'm just going to try to get a union job up in Merrimack. It's not to say I'm not content with my salary for my position and tenure, but it is very physically demanding work with long hours, often mediocre benefits, and an added level of precarity. It can seem pretty miserable if you take a step back and remove all of the perceived glamour, especially considering I know that a lot of people in the industry make very little money for 60-hour weeks.”

Rick Owens: “As a relentless consumer and general fan of the brewing/wine/food industry. I enjoy what the artisanal/craft industry produces and the efforts and lengths it goes to to deliver an authentic, quality product that has a sincere intention and purpose. I love that about the beer, wine, and food. I love when boundaries are pushed and refined and the focus results in the highest quality product or service.

With that said, I don’t know the first thing about the day-to-day work that people in these industries are subject to. I used to have this unrealistic dream that working in a restaurant, brewing beer, or working at a winery would be this romantic, while hardworking, therapeutic occupation. I had this outlook because it was a way of living out a passion. A dream. As the idealism of this dream fades and realism sets in, I have somewhat grasped the idea that these are demanding jobs in which work output often does not equate to the salary paid. To quote the owner of Donna Changs in Athens, GA when I talked about my dream of opening a natural wine bar in Atlanta, he said: ‘You see me now at 10:30pm opening and tasting different wines with you, the customer. What you don’t see is me having a panic attack three hours ago because four people called out tonight and that I haven’t been home since 8am this morning. I also won’t be home until around 1-2am. Don’t do it.” That summarized my ignorance of the work required in these industries.

Furthermore, I have always had the sentiment that employees who feel invested in by their employers feel empowered and deliver better work. I have a friend who owns a company that is an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan), and after learning about his business and reading about New Belgium, I feel that this could be an avenue for owners to pursue and ultimately involve their employees from a compensation standpoint. I realize that this may be difficult given that a lot of start-up breweries are backed by private investment, which would make it a tough sell, but I’d be interested to see which breweries this would be a viable option for.”

James Hernandez: “Employees need to look out for themselves as well. We can’t blame it all on the breweries—no one is making them work there. Sometimes I feel like people will take a job at a brewery just to say ‘I work at this spot’ because it’s cool. I want to go to a spot with good beer, a cool staff, and atmosphere. I don’t want to save the world, I want to have a few beers and visit with people. People bitch about the particular brewery I’m at right now because they’re not haze craze, Pastry Stout brewers. The beers are good, the people are nice, and there’s good music on. The workers seem happy, and I’m good with that. If I find out they’re working for next to nothing and one of them complains, I’ll ask about it then or tip more.”

Do you work in the industry? Do you have thoughts about the state of beer workers’ rights? Join the Fervent Few so we can talk about that and anything else that’s on your mind.

Hosted by Jim Plachy