Good Beer Hunting

Will Work for Beer, Pt. 4 — Balancing Budgets and Dreams


The GoFundMe page went live on Dec. 13, 2017. It was headlined like so many others, simple and short: “Slüder Family Asks For Help.” There was hope to fundraise $1,437, the exact amount to cover a month's worth of rent, utility, and insurance bills for the family of five.

"We do not want to ask for much, but our main concern is, and always will be, keeping our 3 boys safe and healthy,” the page read in its request to visitors.

Barron Slüder had supported his family for years on hourly wages, sometimes close to Georgia’s state minimum, where they had lived since mid-2014. His last job, unexpectedly ending due to transfer of ownership and closure of the business, was going to be the end to that, he says. He was on pace to earn $47,500 a year, above national averages, before plans came apart.

“I love my family and I’m really passionate about making sure my kids are comfortable and have a good life,” says Slüder, who turns 26 in June. “At the same time, I love brewing. It’s my passion and I want to do that for the rest of my life. I want to get somewhere I can be stable. I don’t want to give up on this.”

In late winter and into spring, Slüder was reaching out to industry contacts to try to find a chance to brew. In the past four years, he's worked at seven different breweries, ranging in tenure from four to 11 months. He knows that doesn’t look good on a résumé, but each jump was in order to move up. In that time, he went from a cellarman at Alpharetta, Georgia's Jekyll Brewing to brewmaster for Decatur, Georgia's Oak Brewpub, the latter closing in November 2017. He stayed on until March 2018, helping a transition for new ownership, but is now doing odd jobs until he finds permanent brew work. He acts as the sole earner in his household so his wife, Hanna, can care for their three kids, Culver (5), Bracken (4), and Miika (1).

It’s been an inconsistent career so far, and he tried a five-month break in 2015 with a crawl space service company around Atlanta, but that didn’t stick. “I realized I couldn’t stand doing anything but brewing,” he says. “I can’t see myself in any other industry.”

It’s a difficult situation to be in, compounded by a wage scale that can offer a decent-enough living for a single person, but a decidedly less-than-ideal one for taking care of a partner and children. According to survey results of its members, the Brewers Association reports that an average annual salary for an assistant brewer at a business making less than 1,000 barrels a year (which is the majority of US brewers) is $27,615 (under 500 BBLs) and $31,157 (501-1,000 BBLs). Both those salaries jump an average of about $10,000 for head brewers.

According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, Slüder needs to make about $58,000 a year to meet Georgia’s living wage estimate for his size family. He’s essentially spent his career at or slightly above poverty-level income. Slüder said his wife has always been supportive of his efforts, but other family members aren’t as positive.

“It hurts when I have people in the industry telling me that I could be one of the best brewers in Georgia,” Slüder says. “I became a brewmaster at 23. My family knows these things, but I still hear that I might not be able to make it.”

Slüder’s professional experience may be varied, but it’s nothing to ignore, and time is on his side, too. Whether the physical demands of working in a production space or in a taproom, beer can fundamentally be a young person’s profession. And for those starting out right after school, pay lower than the national average may not matter as much, either.

“I definitely lived with roommates a lot longer than I might have otherwise,” Ben Edmunds says with a laugh. After starting his career with Portland, Oregon’s Upright Brewing, he joined Breakside Brewing in 2008 as a 28-year-old and has been there since. “In 2013, I took a trip to London where I really bootstrapped it. It was the first time I’d taken a nice, paid vacation out of the country that I paid for myself.”

For Slüder, budgeting around a brewing salary was about basic necessities. Thanks to a lack of debt, Edmunds saved what he could along the way, even if it took him six years of working in beer before being able to afford that UK vacation.

Jacquie King, head brewer at Ogden, Utah’s Roosters Brewing Co., literally gave her time for free as a way to get her foot in the door. She spent 10 years homebrewing, yearning to get into the industry, then quit a manager job at an auto body shop to volunteer with Roosters’ production side and work in the taproom at night for pay. She did that for almost a year before going full-time as a brewer. She started at $13 an hour, got bumped to monthly salary four months later, and now earns $40,000 a year entrenched in a business she loves.

“It’s not a cutthroat industry,” she says, “but a lot of people want in.”

King knows that her path of volunteering is not one everyone can follow due to opportunity or financial risk, but increasingly she hears about it as being a typical way to start. People don’t get into beer to make money, she says. “You get into it because you love the industry and you love the people.” Still, now that she’s making more, she’s been able to save for a fall trip to Iceland. She hopes to spend two weeks seeing the country, something that wouldn’t have been as easy to do before.

And on top of her own experience, she recently was part of a new-hire process. Roosters is set to expand production with a new 30-barrel facility, and brought on one new brewer last month. The company didn’t advertise the position, instead relying on word of mouth, and got around 25 applications, four of which were strongly considered.

“That kind of news spreads like wildfire in this industry,” she says.

It emphasizes a key lesson King learned during her brewing beginnings. It's a lasting impression, for better or worse, for so many going pro in beer: “do whatever you can.”

With the way breweries are opening (about two a day) and workers are willing to get involved (about 10,000 jobs a year), King’s advice sounds more like a credo. It’s less suggestion than simple reality. The growth of businesses and jobs are amazing, yet the number of people trying to fill positions remains so high the impact has created an entry-level turnstile. Collegiate programs, homebrewing, and flat-out desire now provide a deep roster of people who, indeed, are willing to do whatever they can to take a love for beer from hobby to lifestyle.

This job creation is pivotal, offering an influx of new talent and ideas. From a purely economic standpoint, it’s also a benefit for the industry and country. And it’s craft beer creating the change, led by decades of savvy entrepreneurs and stories. What it’s all amounted to continues to evolve. Given a general acceptance of a more progressive outlook, there may be an expectation for future employment opportunities to offer better pay and increased benefits, but belief systems and capitalism don’t always mesh perfectly.

Perhaps for now, the situation is just like any other attempt at achieving the American Dream. Work hard, be patient, and hopefully reach your goal. As he continues to apply for jobs with hope of finding one that can fulfill his professional needs, Barron Slüder also hopes to find work that puts enough money in his bank account to cover his family. Since March, he’s applied to about 30 different brewing jobs.

“I want to prove people wrong,” he says. “I want to make sure I’m doing what I love to do. I want to find stability and make a living. I want to make a name for myself and a brewery.”

—Bryan Roth

Will Work for Beer, Pt. 1 — The Dollars and Sense of the Industry
Will Work for Beer, Pt. 2 — It's a New Job and Somebody's Gotta Do It
Will Work for Beer, Pt. 3 — More Than Just Pay
Will Work for Beer, Pt. 4 — Balancing Budgets and Dreams