Cheers to Hard-Working Brewers on Labor Day

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This post originally appeared a year ago, and has been updated slightly.

Labor issues are the Achilles heel of the craft beer movement. We need to become an industry that provides our brewers with career-satisfying wages, or craft beer businesses won’t be sustainable.
— Ben Edmunds, Breakside Brewing

I often comment that there's a lot of money in beer, and there is ... for some owners. The folks who actually work in the breweries--not so much. Brewing is having its moment as a high-status job, but the work itself is blue-collar, lift-and-sweat labor. Even at small breweries, where new-recipe creation happens each week (the glamorous part), for the people who must put water to malt and make those beers, the days are long and hard. What can brewers expect to make?

According to PayScale and the American Brewers Guild, this is what you're looking at:

  • Assistant brewer. The range runs about $30-$40,000 for most breweries. If you happen to score a job brewing at a big company that makes more that 60,000 barrels, it might go as high as $60,000. Brewpub salaries might be even lower. Only half of workers have medical benefits (48%).
  • Head brewer. The range runs from $35,000-47,000, and again only about half (52%) of head brewers get medical benefits.
  • Brewmaster. Unsurprisingly, this is the most well-compensated, with a range from around $40,000 to around $76,000. Big breweries may pay much more ($100,000+, but these are very rare, highly-placed positions). Amazingly, only two-thirds of brewmasters receive medical benefits.

These are not terrible salaries, but neither are they going to line a person's garage with Teslas. It's increasingly common for breweries to expect brewers to have specialized degrees to get these jobs, which make the salaries even less competitive. (People in the marketing department make as much or more; the accountant makes substantially more.)

Commenting on this issue, Breakside's Ben Edmunds fingers this as one of the most important issues in brewing.

Labor issues are the Achilles heel of the craft beer movement. We need to become an industry that provides our brewers with career-satisfying wages, or craft beer businesses won't be sustainable. Right now, it's not the case and the results are clear. Aging brewers (45+) have 5 options: get lucky and land a top dog/brewmaster job, open their own place, work somewhere "big," move to the supply or sales side of the industry, or get out altogether. Or option 6, be poor.

Next, Sean Burke, formerly of The Commons, who is probably fly-fishing a remote Oregon stream right now.

At what point does the passion lose out to just being fairly compensated for the amount of hard work put in? I say this quite literately as I sit with a heating pad on my back because I refuse to not be a part of "the process," therefore not willing/wanting to sit at a desk all day long, everyday, but I know this won't last forever. The sad thing is that I am relatively new to the industry. I have worked doing physical labor most of my life--hence the back pain. I know so many brewers and industry related folks that have left what I would consider decent jobs for this industry and I struggle to see the sustainability of low- to medium-wages combined with hard work and what that means for the future of the individuals who are helping to drive this continuously changing industry.

All of which is to say that, on this Labor Day raise your pint to the hard-working men and women who deliver you those delicious pints and bottles of beer. They're working very hard, not getting rich, and they're doing an absolutely bang-up job.