Brewer Survey: In Their Words
Today concludes my three-part series on brewer compensation. There were two open-ended questions on the survey and I received an incredibly rich set of responses (over three hundred in all). Below they are broken down and sorted by theme and together give much emotion and texture to the drier numerical findings. Importantly, the comments help interpret the raw numbers. There are a lot of ways a brewery can express support and appreciation for its workers—or contempt. Digging into these comments, I began to see categories of interest emerge, and in this post I will unpack those. They’re especially illuminating because respondents commented on each of these from both the positive and negative perspective, and what emerges are portraits of different kinds of workplaces. If you’re wondering what a good working environment looks like, or how to create one, these comments should be most helpful.
I want to thank all of you who spent the time to make these comments. I couldn’t use them all, but even if your comment doesn’t appear here, it helped inform this post.
In the findings post, I mentioned that the results were more positive than negative, and while there were some bad actors out there, in general breweries seem to be trying to do right by their workers. The comments also mapped to that sense. I had many answers that were just informational, but of those that expressed a point of view, 53 were negative and 65 were positive. Plenty of negative stuff out there, but a bit more positive.
Across the board, brewers expect to work hard. That alone isn’t a factor in a good or bad environment. What matters is whether the brewery offers its workers respect, has created a caring or hostile environment, offers a career path, supports families, and of course, offers wages and benefits commensurate with the brewery’s size and ability to do so.
Here are three examples of when the breweries did that right.
“I had moved 8+ times in 5 years with military and brewery gigs and the owner wanted to make me comfortable and happy that I'd stay in [town], if I chose to, for the rest of my life. He has fulfilled every part of that commitment since I began working for him 10 months ago. He is my boss, but already a dear friend. I can't foresee ever leaving his employment.”
“You have a job, full time, until you decide to leave. Time off and sick leave aren't tracked too heavily unless it seems someone is taking advantage of them. In slow seasons management finds hours for all employees so there is no seasonal drift in employment. Promotion from within is the norm, management will work to progress you on whatever career path you want within the brewery. I've gone from picking cans to running the pilot system and development of all new recipes in 3 years.”
“Was taken care of very fairly during build out. Healthcare in the works for two-man brewery team and taproom manager. Staff all make a livable wage (10/hrly at the lowest for bar staff). Very fortunate position that allows me almost full creative control and no plans for overly fast growth. Long hours, self imposed for starting quality's sake. Plans for tuition compensation for staff, plans for employee ownership. Full flexibility to set my own schedule. Every production need I've had has been met, even when funds got exceptionally tight before opening. Beer quality was a primary focus from day one by ownership.”
The context for brewery work is that it’s an exciting industry and people want to work in it. That means owners can expect to extract more engagement out of their staff than if they were making toilet paper or canning peaches. People will work for less or accept fewer benefits to get a start in the industry. And, given that most breweries are new and small (4,000 breweries have opened in the past five years), many owners ask their workers to do so on the expectation they’ll be able to take care of them later. Here’s an eloquent description of the dynamic:
“Lots of change and growing pains, requiring lots of hours during a work-week and extra hours on 'days off.' Personally speaking, when my salary is broken down into a per-hour pay rate it sometimes doesn't come near meeting current minimum wage standards. I could take a step down into a cellaring position elsewhere at 35-40 hours a week for more pay than I currently earn, but feel that for a lot of leads / heads this is probably considered par for the proverbial course. Being paid commensurately for time, effort, heartache, and bodyaches assisting in our company's growth would be a plus. I work where I am because I love the people, the product, and the people who invested their own time into bringing their product and dreams to fruition.”
This is a delicate balance and one ripe for abuse. Based on the comments I received, brewer patience is wearing thin, and companies are going to have to start expressing their appreciation in more tangible ways or capable brewers will walk. Here’s a poignant example:
“I have two bachelors degrees, Business and Fermentation Science. I made a bet on this industry a long time ago, and went all-in, believing it would be rewarding socially, spiritually, psychologically, physically, intellectually and financially—but in no particular order. Now that I'm many years in, I've come to realize my intangible satisfaction with my career choice does not necessarily comport with an ability to do normal 'adult' things, like buy a house, or raise a kid or retire some day (especially in high cost cities, where craft beer thrives).
“It seems the labor surrounding 'craft beer' is predicated on an endless supply of apprentice level individuals willing to work for (literally) minimum wage, just to get their foot in the door. This, of course, puts downward pressure on wages at all levels, with no incentive to change the dynamic so long as the business model is successful—a classic scenario. While many brewers are happy to mentor those new to the profession, it's sobering when you realize you are teaching yourself out of a job (or at least a raise). The complexities surrounding a balance between growing our industry and self-preservation for the brewer tend to come more sharply into focus the farther away just getting a median wage becomes. The older I get, the more appealing an 80K salary at ABInBev becomes. If that happens, it begs the question—just who sold out whom?”
Striking the Balance
Balancing worker overwork and stress, pay and benefits, and supportive work environment is something every brewery has to manage. It’s a fast-paced industry, but there’s a fine line between “exciting” and “exhausting.” Every brewery has different resources, and even for those without much cash, it’s possible to create a supportive work environment. Others just grind up their workers.
Positive: “Very minimal benefits (by true definition) but ownership/management are extremely caring and willing to help the staff with days off, financial issues, overall satisfaction, etc.”
Positive: “While my brewery doesn't offer a ton of standard benefits, the owner is great to work for. He's flexible and willing to work with people- short term cash loan, days off (he doesn't keep track of time off for salaried employees), free beer for special events beyond our normal allowance, outings and other employee morale/fun days.”
Negative: “Comaraderie is unfortunately low. High turnover on packaging line. Brewery runs 24/7.”
Negative: “Our time and efforts are taken for granted tremendously. I personally have worked the last 24 days straight...no one has noticed.”
Good situations don’t happen by chance. Owners and managers need to have plans to address the challenges of the workplace. In the absence of this attention, it just becomes chaos.
Positive: “Our larger corporate organization has been working with [the] Great Places To Work [organization] for a few years now to drive positive change in our work environments. It is an ongoing process, but it is nice to see the long-term commitment to improvements that are not just about efficiency and cost-savings.”
Negative: “Seems like we're never going to get to a place where we're not in crisis mode. I need a break. Would love for Labor Day, 4th of July, Memorial Day...etc to be things I get excited about again instead of just another day at work. I'd really love to have access to a 401k too, not sure how much longer I'm going to stick with the industry because of things like this. Don't think I'll ever be able to retire doing this."
Loyalty Goes Both Ways
With so many breweries out there, workers move around a lot. They talk to each other and look at the slate of compensation offered—wages, benefits, perks, workplace environment—and make decisions about whether to stick around. Breweries that show a commitment to their workers through decent pay, benefits, and a positive workplace are rewarded with loyalty. On the other hand, when workers feel screwed by their employer, they start looking elsewhere. In some cases, they treat the crappy entry-level jobs as paid internships and get out as soon as they have the experience to get to a better job. Companies always want commitments from their workers, but they need to demonstrate they also have loyalty to them.
How do you demonstrate a commitment to your workers? Here are some examples:
“They want good employees around and want to take care of you. They have given me three raises in just over a year. I also get a yearly bonus, and I have been given the option to take some ownership on.”
“Very good work life balance and overtime is limited. A true meritocracy, where hard working and talented people can rise up quickly. A company that listens and really tries to improve.”
“My bosses have always been accommodating and I've enjoyed my time working here. There's no animosity when people leave for outside opportunities. They offer training for things like Cicerone as well as opportunities to brew on the pilot systems and have your beer on tap at the various tasting rooms. It's definitely not the worst job I've ever had and it's the longest I've stuck around one place.”
On the other hand, breweries can just as easily signal they don’t care about their workers.
“I feel like my salary is more tied to industry averages than it is to actual cost of living in my area. I am not able to live alone or prepare for retirement in my position and pay. For the amount of work I do and time I sacrifice for this business, I should be compensated more than I am. I’m also in a glass ceiling environment, where I’m not able to get a promotion until my head brewer moves on.”
“The work environment is tough. Only 2.5 brewers. We grind hard but don't get any incentive. Meanwhile the totally unqualified 21-year-old distribution manager gets paid more than me. There is a lot of ‘not my job’ mentality. Also, there are a lot of meetings, too bad they don't include even one brewer. Very dysfunctional. That is why my last day is 2 weeks from now. Going to work at new start up brewery and about 12 months away from opening my own. In a way, I'm glad they treated me so shitty, otherwise, I would never have gotten so fed up and made a plan to grind hard for myself and my community.”
“I appreciate that [competing brewery] rotates their production brewing shifts to combat the attrition that permanent seniority brings to the work environment, and I wish that my brewery did the same to give the 0-5 year brewers better work life balance. Also, giving production brewers more creative outlets to submit recipes is something that my brewery used to do, but the corporate structure has somewhat stifled the free flowing of ideas to a large extent due to financial austerity.”
“Worst job I've ever had, all for the glory of being in THE BEER INDUSTRY. My boss was a ‘I don't take days off or vacations so why should anyone else.’ All for $9 an hour.”
Brewers decide to work long, hot hours because they want to get into the industry—that is, they want a career. They are willing to tolerate bad conditions and low pay early in their career if they see an opportunity to move up. Some breweries just churn through brewers, apparently to keep payroll expenses low. The last comment below illustrates one downside to this approach. If you’re churning through brewers, you’re acting as a paid trainer—and losing all the talent you’ve spent money training.
“[My brewery] in Seattle does a great job of rotating guys through positions so nobody feels like they're stuck with the crappy jobs forever. It's nice to feel like everybody around you understands what you do and how hard you're working.”
“I'm in brewing management, no longer a shift brewer, so I went from the bottom rung up via hard work and recognition. I'm no longer slinging hoses, but I remember what it's like. We have a brewing team of 37 all told, and we try to be very competitive with wages, internal promotions, and opportunities to create recipes, which most brewers are interested in, not just cleaning tanks and looking at a brewhouse computer screen.”
“As long as I am here I know I will never get a single paid day off, livable wage, sick day, 401k or any kind of health benefit and that is insane to me but I enjoy working in the industry and I am learning fast. I just want to learn as much as I can, as fast as I can, so I can move on to a place that actually takes its employees lives seriously.”
Not surprisingly, a lot of people wanted to talk about what they were paid. This surfaced a number of interesting issues. One of the most important was the question of whether a brewer was salaried or not, and how overtime pay was handled. There is no single best approach here from the brewers perspectives, though in either case the hourly or salary structure can be used to the brewer’s benefit or the breweries, a fact many highlighted.
In some cases brewers wanted to be paid hourly and pick up overtime, and they were happy for the extra hours.
“I work on an hourly scale, which is great since I accumulate a lot of overtime pay.”
“We recently switched from salaried production staff to hourly. People had been working an insane amount of hours and this has helped them be more appropriately compensated.”
“Rotating schedule, graveyard shifts with +15% pay differential.”
On the other hand, an hourly wage can be a way of keeping costs down—to the detriment of the worker.
“Currently I am hourly but don't always get 40 hours per week, so while it’s great for the few times overtime is needed I'm not usually making the equivalent of a 40 hour work week as often I only get 36-38 hours per week.”
“My current employer works on a fluctuated work week, where we make a fixed base pay at 40 hours, and half time (0.5) every hour after that. In order to meet our promised salary, we must work 45 hours a week.”
On the other, other hand, paying people a salary can be a different way of cost-savings for a brewery and one that simply looks like a way to drive down labor costs while wringing a lot of extra hours out of brewers.
“I am a salaried assistant brewer in a small brew pub with only one other brewer. I consistently work 50 to 60 hours each week, usually 7 days straight. Over the last 3 years since I became salaried, I have worked, on average, 250 hours of unpaid overtime.”
“Paid salary but should be hourly. No overtime.”
“Hostile work environment, regular 60+hour weeks without overtime.”
Production schedules are not always stable, nor are annual production totals. There are, however, better and worse ways to handle these issues. In some breweries, that risk and chaos is placed on the brewers’ shoulders, while in others the brewery tries to absorb some of the shock.
Positive: “I'm filling this out as a sole owner who augments his salary with distributions that vary depending on how profitable the brewery is. This creates a wide range of annual compensation as profits go up or down considerably year to year, even as the brewery maintains a steady production level. The other two full time brewers I work with are paid in the 45 - 50K range. The brewery is right around 1000 bbls.”
Negative: “Schedule is endlessly in flux. Most days I have to wake up at 6 to get to work at 730, but once a month at least I get a text at 7 pm or later saying “tomorrow I want you at in at 9.” Or occasionally [they don’t need me] at all, meaning no pay for that day.”
Here are two more comments I’ll add without an introduction; I think they speak for themselves.
“My employer supplements production workers' salaries with a share of beer garden tips. The extra cash is nice, but it feels like robbing the lowest-paid employees to pay the next-lowest. It sucks watching the guys upstairs buying new cars while you feel like you're picking your coworkers’ pocket to make rent. Understaffing in general is a big problem. It's hard to feel well-compensated, whatever you're paid, if you're always scrambling to catch up and don't have the labor to get there.”
“Salary does not match with work environment. Work environment is the hardest brewery I've worked for with the least amount of pay. There is little choice, however, because they could always hire a cheaper homebrewer. It is hard to have solidarity with your coworkers when they are scared of being replaced themselves.”
People were offered an opportunity to list other benefits not mentioned in the survey. Free beer is an extremely common perk, and free meals and merch are somewhat common. Boots and clothing are provided sporadically. Below is a bullet list of unusual items mentioned—illustrating that many times thinking outside the box can provide workers something substantial without costing a brewery an arm an a leg.
(Oh, and one editorial comment from me. A few people mentioned low-fills as a perk. This is not a perk—low fills are waste. It’s fine to let people take them home, but please, breweries, don’t kid yourself that this is a substitute for an actual financial commitment on your part. Free beer is a nice perk, of course, but don’t overly inflate its value; a case of beer every month doesn’t make up for the lack of health care.)
Paying for Cicerone exam
Travel fees and registration paid to brewers conferences
Social get-togethers paid for by the brewery
Gym memberships (multiple mentions)
Discounted beer for specified friends and family
Bonuses for service of one and five years
Free bike to cycle commuters
Respondents catalogued a wide variety of bad practices not already mentioned. These run the gamut, and the cause seems to range from owner cluelessness to actively devaluing labor.
Hazardous work environment (several mentions of this).
“Sales and keg delivery in my own vehicle with no repayment for miles or bonuses for new accounts.”
“Owners fight constantly in front of employees and patrons.”
“It is a below ground brewery so it is hot as balls down there.”
“Owner refuses to turn on heat or air conditioning until patrons complain or glycol fails.”
“I deal with constant stress from the owner who is never happy despite the business being insanely successful. Work related stress has caused severe depression and anxiety.”
“Been with the company since the beginning and was always told healthcare is ‘something we are working on’ but at this point no one believes it.”
“I spend 30-34 hours in the brewery each week and the remaining hours up to 40 bartending in our tasting room. I make way more money bartending. Without that shift I would definitely fall below the $25k salary mark.”
“The 401k is a JOKE. They contribute a minuscule amount depending on if we hit goals.”
I received a number of very thoughtful, insightful comments that I was coding as “informational.” They’re not critiques so much as statements that explain the current state of brewing and how it impacts employees. There is a pervasive sense among brewers that they are told they’re the beating heart of the brewery, and yet they are treated like menial workers and paid less than their counterparts in marketing and sales. One of the big takeaways from all these comments is that there’s a class issue at play, and the guys who show up in Carhartts are routinely treated differently than folks who come to work in business casual.
“This is a brewery I, as someone who has been in the industry, took on in hopes to help foster an employment positive culture. Time and effort need to be more respected and the, ‘You're lucky to work in brewing for next-to-nothing’ attitude needs to go. Skilled brewers are not common, and the work required to produce high quality beer is extensive. Breweries need to understand that part of the rapid growth phase ending is the movement of skilled employees out of the industry. This means that there will be fewer and fewer people willing to take underpaid, underinsured, and underappreciated jobs in the industry.
“A huge part of this problem actually stems from these surveys. It seems as though owners in low cost-of-living areas are really good at justifying low wages with their local cost of living whereas people in high cost of living areas are routinely met with, ‘This is industry standard!’ This survey should absolutely account for cost of living for the areas reported because the bottom of the pack is not getting dragged up toward average compensation in low cost of living areas but the high cost of living areas are still trying to pay average rates. Brewery owners routinely cherry-pick statistics from these surveys that serve them and not the employee. Just as a heads up from someone who has utilized these statics to justify higher wages and been meet with some interesting responses.”
[The cost-of-living point was one I heard quite a bit. I completely agree with this commenter. If you are in a big city, expect your workers to have costs 50% higher than those in small towns. If you’re located in a place like Seattle, San Francisco, or New York, those costs will be 100% more. Just to keep up, a brewer should be making 1.5 to twice as much in cities.]
“My brewery has always done a good job of stating they want to keep their employees’ happiness as a priority, using the philosophy that if we are paid well, we will stay longer. That said, having been here almost 5 years, and worked my way up from event staff to Lead Brewer, I have also interviewed in many other breweries/cideries in the past few months. While the ownership here talks about wanting to be competitive and offer higher pay than the average brewery, I have found that I am pretty well right in the middle of payscale on average. I don’t think I’m treated poorly at all, I’m just not convinced I’m paid as well as I could be, seeing as I am paid considerably less than the sales team. I’ve been told as the only full time employee that can run the brewery on a day to day basis without help, I am a highly valued employee, and they have a hard time operating when I am out as I have been the last week and a half. I’m hoping they’ll continue to see that and continue to want to move me up the payscale.”
“I work for a large brewery with automation and have decent benefits, but I also have to deal with many layers of bureaucracy not only telling me what to brew but interfering with my success at times. A successful brewing culture cannot be imposed as an HR initiative, it starts at the ground level, with the people who do the hard work of scrubbing manways and turning valves instead of 'working from home' on snow days or cutting out early on Friday afternoons to drink beer in the pub while the peons toil away in the back of the building. I wear out a pair of boots every six months or so, not because I walk a lot, but because I care about sanitation, initial beer quality and carrying the burden of absent or aloof managers if necessary. I am tired of the argument that an accountant, lawyer or production analyst is more important than a brewer and should be paid more. If the side of the building said "(brewery name) Accounting" I would understand, but the business is built on the work and reputation of brewers, so I am tired of brewers being treated as simply laborers in a factory rather than the heart and soul of the business.”
The Good Breweries
I asked respondents to identify any breweries, their own or another, that they knew had great employment practices. Below is a the list I received. Keep in mind that the absence of a brewery on this list may mean nothing more than no one who filled it out had worked there. The presence of a name is an affirmative signal, though. If a brewery was mentioned more than once, the number of times is listed in parentheses. An asterisk indicates a brewery owned by another brewery. Finally, there’s at least one Canadian brewery in there because I grabbed the names of all the breweries mentioned before I dumped the Canadian respondents—I figured the shout-out would be appreciated.
Austin Beerworks (2)
Fair State Cooperative (2)
Jester King (2)
New Glarus (2)
Notch Brewing (2)
Southern Star (2)
Collusion Tap Works
Hop & Grain
Red Lodge Ales
Tampa Bay Brewing