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Monday, September 05, 2016

Cheers to the Hard-Working Brewers on Labor Day

Post Updated. Brewers add their comments below.

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.)

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.


Update. On the Beervana Facebook page, brewers have been weighing in with their comments and experiences, and two particularly caught my eye. First up, from Ben Edmunds at Breakside:
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, The Commons' Sean Burke:
Ben, I have been thinking of this exact subject quite a bit lately and you have really hit the nail on the head. 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 apart 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. Though 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.
These are serious issues. Historically, workers in the physical trades have unionized, and brewers for big companies like Miller and Anheuser-Busch have enjoyed good salaries and benefits. Craft brewing has lagged on this front, often because small breweries survive on shoestring budgets. As breweries get bigger and bigger, though, thinking small does not advantage brewery workers. Although I know it would be unpopular, I'd love to see brewery workers begin to unionize in at least the larger craft breweries. 

In any case, an important topic to keep our eyes on.


  1. Have to be anonymous, because I'm in the industry and don't want to get it trouble with the boss. I work on the accounting/finance side at a small craft brewery.

    >Brewing is having its moment as a high-status job, but the work itself is blue-collar, lift-and-sweat labor.

    This is absolutely true. Unfortunately, because the job has status, it gives employers leverage to exploit their staff.

    I'll also add that the numbers for wages ring true.

    >It's increasingly common for breweries to expect brewers to have specialized degrees to get these jobs, which make the salaries even less competitive.

    This is incredibly frustrating to see. The nature of blue-collar work is that a college degree **isn't** necessary. You don't need a Bachelor's in Fermentation science to work in the cellar. You don't need a biology degree to be a head brewer, you need a lot of on-the-job training and experience. The degree helps, but the idea that all, or even most of your brew staff should be college graduates is poison for the industry. That $30-$40k a year goes a lot further when you don't have student loans to pay off.

    >People in the marketing department make as much or more;

    Salespeople can make a lot more, but sales is one of the few cases where you can see if they're worth it or not. Marketing as a separate, stand-alone position really only exists in larger companies.

    There's also a ratio issue. A mid-sized brewery will have one marketing person and three sales people, but twenty brewery staff or more. Paying the lone marketer $5k/year more costs $5k. Paying every brewer $2k/year more costs $40k.

    >the accountant makes substantially more.

    Not necessarily, especially not if you factor in overtime pay. Accountants are usually salaried while brewers are usually hourly, and frequently work overtime. And again, there's a numbers issue. A company might employ one accountant, or maybe two bookkeepers for every ten to twenty brewers.

    Of course, all of this gets a lot better starting December 1st, because the salary threshold for exempt workers goes to $47k/year, so anyone who is a "manager" is either earning that much, or getting paid over-time.

    >Only half of workers have medical benefits (48%).

    The ACA (Obamacare) is helping that number a lot. The floor for employer-required coverage dropped from 100 to 50, which covers a lot more microbreweries than it used to.

    And yes, there are exploitative practices in the industry, from unpaid overtime to requiring employees to provide their own safety gear to promotional events without proper compensation.

    The problem is that the worst offenses happen at the smallest companies. Unionizing will help with wage pressures and benefits, but breweries with less than 50 employees will still be potential problem areas for exploitation.

  2. Anon, thanks. I'll only add one thing. As a freelancer who's also on Obamacare, I can say two things: 1) yes, it's great that the exchanges are set up and keeping costs somewhat lower than they were previously, 2) they're still REALLY expensive. If you're making $30k and you have to buy your own insurance, you're getting the cheapo kind that costs quite a bit but still doesn't cover much.

  3. Actually, the parts of Obamacare I was talking about weren't the exchanges.

    Specifically, the ACA does two things:

    It sets a minimum size for companies to provide health insurance. In 2014, if a company had more than 100 employees, it legally had to offer a company-sponsored* health insurance plan. In 2015, that threshold dropped to 50 employees. So a lot of craft breweries are now **legally required** to offer insurance to employees that work 30 hours a week or more, companies that didn't used to have that requirement and didn't offer insurance.

    The ACA also said that any company sponsored plan had to have employers paying at least 50% of the premiums. So that $500/month Kaiser plan would be split $250 to the employer, and $250 to the employee.

    Those premiums for employer-sponsored plans are also tax-deductible for both the employee and the employer. If you're making $30k a year, you're in a 20% tax bracket (roughly) so the $250/month you paid pre-tax only takes $200 out of your net pay per month. (or around $100 a check, depending on how often you're paid) So the comparison here is a $200/month exchange plan versus a $500/month employer-sponsored plan. That's not insignificant.

    But (and this is important) companies with less than 50 employees are exempt from the mandate, which cuts out a lot of up-and-coming breweries. Which is why I look at those small breweries as possible sources of exploitation.

    And of course $30k as a self-employed person is a very different thing than $30k as an employee because of taxes.

  4. Ah, excellent. Please keep weighing in to add these nuggets of wisdom.

  5. What's the difference between head brewer and brew master? In the UK head brewer is the highest brewing job.