Into the Brew: An Interview with Sam Tierney

If you read this blog, odds are good that you like beer.  You probably like to drink it and maybe you like to make it.  Have you ever thought about what it would be like to go to brewing school, break into the industry, and brew beer professionally?  I have.  Well, wonder no more…

I recently discovered the Into the Brew blog written by Sam Tierney.  Sam is a recent graduate of the Siebel Institute of Technology and he just landed a job at Firestone Walker.  In Into the Brew, Sam documents his journey to becoming a professional brewer.  It’s a fascinating read—and his story is unfolding in real time!  In addition to his blog, he writes for West Coaster (a San Diego beer publication).

I was intrigued by Sam’s blog, so I contacted him to learn more about his experiences.  It lead to this interview:

Tell me a little about yourself.  

Sam Tierney:  Well, I’m 24 years old and grew up in Santa Cruz, California. Was big into playing music, both classical and jazz vocal music in school and playing guitar, singing, and writing music for my rock band, Paradise Grey. I was also an avid surfer (we actually have high school surf teams in Santa Cruz), played soccer, volleyball, and ran track and field.

I had my first beer drinking session when I was a junior in high school, puked my guts out, and didn’t touch beer again until I went to college at UC Santa Barbara. I studied political science with an emphasis in international relations and became interested in beer while I was studying abroad in Sweden during my Junior year. I was only there for four months but managed trips to Oktoberfest in Munich, Amsterdam, Prague, Stockholm, and Berlin—all places with rich brewing history and culture. I came back to California as a certified beer geek and started homebrewing soon after that, trying every beer I could get my hands on.

How did you decide to pursue a career in the craft beer industry?

ST:  During my senior year, I studied for a quarter in Washington DC in a last-ditch effort to see if I wanted to spend the rest of my life working in politics.  I was pretty beer-obsessed by this time.  I met a guy at a beer tasting who was the assistant brewer at a local brewpub and he invited me to check out the brewery. After seeing the inner workings of a commercial brewery, I started to think seriously of pursuing brewing as a profession.  When I got back to Santa Barbara for my last quarter, I interned at Telegraph Brewing Co. and found that I enjoyed the small-brewery environment.

You recently graduated from the Siebel Institute of Technology.  Can you tell me about Siebel’s program?

Bottle conditioning room at Orval in Belgium
ST:  When considering the best approach to getting a job in the industry, several people recommended going to brewing school. I’ve always been academically-minded and going to school for something that I was already so passionate about was an easy choice. The UC Davis Extension Master Brewers Program was the obvious choice because it’s only a few hours drive from Santa Cruz. I took a year off and worked full-time in fire and natural resource management to save money.  It turned out that Davis was absolutely slammed with applicants and I was going to have to wait two years to get in. I had casually looked into Siebel because it was all the way in Chicago, but I found out that I could get into the fall 2010 class.  Plus, the Siebel program included studying in Germany.

They have several programs, but I ended up doing the World Brewing Academy International Diploma Course, which is a 12-week course taught jointly between Siebel and Doemens Academy in Germany, which is a brewing school in the suburbs of Munich. The Chicago part is all lectures by various instructors who are experts in their respective fields, along with a few field trips to breweries and Briess Malt.  In Germany, you get more lectures on practical brewery operations, get to brew on their system, and learn how to do lab work with microscopes and other testing equipment. Then you get on a bus with one of the professors and take a road trip around Europe and visit a bunch of breweries and producers of ingredients and equipment.

“Beer School” sounds like a lot of fun.   Was the program what you expected it to be?

ST:  It was more difficult than I expected. Seven hours of lecture a day, five days a week really wore me out by the time we left Chicago. I’m not really sure that I expected anything more than to be taught what is important in commercial brewing, which I didn’t really know very well before then. We spent a lot of time on subjects like packaging line design and bottle-washing, which were things I had never considered. I’m sure I learned about a lot of things that I may never need to know on the job, but it’s good to be familiar with every process in the brewery, regardless of whether you actually work with it or not.

What were your favorite and least favorite aspects of brewing school?

Sam (2nd from left) at the Stone Total Tap Takeover Tour in Chicago
ST:  Favorites had to be getting the answers to all the questions that had been burning me up since I had started homebrewing, and our ten-day bus trip around Europe at the end of the program. We made two stops a day, hitting places like Weyermann, La Trappe, Uerige, Kölner VerbundYoungs, Rodenbach, and Orval. Munich in general was amazing—we had very good practical instruction at Doemens in their lab and pilot brewery, and drinking in famous beer halls like Hofbrauhaus, Augustiner Braustuben, and Scheider Weisses Brauhaus was icing on the cake. We also got to make a weekend trip to the monastery brewery of Andechs, which was an amazing experience. Also, the friends that I made at school, who now work at awesome breweries like Allagash, Flying Dog, Tallgrass, New Amsterdam, Barley Brothers, Clipper City, or are starting their own breweries right now

Least favorite was a blizzard across Western Europe during the last half of our trip that caused us to miss visiting Meantime, Abbey Des Rocs, and a night at the beer bars in Brussels. Also, hostel life for three weeks in Munich got pretty rough by the end.

Did you homebrew before going to school?  Do you have any words of wisdom for novice brewers who want to go to the next level?

ST:  That’s a tough one. I wrote a whole article on the important fundamentals of homebrewing for the June issue of West Coaster, which you can read on their site. I would say it’s important to brew all-grain, make appropriate yeast starters, control your fermentation temperatures, and above all else, be clean and sanitary. Read as many brewing books as you can get your hands on, listen to The Brewing Network podcasts, and join your local homebrew club to learn from other brewers. The info is out there for the taking if you want it. Oh, and drink lots of good commercial beer. I think a lot of homebrewers are held back because they don’t really understand what the classic examples of some styles really taste like. How do you know if you are brewing a good saison if you’ve never had Dupont, or an altbier is you’ve never had Uerige?

After school, did you have any challenges breaking into the industry?

ST:  I learned that no one is going to hand you a job at a brewery just because you went to school. You have to fight just to get an interview. I replied to job ads, but never heard back from most. The interviews I got were mostly due to face-to-face connections. Small breweries seem to put a lot of stock in personal chemistry. It’s challenging trying to get a job through emails and phone calls, but if you can walk in and show them you have passion, intelligence, and a positive attitude, that’s your ticket. The job I ended up taking really just took a few follow-up calls and some face time to show them that I fit in with the crew. It just takes a lot of determination.  I put myself in an even more difficult position because I was picky about where I wanted to move and what kind of brewery I wanted to work for.  If I had been open to moving anywhere, or working for a brewery that made beer that I didn’t love, I think I would have had a job a couple months sooner.

Tell me about your job at Firestone Walker.  What does your typical day look like?

ST:  I’ve been working in the cellar at Firestone Walker for just over a month now. I’ve mostly just been training with one of the experienced cellermen, but I’m finally doing more things on my own as of late. A typical day involves cleaning and sanitizing tanks, carbonating beers, transferring or filtering beers, harvesting or dumping yeast from tanks, dry hopping tanks (we do a lot of dry hopping at Firestone Walker) and lots of general cleaning. Learning how to use the CIP (clean in place) system was a nightmare at first, but I finally feel good on it. I would like to make wort at some point, but the cellar is really this dynamic thing that is always interesting. Like this coming week we’re filling 80 barrels of Bravo, our imperial brown ale, into freshly drained Heaven Hill bourbon barrels. Those are always fun days.

What are your favorite and least beer styles… drink??  To brew??

ST:  Favorites: pilsners, viennas, dark lagers, lambics and geuze, American sour ales, IPAs and all manners of pale ales in general from session to barley wine strength, porters and sometimes stouts, saisons, enkels, dubbels, tripels, Belgian blonds and goldens, Belgian dark strongs, rauchbier, Orval and other brett beers. You’ve probably guessed by now that I like most beers.

My least favorite styles are probably overly spiced beers, overly sweet big beers, overly malty IPAs, and bland mass-produced lagers. I think I’ve found a beer in every style that I like, so I would just say that some styles have more examples that I don’t like. I’ll still happily drink a Modelo or Sapporo, but I just don’t care for most light lagers. Every style has room for an amazing beer.  If you are a great brewer, I’ll drink anything you make, for the most part.

I love reading Into The Brew. Why did you start the blog and what are your plans for it?
ST:  Right now my plan is just to get caught up with my recent experiences! I’m still a few months behind right now. My girlfriend just talked me into doing it one day. I’ve always been into writing and I figured it couldn’t hurt to keep friends and family in the loop about what I was doing and hopefully catch the eyes of some people who could either help me on my journey, or who I could help by sharing my experiences. I’ve never been very stringent about putting posts out regularly and I’ve used the blog as a testing ground for a lot of concepts that have helped me write for West Coaster, which now takes up most of the time I can spend on writing. The blog is still good for my more personal stuff though, so I think it will stick around as an outlet for that.

What are your beer aspirations?  

ST:  I want to become the best brewer that I can be and hopefully help Firestone continue to  produce world-class beer through the massive expansions that are planned over the next year. I have nothing but respect for what they do and every day is an amazing learning experience. A few years down the line, I would like to look into pub brewing or heading up a small brewery where I can design recipes and pursue my interest in sour beer brewing.

At the same time, I want to continue to write and help West Coaster mature into the premier beer publication in Southern California. Right now we’re blowing up in San Diego, but it’s going to take continued evolution and expansion to keep things going strong. We just expanded from 12 to 16 pages this month, which is our “homebrew issue” for the National Homebrewers Conference, which is in San Diego this year. We printed 9,000 issues, which is our largest run yet. San Diego is undergoing this crazy blossoming of good beer and beer culture right now. When I do head a brewery, that’s most likely where it’s going to be.

A huge thanks to Sam for taking the time to share his experiences!  I learned a lot and wish him the best of luck!  I will be following his journey on Into the Brew and look forward to someday tasting one of his professional creations—hopefully a sour!!

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