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Amber Highways: Brewers Hit the Road in Search of Knowledge and New Opportunities
The sweat slowly drips from Ilan Klages-Mundt’s brow as he exits the 93-degree wooden room. It is 3 a.m. and he’s working his shift tending to the koji rice at the Kiuchi Brewery in Ibaraki, Japan. He might be the only native English speaker in the city.
“Beer made me a lifelong learner,” says Klages-Mundt, who had already worked a full 12-hour day before reporting for his second night shift at the brewery. He is eagerly anticipating the walk across the street to his temporary home, where he hopes to get a couple hours of sleep before waking up and starting all over again. Despite the now standard 100-hour workweeks, Klages-Mundt couldn’t be happier.
A few years earlier, he had been pursuing a degree in music education at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., before a trip to Denmark and a chance encounter with a widely coveted beer, Westvleteren 12, changed everything. That led him to apply for the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which pays for graduating seniors to engage in independent study abroad. The grant didn’t pan out for Klages-Mundt, even though he made the list of finalists. After sulking for all of an hour, he determined that he was destined to take this trip and study brewing on his own.
Biking for Beer
In July 2010, Klages-Mundt caught a flight to London with $3,400 to his name, and embarked on a one-year trip that saw him working at a hop farm in West Kent, the historic Fuller’s Brewery in London, the aforementioned sake and beer facility in Japan, and two different breweries in Denmark, before spending his final months abroad biking around Belgium visiting popular beer establishments.
“Every region of the world has brewed beer at some point, but they all do it differently,” says Klages-Mundt, referring to the generations of knowledge he gained overseas. “I thought I knew what English beer was, I had brewed English beer, but then I got there and realized that I really did not know what English beer was supposed to be.”
It was John Keeling, the brewmaster at Fuller’s, whom he credits with the most valuable advice he received on the trip: “Keep it simple. Seriously, that’s it. … You can muddle a recipe very quickly by adding too many ingredients to it.” Years later, this philosophy has been key to the development of Klages-Mundt’s own brewery.
Klages-Mundt isn’t alone in his desire to broaden his understanding through travel. In this era of information that’s just a click away, it’s easy to ignore the value of knowledge acquired firsthand. But there’s no replacing the experience of speaking directly with a craftsperson while watching him or her put years of training and experience to work.
Taking time off to travel and exchange ideas with peers allows brewers to escape the comfort zone of their local brewing scene, an environment that might breed complacency. Countless possibilities await those willing to expand their worldview for the sake of professional development, whether it’s a state or a continent away.
The Road Brewer
When Teri Fahrendorf decided to step down from her 17-year role as brewmaster at Steelhead Brewing Co. in Oregon, she immediately found herself in the midst of an identity crisis. After years of being known as a brewermaster, she now had no title. So she gave herself a new title: Road Brewer. The next step, Fahrendorf realized, was to get outside of her “brewpub fishbowl.”
“Since I only met up with my wide-flung beer peers and friends at conferences and festivals, I had a fantasy to visit each of them, put on my boots, and brew side-by-side with them. I knew there was nothing quite like tasting beers at the place where they are brewed,” she says.
So, in April 2007, Fahrendorf hit the road on a coast-to-coast trip, towing a travel trailer behind her trusty Chevy Astro and stopping to help out at brewhouses on her path. Knowing she would often be the first woman brewer her hosts had met, Fahrendorf embraced the role by replacing her standard black rubber boots with a pink pair to better represent her gender. Little did she know that her stylish work wear would take her life in a new direction.
“With a trip like this, things are born and you have no control over it,” Fahrendorf says, reminiscing about the journey’s impact on her life. While she learned the ins and outs of different brewhouses including stints at Deschutes (Bend, Ore.), Bell’s (Kalamazoo, Mich.) and Brooklyn Brewery, she was also meeting other women brewers, many of whom assumed they were alone in a male-dominated industry.
In response, Fahrendorf put together a list of all the women brewers she had met, posted it online, and dubbed it the Pink Boots Society. Before long, she was getting inquiries from not only women brewers, but also women beer writers and bartenders.
Two Brewers Abroad
It was early 2013 and Steve Brockman and Steph Cope were enjoying their work making beer at a brewpub and a larger brewery in Australia, but wanted to be part of a bigger brewing world and felt restricted in their own country. Like many restless Australians, they decided to satisfy their beer curiosity by leaving their jobs and traveling. Rather than play it safe, they chose the most experimental beer scene they could think of: “the States.”
The mental image of the great American road trip led to securing working holiday visas and two plane tickets to Los Angeles, with a plan to improvise work in three different brewing cities—San Diego, Portland, Ore., and Denver.
Hailing from a country where taking time off to travel is simply part of the national mindset, the “Two Brewers Abroad,” as they called themselves, didn’t need much in the way of justification. In fact, they regularly dumbfounded curious Americans when Brockman calmly explained the simplicity of their plan: “You just quit your job, you buy a van, and you live in it.”
Within a month, they had found their home on wheels: a 1999 Dodge Ram conversion van. They dubbed it Jean-Claude Van Damme, later renaming it Jean-Claude Damn Van after constant mechanical issues pushed them to the breaking point several times. “It isn’t glamorous,” deadpans Cope as she describes the life of a traveling brewer. “You are living on top of each other 24/7.” Brockman agrees, adding, “It’s not a luxurious life when you have a peanut butter and banana sandwich for breakfast and for lunch, and possibly for dinner, but you do it because it’s a great experience.”
And the experience paid off. Brockman and Cope found the creative and technical inspiration they were looking for with stints at White Labs (San Diego), Cascade Barrel House (Portland, Ore.), Upslope and Sanitas (Boulder, Colo.), and Crooked Stave (Denver). “We’ve had people show us stuff that are probably pretty integral trade secrets, but they are welcoming in the craft beer industry,” Brockman says.
Plus, after the pair’s “experiment in living with less” brought them the full circle around the country, they were contacted in January 2014 about becoming head brewers at a brewery in planning in Las Vegas. Setting aside their initial skepticism at the idea of a craft brewery in Vegas, Brockman and Cope decided to stop by on their way back to LA. They enjoyed the visit so much that they immediately agreed to become the brewers at CraftHaus Brewery after a brief return to Australia to see family and secure work visas.
“I really felt like I was on this hero’s journey,” Fahrendorf says, referencing Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero’s Journey, that sees a hero set out on a journey, conquer obstacles, and return with a reward that will benefit humanity. The Pink Boots Society was the reward that she shared with the greater beer community, and she has since turned it into a registered charity that seeks to promote gender equality in the industry and provides scholarships to women beer professionals.
Sometimes the reward is more personal. For Klages-Mundt the challenge of traveling abroad solo gave him the “understanding that anything is possible … I’m not going to let anything or anyone tell me I can’t do something,” he declares. Klages-Mundt has used that mindset to co-found Insight Brewing Co., in Minneapolis.
In a hectic world where travel is often seen as a luxury, individuals willing to take a risk in pursuit of their passion can reap considerable rewards. “I can’t imagine my life without this road trip… it has shaped everything I’ve done afterward,” Fahrendorf says of the five-month adventure that took her to 71 breweries. “A road trip frees your life to [go] where it needs to go … you need to go out there and see what is calling you.” ■