Will Work for Beer: Volunteering in the Brewing Industry Offers Advantages Along With Risks

Feature by | Oct 2017 | Issue #129
Illustrations by Kyle Smart

From tech to medicine or even personal health and wellness, we live in a golden age of entrepreneurship, where we’re often reminded that if we do what we love, it’s not really work.

But if you love beer? Increasingly, the barrier for access isn’t about “work” at all.

“Most of my life, I’ve been in and out of hospitality, but craft beer was always something I had admiration for,” says Justin Smith, a Largo, Fla., resident who spent a year volunteering on Barley Mow Brewing Co.’s canning line between 2014 and 2015 before taking on oversight of the brewery’s volunteer program as an employee. “If I had a day off, I’d say ‘If there’s anything I [can] do, let me know.’ I appreciated what they were doing, how they were doing it, and the brand and attitude that went with it.”

During his time offering free assistance to the Barley Mow crew, Smith would partner with four or five other volunteers to make sure a mobile canning run of the brewery’s beers went smoothly, rinsing, loading, and packing cans. As compensation for a shift that might last four to eight hours, Smith and others would get lunch and a 12-pack or so of packaged low-fill cans.

“It’s cool to be involved,” Smith says. “You’d go to a grocery store and see the cans you were involved in making, and, as a beer nerd, you take pride in that.”

Volunteering for businesses is nothing new, even in beer. In recent years, breweries around the country have harnessed the fervor of fans to expedite packaging, staff events, and more. Small startups like Barley Mow to well-funded outfits that include Golden Road Brewing (in its early days) and a reopened Celis Brewery have all seen volunteer labor as a way to get extra help with a liquid payout.

For those that offer up their time free of charge, the connection is seen as an exciting way to deepen a love for beer. It seems like a win-win for brewery and beer enthusiast, but as the pervasiveness of free labor continues, some are cautioning against the use of volunteers in brewing’s industrial process. It’s not just about doing what you love—even if it’s at no cost—thanks to a variety of potential legal and ethical issues that surround the practice.

“Anyone who is aiding and adding value to our process that we ultimately aim to profit off of deserves to be compensated for their labor,” insists Scott Metzger, founder and CEO of San Antonio’s Freetail Brewing Co. and a Brewers Association board member. “There’s a lot of value that companies get out of these unpaid positions, and that’s a tiny part of why we see stagnating wages and inequality. It’s exploitation of people to get free labor and turn it into a profit.”

Technically and—most important—legally, he’s right. While there are federal protections for citizens engaged in volunteering for nonprofits, the same laws don’t pertain to for-profit breweries. And aside from issues surrounding payment, there are real concerns about using volunteers in an industrial workplace with a variety of potential hazards.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 390 total occupational injuries reported to the government in 2015, the most recent year of data. That’s less than 2014 (530) but more than double what it was five years prior. Most common are exposures to harmful substances, overexertion, and slips, trips, or falls. All things that could easily happen to a volunteer packing cans, cleaning kegs, or helping with other tasks in a busy brewery.

“I know people are volunteering and they’re not slaves, so it’s tough to make a case sometimes, but, at the end of the day, you should pay employees involved in your business,” Metzger says. “Packaging, cleaning, and stuff like that, those are some of the most directly involved jobs with a value-added manufacturing process. I’d love to reduce my cost by having a bunch of free labor, but we don’t live in that society.”

But in a way, we do. Volunteerism, based around strong feelings for and connections to an idea, purpose, or product, remains strong.

“I wanted to get out of the position I was in and get into the beer industry as quickly as possible,” says Jacquie King, head brewer at Ogden, Utah’s Roosters Brewing Co. After about 10 years of homebrewing, she quit a job managing an auto body shop in September 2015 to work for free at Roosters. In July 2016 she took over for the previous brewer. Before becoming a full-time employee, she spent her days helping make beer, cleaning tanks, or handling cellaring duties and bartending as a paid employee in the evening.

“If you are super passionate about beer, volunteering is going to be your best avenue of entrance,” she argues.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 62.6 million Americans volunteered 7.9 billion hours in 2015, the most recent year of data collected. The value of that time amounted to just over $24 per hour, based on estimates by the nonprofit Independent Sector organization.

These figures are dominated by involvement in nonprofits and socially-motivated organizations, however, not profit-seeking businesses like breweries. In that case, it could be argued that the hourly value might be higher for a company that cuts its costs. At the same time, volunteers accrue professional experience they may not otherwise gain.

“It’s hard to compete with AB InBev and what they’re doing when they can wallop people in the market,” says Brody Chapman, founder and CEO of Spindletap Brewery in Houston. “It’s an ongoing battle that we’re dealing with.”

Chapman’s 2-year-old business has six full-time employees and a pool of almost 40 volunteers, 15 to 20 of whom offer their time regularly. To volunteer at Spindletap, locals must go through an interview process, receive a safety certification, and complete a training program with staff. Volunteers can then choose from a variety of jobs, from cleaning equipment to labeling cans or hosting sampling sessions at grocery stores.

“Any way you can watch your overhead allows us to spend more money on research and development, buying different types of hops, and really focusing on our beer,” Chapman says. “Through the volunteer program, we’ve noticed that we can tap into the community and people that feel strongly [about] what craft is all about.”

Volunteers receive Spindletap clothing, free beer, and gift cards, and those most involved are eligible for an annual drawing to send one volunteer and their family to Steamboat Springs, Colo., for a weekend of skiing and relaxation.

At Spindletap, Chapman focuses on the value of independence for the brewery and the long-term implication for residents. “If we can provide an opportunity for a homebrewer with high aptitude, it’s a potential platform to a career in the business.”

For others, however, the prospect of using volunteers isn’t as easy. At Bike Dog Brewing Co. in Sacramento, Calif., co-owner A.J. Tendick says he’s approached a couple times a month with questions about volunteering, moreso during the summer, when college students home on break are looking to connect studies in areas of biology or food science with a growing passion for beer.

“But obviously we’re not going to do that because we can’t do that,” Tendick says of the legality of using unpaid staff. “From our standpoint, most of these jobs for volunteering are so low paying anyway there’s no reason it would make or break us to follow the rules.”

Ironically, Tendick got his break in the industry by volunteering at a local Sacramento brewery, packaging and kegging beer or cleaning mash tuns. Now that he’s the one calling the shots, Tendick is sympathetic to people he turns away, but it’s a simple (and legal) matter of right and wrong.

“There’s definitely a long-term liability [with] volunteers, especially if it’s the same person that volunteers and they’re not being compensated over many hours,” says Candace L. Moon, a San Diego-based attorney who specializes in issues related to the beer industry. “At some point, it may become in that person’s best interest to potentially sue for unpaid wages.”

And that doesn’t cover the most serious threat.

“Healthcare being the cost that it is, even if your best friend gets injured volunteering for you, they may have to sue you to cover their medical costs,” Moon adds. “It’s not even a case of ‘I blame you.’ it’s ‘I have no choice because I have to pay these medical bills I can’t afford.’”

The reality is there are philosophical and legal differences involved, Moon says, and while beer lovers are happy to provide their time and effort, mitigating risk should be part of the overall plan for full-time employees and the business itself. In 2014, she notes, Westover Winery in Castro Valley, Calif., was fined $115,000 by the state’s Department of Industrial Relations for using volunteer workers, an illegal practice for for-profit businesses in the state.

“A lot of people opening breweries are not super business oriented and can learn the hard way how many regulations there are out there,” she says.

Of course, there is a middle ground. At Adelbert’s Brewery in Austin, Texas, half of the company’s 18 staff are former volunteers. That’s because founder and brewer Scott Hovey sets a threshold of two or three volunteer sessions before hiring someone.

“We stop paying in beer and put them on payroll,” explains Hovey. “If someone is coming and working, I need to pay them. I don’t believe in using them for free labor just because working in beer is perceived as a ‘cool’ job.”

For those first starting out as volunteers, Hovey and general manager Sarah Haney always make sure to pay an equivalent of minimum wage for their time, typically in beer. Activities might include up to five hours of bottling or canning, which earns lunch and several corked-and-caged bottles of Dancin’ Monk Dubbel, Scratchin’ Hippo Bière de Garde, or Black Rhino Black Session Ale. Show up a fourth time, however, and that person will make around $10 an hour for their work.

Creating a balance between volunteerism and paid labor is a benefit, Hovey notes, because instead of going through a recruiter or posting an ad, he knows he starts from a hiring pool that specifically sought out his brewery and already has a high level of passion for the industry.

“Some people don’t always make it past the part of showing up and being excited about the work,” he says.

That has never been a problem for Barley Mow’s Smith, who now works with one or two volunteers on each packaging day, including an elderly local he estimates may be over 70 years old. Since this man feels so connected to the brewery and his fellow volunteers, he won’t be turned away. Smith says the benefit for brewery and volunteers isn’t just about beer, it’s also about building community and creating a connection between a business and fans. He likes to call his group the “Canning Brigade,” who heed the call with only a week’s notice when help is needed.

“It’s such a fun industry that people want to be involved,” Smith says, “in whatever regard.”

Iowa Adds Path from Apprentice to Brewmaster

While breweries across the country find ways to utilize volunteers to help their businesses thrive, the Iowa Brewers Guild has taken a step to ensure it offers an official—and paid—path for hopeful brewers.

Through its Apprenticeship Program, the guild connects a selected applicant with a job at an in-state brewery as a way to provide practical experience to grow the local talent pool. Started last year, it was the first-of-its-kind program to gain approval from the U.S. Department of Labor. J. Wilson, who acts as “Minister of Iowa Beer” for the guild, coordinated with the federal office to place “professional brewer” on its list of recognized apprenticeship positions.

“Brewing is no slouch of an occupation—it’s hard, dangerous, and scientific work,” says Wilson. “It’s an opportunity to make sure that folks are being safely trained to take their passion to the next level.”

The program provides paid placement at an Iowa brewery, with the beer business covering the cost of 2,000 hours of practical experience. In turn, an apprentice gets a job created to run the gamut of brewing responsibilities, including yeast health, production, sanitation, safety, and more. Successful applicants are also required to pay for and complete online coursework through the Siebel Institute of Technology and will receive a Master Craft Brewer Theory certificate from Siebel and a Professional Brewer certificate from the Iowa Brewers Guild upon completion. Requirements were designed in coordination with the Department of Labor, the Des Moines Office of Apprenticeship, Siebel, and the guild.

The program’s first apprentice began work last fall at Ankeny, Iowa’s Firetrucker Brewery.
“We want to make beer better, but certainly Iowa beer better,” says Wilson. “We may not have a lot of options to grow and train professional brewers, so we want to make sure when someone is ready to take that step, we have adequate staffing to help our growing number of breweries.”