SOUTHINGTON — On any given day, the four-person brewing team behind Kinsmen Brewing Co. is juggling different stages of almost a dozen beers.
“There are very few jobs where you can problem-solve while having a beer,” said Head Brewer Justin Benvenuto. “We all want to make the best possible product.”
The team is made up of Operations Manager Bob Bartholomew, Benvenuto, Brewer Mike Wilkie and Cellarman Maddie O’Neill.
Each has different levels of formal education and unique experience. The synergy between them is part of the brewing process.
“Beer isn’t just a product,” Wilkie said. “It’s a culmination of your life and your shared appreciation.”
More than drinking
Contrary to what some believe, craft brewers don’t just hang around all day drinking beer.
Because so much of the brewing process is manual, Wilkie and O’Neill are constantly standing, carrying something, or sprinting across the room.
On an average brewing day, Wilkie will start the batch around 8 a.m., by heating up water in the mash tank and adding the grain mixture gradually, all while keeping the temperature exact. He’s in charge of it for hours, and then it gets transferred to a fermenter, where O’Neill steps in.
“From start to finish, there’s a lot of people and time that goes into it,” Wilkie said.
Even steps you imagine are automatic (and usually are at larger beer makers) are done by hand. With every batch, Wilkie empties grain from the mash tank with a shovel and O’Neill presses her ear against a tank to listen for carbonation levels.
To be a good brewer, Wilkie says, you need to be motivated and willing to put in the hours.
“Beer doesn’t really care about the rest of your life,” he said.
It helps to have a good grip on math and science and an ability to think on your feet. A simple mistake — like forgetting to open a gauge — could ruin an entire batch.
“Determination. You gotta get up every day and tell yourself I’m excited to get to work,” he said.
Kinsmen will usually do just one batch a day, about five days a week. What they’re brewing each day is planned out for months in advance, a delicate system considering how often the unexpected happens.
“These things take deeper planning, deeper thought,” Wilkie said.
Baking soda volcano
The brewery puts out about 1,000 barrels a year, according to Benvenuto. The product is all sold in-house.
The process is a blend of manual labor and brain power, he said. You need to know math and be able to fix machines, but you also need to plan ahead and come up with recipes too.
Benvenuto started home brewing while he was in the military and stationed down South, where the craft beer industry isn’t as prominent as his native New England.
“I came home and the industry was kind of still young and I figured if I’m going to have a job for the rest of my life, I might as well be passionate about it,” he said.
After 10 years he is still learning.
Brewing is like the baking soda volcano science project you do in school, Benvenuto explained. There are certain directions you have to follow, but you can be creative with the rest.
No two volcano projects look the same, but if the science is right, you always get the same effect.
Beyond the brewery
The teamwork doesn’t end in any one brewery. The industry has a vast network across the state and the country.
“I don’t know too many industries where you can sit next to your competitor and tell them what you’re working on,” Wilkie said.
Independent brewers get together for conferences, collaborations, festivals and expos like the CT Craft Beer Fest, held at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford last year.
Part of the network is specifically for women, including the national non-profit, Pink Boots Society, of which O’Neill is a member. It was founded in 2007 and the Connecticut chapter was formed a few years ago.
The Pink Boots Society provides resources, training and money for scholarships.
“We all get together and we share our own experience and teach the other women,” O’Neill said.
Landing the job
O’Neill entered the brewing industry after college. In school, she studied environmental archeology and paleo economy. Her master’s thesis was about brewing with ancient grains.
She volunteered at Kinsmen Brewing before getting a full-time job as cellarman about two years ago.
O’Neill said getting into the field is very competitive, but there are a lot of resources — like the Pink Boots Society — that can help.
According to a 2014 study by Auburn University, women accounted for 29 percent of brewery workers in the United States.
The field is very competitive, O’Neill said, with the number of potential workers outnumbering the number of openings, even though new breweries are always opening.
According to the Brewers Association for Small & Independent Craft Brewers, there were 87 craft breweries in the state in 2018. O’Neill and Wilkie said they think the 2019 total is closer to 110.
“A lot of people want to get into (the industry),” O’Neill said.