Jennifer Hawkins, Brewer and Co-Owner of Tomoka Brewing Company
Jennifer Hawkins, Brewer and Co-Owner of Tomoka Brewing Company
What do you do?
My work environment is basically a beer factory. I’m involved in every aspect of the process of beer production from the moment the grains arrive on a pallet to the moment finished beer leaves the brewery in kegs and cans on another pallet.
The process of making beer begins when we mill bags of malted grain (mostly barley, some wheat or rye) and add hot water to that grain. In most recipes we aim for 150-153 degrees F so that enzymes in the grain can convert starches to sugars. Essentially, it’s a little like making tea, because we are steeping the grains and then transferring to another vessel, leaving behind the grain and straining off the sweet liquid, which we call “wort.” The wort is then boiled, hops are added in the kettle, and then it is cooled and transferred to a fermentor. This is where the exciting part begins! We pitch yeast into the fermentors; the yeast converts the sugars in the wort to CO2 and alcohol.
In approximately one week, we have “beer” which we will carbonate and transfer to kegs or bottles. But first, we harvest the yeast from the bottom of the fermentor and use this next generation of yeast cells in our next batch of wort. Prior to pitching this yeast, I must test for viability by staining the cells with methylene blue, placing a sample on a gridded hemocytometer, and viewing it with a microscope. The cells that are dead stain blue; the live cells do not. I count both and get a percentage of living cells. This information helps us determine pitch rate (the volume of yeast required to properly ferment out a batch), but it also is a good indicator of the general health of our house yeast strain which becomes more and more important as we hit the sixth, seventh and beyond generations of yeast. Tasting the batch of beer the yeast was harvested from can tell us a lot, too. Unhealthy yeast, stressful conditions, or low viability can create off flavors in the beer.
What’s the most exciting part of your job?
What excites me most is both the science and marketing aspects of my job. Working in a brewery is very labor intensive, often hot and quite loud from all the machinery. I do a lot of heavy lifting, and occasionally miss wearing heels or clothes I wouldn’t want beer and chemical stains on, but when it comes to the lab part and quality control, or even the event planning and being able to share my passion with other craft beer enthusiasts, that’s when I really come alive. Its an exciting, multi-faceted industry to work in. It affords me the opportunity to express both my creative and scientific sides.
How did you become interested in your field?
Originally, when my husband and I discovered craft beer, we immediately knew what we wanted to do. We quickly learned to brew at home and immersed ourselves in the hobby with full intention to open a brewery and restaurant. We both have culinary backgrounds, and cooking beer is essentially the same as making a big pot of porridge. We have to hit certain temps, sure, and it’s a bit more complicated, but the knowledge base was there, and our passion to learn took us the rest of the way.
Does what you are doing now relate to what you were interested in, as a child? How?
In a way, I suppose. I am using agricultural products to produce a product. My success depends on the quality of the grain and hops I receive. I’ve always loved animals and have been fascinated by nature in general, so to see yeast behavior, to care for them and be an essential part, the catalyst, of their natural life-cycle is truly exciting!
Do you have any media (movies, books, etc.) to recommend?
There is an excellent set of books on brewing called “Brewing Elements Series,” written by various authors whom are experts in their field. Each are titled the main four ingredients used in brewing, Yeast, Hops, Water, and Malt. They are in-depth, educational, and after reading them I’ve kept them as a reference. There are other great books out there on the market I’ve read over the years on brewing. I also enjoyed American Sour Beers by Michael Tonsmeire.
What kinds of challenges did you face to get to where you are now?
Most people when they meet me look surprised when I tell them I am a brewer. I suppose I don’t look like one because I don’t have a beard. I’m not offended by their surprised looks, there are few of us so I guess I’m just a rarity. I would like to see more women in the industry.
There is no reason a woman cannot do this job. I can lift 55 lb bags of grain, and I have a dolly to maneuver around kegs. My brewery happens to be a little more manual with its 15BBL production tank. There are much larger manufacturing facilities that become more automatic, and certainly anyone could learn the concept of brewing and use control panels. Perhaps it doesn’t appeal to as many women because its a manufacturing job, but I find the whole process exciting and fascinating.
What advice would you give on navigating from entry level positions to more leadership roles in brewing?
You can do what I did if you love to read, and get lucky and make awesome friends in the industry that allow you to come into their breweries to train and learn from them hands on.
Or, there are brewing schools now. They can teach you important tasks like yeast essentials and quality control. I’ve taken these as workshops and I would highly recommend a good understanding of yeast before attempting to enter this field, whether it come from a college or doing workshops and shadowing at other breweries as I have done.
Entry level positions in brewing are either laboring jobs on the manufacturing side, or lab work which requires either a degree, or hands-on training and some learning from workshops and classes on the subject. There is upward mobility on the manufacturing side- to become a head brewer requires not just heavy lifting but an understanding of yeast behavior and microbiology/contaminants, proper yeast management and handling, and various other quality control things like recognizing “off” flavors in beer. Recipe development and understanding malts and hops and predicting results is another thing. Basically if you want to rise to a head brewer position, you need to master every aspect of what goes on in a brewery; this comes from not just books, but rolling up your sleeves and gaining experience.