Making a profession out of a passion for beer
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There's a curious but significant distinction between a job and a career. A job is something that we (usually) spend a third of our life doing, (usually) in exchange for financial compensation. While a job is inherently meritorious, it also connotes trading time for wages: an eternally losing proposition. Unless it's paired with "hand" or "blow," there's a modicum of doom in our breath when we utter the word.
A career, however, seems to hold aloft our daydreams and aspirations. Careers are crafted, built, and achieved. And yet, if we work for too long without keeping focus on our passions, our career sometimes becomes that trap we fall into before we know it, the thing people associate with us but we don't associate with ourselves. At that point, our career can become the dark mirror that reflects our failure to take a risk. It is our soul death.
So there's nothing more inspiring than meeting someone who loves what he or she does and gets paid for it. Ultimately, it's not about getting a high-paying job; it's about having a career that makes you happy. Lars Larson, master brewer of Trumer Brauerei in Berkeley, is one of those lucky schmucks who are making it on their own terms.
Larson's path to Berkeley and brewing Trumer Pils has been a long and rewarding one, and it seems to be the result of his paying attention to his instincts. It's doubtful that any child sets out to oversee an artisan beer operation, but Larson admits he can't recall a single beer he's disliked, "even sips of beer I snuck from my dad's glass as a kid."
Larson spent part of his high school years studying in Germany, where the legal drinking age is 16. Around the time he graduated from college with a history degree in the late 1980s, he became interested in what was then a burgeoning craft-beer movement. Inspired by the energy of artisan beer making and the chance to return to Germany, he relocated to Berlin to get a degree in fermentation sciences. It was 1990, right after the Berlin Wall came down. After participating in the historic events that followed, Larson accepted a job at a brewery in Argentina, where the light lager style of German pilsner was popular.
"The principles of brewing are the same worldwide, but culturally [Argentina] was a phenomenal experience," Larson says. "I wouldn't trade those years for anything."
When he returned to America four years later, he landed in Longview, Texas, working for Stroh's, which produces such beers as Schlitz and Lone Star. The company had a four-million-barrel capacity and more than 400 employees working in three shifts for an around-the-clock industrial operation. That was by far the most commercial beer-making environment he'd ever been in.
"There's really a limited set of actions that occurs in the brewing process itself," he says. "But learning different aspects of the business was a great experience."
When the Stroh's factory closed, Larson took a few interim jobs before accepting his master brewer post at Trumer. Now he's part of the international team that's helping to develop the Trumer Pils brand regionally and beyond.
Trumer's roots are far from the Bay Area. Founded in Salzburg, Austria, in 1601, the artisan brewery established a second location in Berkeley in 2003 because of one thing the two cities share: soft water, an important component in brewing pilsners.
There's also a historic connection between Berkeley and beer. "The mayor of Berkeley [Tom Bates] just came for a tour," Larson mentions. "He was the guy in the 1970s who helped push legislation to enable brewpubs in California, so in part he's the reason why we're here today."
And Larson is glad Trumer is here. Calling this part of the country a great place to live, he says, "People love good food and drink here, and we enjoy being part of that local movement."
But what does Larson actually do? Does a master brewer job entail what we think it does? "I work with great people, and it is great fun, but it isn't just a frat party," Larson cautions. "It's not slugging beer all day long."
Actually, it's the variety in his job that makes it interesting for him. "I work on plants, foodstuffs, chemicals, and machines," he says. "There are different tasks to do each day, and because our original brewery is in Austria, I get to travel to Europe and speak German."
And though beer making is an ancient art, Larson says his work is more rooted in technology and the modern age than one might expect though it also involves plenty of hard labor.
"It's really an industrial operation, and there are a lot of safety considerations," Larson says. "There are chemicals, gases, steam, and fast-moving machinery. It's hot, sweaty, dirty work, and a lot of times you're beat at the end of the day. It's quite physical work and not for everybody."
Larson says brewing's future seems bright. It's a rapidly growing profession, which means there will be more jobs like his in the years ahead. But since "it's a job that's pretty high up on the list," newcomers will need to get in on the ground level, where they can learn more aspects of the business. It also wouldn't hurt to have a strong background in chemistry, biology, and microbiology; to combine a food sciences degree with a fermentation sciences degree from a school such as UC Davis; and to learn to make beer at home.
As far as Larson is concerned, such work is worth the result: in his case, a great job doing something he loves.
"You meet a lot of great people in this business," he says. "And we love that we get to do something that we enjoy and that we can also share with others."*
Trumer Brauerei offers tours Mondays, 4 p.m. Private group tours can be arranged.