Would you trade an elementary school teaching gig for brewing? That’s exactly what Avery Brewing Company’s Matt Thrall did when his home brewing hobby became a career path that landed him in Boulder. Nine years ago, when he first arrived at Avery, the brewery produced 3,500 barrels. Last year, it made 35,000. We sat down to talk with Thrall about fourth grade math, working in a factory, and closure.
Name: Matt “Truck*” Thrall, Avery Brewing Company
Experience: More than nine years
*Short for “Hand truck”
5280: What’s your official title?
Matt Thrall: I'm the head brewer. I guess it is a fancy, sexy way of saying I'm the production manager. The head brewer at a brewery site doesn't brew. I work in recipe formulation and I'm responsible basically from raw materials all the way to finished product.
5280: What’s changed at Avery since you started?
MT: By far, the biggest change is just the size of the company. When I was hired, I was the eighth overall hire. …We are now up to 77 or 78. And we're not losing people; we're just acquiring them.
5280: How did you become a brewer?
MT: I used to be a school teacher. I taught fourth and fifth grade math and science for a few years. I was just a home brewer. I kind of geeked out on that, and one day the hobby just got a little big and I just didn't renew. I started interning at a local brewery [Houston’s Saint Arnold Brewing Company].
5280: Is working at a brewery as good as it sounds?
MT: It sounds like a really sexy, awesome lifestyle. It's not. This is a beer factory. It's a factory. Our widget is beer. It's not mop-heads. It's not calculator faceplates. It's beer.
5280: What is the difference between teaching and brewing?
MT: In teaching, you had closure once a year. …We have closure every 10 to 14 days here. You know, send a beer through the process, crack it open, and, yeah, instant closure.
5280: What’s the hardest part of your job?
MT: If we want to stay in business, we want repeat customers. We've got to have consistent beer. I always say making good beer is easy. Making good beer consistently? That's the hard part because we're dealing with agricultural products that vary season to season. A living organism that varies generation to generation. You know, when you fly in from Boston for your ski trip out in Colorado and you have an IPA here, we want you to fly back to Boston and have an IPA there and relive the whole experience. That's the really hard part.
5280: What does it take to get that consistency?
MT: Let's put it this way. I'm the only department without a budget. If I need it, and I can justify how we're going to use it to make better beer, we get it.
5280: What goes wrong?
MT: The most common thing is false positives. It's a lot of wild goose chase and hunting down. We are dealing with a lot of processing efficiencies just with having all our tanks outside. So, you know, in Boulder, we get some wind. Hell, the whole Front Range. We have to do all our sampling outside whether it's rain or snow, windy, sunny. Fortunately, it's mostly sunny here, but there's usually wind. So what happens when you're trying to take a sterile sample in the wind? You know, all it takes is really a couple bacteria to fall into play and you've got growth and now you've got to hold the tank. Check it again.
5280: One of our favorite Avery beers is the Maharaja, a seasonal imperial IPA. It is also your fourth best-selling beer. Why not brew it all year long?
MT: [When we brew it,] we call it Maharaja season around here because it just dictates everyone's life in production. It's not an easy beer to make from the brewing process all the way to the packaging. It's just a bitch the whole way through, but it's so worth it.
5280: Where’s your favorite place to drink beer?
MT: Let's put it this way: If I'm not going to be outdoors, and if I'm not going to be gaming, and I'm not going to be here, I don't know where else I'd be.
Bonus: Thrall is still teaching. Call the brewery to find out when his next beer lecture is scheduled.
—Image courtesy of Joe Osbourne