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Married With a Brewery

In 1988 Irene Firmat, founder of Full Sail Brewing Company of Hood River, Oregon, was looking for a head brewer.

“I wanted somebody who really, deeply had a passion for brewing beer,” said Firmat. “Jamie Emmerson’s resume came across my desk. He had an organic chemistry degree, and masters in brewers studies, and a year of training in Germany. His objective was soley to brew beer.”

“She convinced me to come out for six months to see what I thought of it,” said Emmerson.  “I started on April 1st, 1988. We got married in September of 1989.”

Love and beer; for many brewery-owners, the latter term holds as much reverence as the first. For couples working together in the brewing business, there’s a tremendous amount of mutual respect and trust in the other partner’s capabilities.

When starting a two-person brewery, typically one person assumes the role of brewer, and the other, business manager.

“There’s been a lot of natural division of tasks within the brewery. We inherently know what the other person doing and respect what they’re good at,” said Heather Stanborn, co-owner of Rising Tide Brewery in Portland, Maine. As a former attorney working in Boston, Heather knew what the division of labor between herself and her home-brewing husband Nathan would look like. “It was obvious to both of us that I would be in charge of the books, obvious that Nathan would be in charge of sourcing ingredients and brewing. We know each other so well, it’s clear who’s job is what.” 

For the first year and a half, Nathan, a graphic designer and stay-at-home father of one, ran the brewery by himself. Heather handled the nascent brewery’s licensing, and helped label bottles on weekends. Following a major expansion in 2012 and the hiring of Rising Tide’s first employee, Heather came on board full-time as business director.

“We always joke that we have our business meetings during Sunday morning breakfast,” said Heather. “That’s the time that we could hash things out. Instead of a board meeting in a formal setting, we’d have egg sandwiches and drink coffee on our back porch and talk about how many people we’re going to hire next year.”

Husband and wife team Dann and Martha Paquette of Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project have specific responsibilities within the business, but share the workload on brew days.

“She mills the grain, mashes out and gets inside the later tun. At this stage she could run a brew day no problem. But then, I’m there, so what would I do?” said Dann. “Most of what Martha does is forecasting. She’ll do the ordering and coordinate shipping. She tells me when to brew and decides how many kegs versus bottles. I’m the brewer guy.”

After two years of marriage, Dann began Pretty Things in 2008 as a way to keep himself busy while he looked for permanent brewing work. After the brewery took off in 2010, Martha quit her job as a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and joined her husband full-time in the brewhouse.

“We have a similar quality of life because of what we do. It’s not like I have a business partner who is trying to pay off debt and wants to buy a house,” said Dann. “We know exactly what we want, for us.”

Home brewer Julie Verratti and wife Emily Bruno of Silver Spring, MD joined forces on the business-side of Denizens Brewing Company and hired Emily’s brother-in-law, Jeff Ramirez, as head brewer.

“We knew how different the home brewing process was from commercial brewing, so we wanted Jeff given his years of commercial experience,” said Emily.

Open seven days a week, Emily manages the brewery taproom along with production and distribution. Julie handles sales, business development, and legal matters. Keeping work conversations at work is something the couple has been conscientious of since the beginning.

“It takes discipline to make your professional life separate from your home life,” said Emily. “It was an all-consuming commitment to the business. It gets complicated sometimes, but it’s something we work really hard on.”

Since its opening last year, the brewery released 22 different beers and is on target to produce 2,000 barrels by year’s end. And while talking shop is a business necessity, it’s is still the business of beer.

“It’s a really fun industry to be a part of,” said Emily. “There’s always something fun and exciting going on. Whether it’s a new account, good events, new releases. It’s nice to be able to share that intimately with your spouse.”

For Liz and Curtis Chism in San Diego, California, the roles of brewmaster and business manager evolved naturally.

As home brewers, they scheduled brew days around their jobs; Liz, as a sign language interpreter four days a week at a local college, and Curtis, working six days a week as a construction manager.

While Curtis was at work, Liz began brewing double batches on her days off.

“I started creating recipes, entering competitions and winning,” said Liz. “Then we threw around the idea of opening a business, which Curtis had always wanted to do. I had already been brewing, so we figured I might as well continue doing that.”

In 2014 Council Brewing Company opened – Liz as head brewer, and Curtis running the company.

“Working with my husband is awesome. It’s an open dialogue,” said Liz. “We can talk about things to make sure they’re getting done, but we stay out of each other’s responsibilities. I stay out of the office, and he doesn’t come into the brewery telling me how to brew. He sees the results in the glass. He knows I can brew.”

Once the brewery is built, the dust settled, and duties within the business assigned, married couples can ease into their roles as brewer, manager, or combination thereof and live out the rest of their days happily sipping delicious, hand-crafted beer. Unless of course, they want to have children.

“We sort of went into it all at once. Had two kids and opened the brewery.”

Christine Heaton, mother of two and brewmaster at Big Elm Brewing Company said the decision to launch the brewery came from a need to feel settled. While she was pregnant with her son, she and her husband Bill managed a brewpub in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

“We got into it in the sense that it was going to be a stepping stone into a production brewery,” said Christine. “The restaurant business was a lot harder than we thought; it was too intense for us to do the production side of things. We decided to start the brewery when our son was born.”

A year after Tobi was born, the family welcomed a baby girl; Agnes.

Financially strapped from pouring all their resources into opening Big Elm’s facility, the Heatons put their house, located 45 minutes away, on the rental market. For the first year, the family lived at the brewery.

“The way the office part was set up, it was just a bunch of rooms. One was an office and the rest became bedrooms,” said Christine. “I think there’s a home video of my son Tobi taking a bath in a bucket on the brewery floor. Looking back on it, it’s pretty funny but at the time I thought, ‘this sucks!’”

Since then, Christine and Bill bought a home near the brewery and sold the old house in Pittsfield. One of the offices still doubles as a playroom for the kids, and behind the brewery there’s a fenced in playground.

In Kingston, Washington there’s a corner of the taproom at Downpour Brewing Company dedicated as a play space for younger visitors.

“We’re the most family-friendly brewery around,” said Kristen Williams, co-owner and brewer at Downpour Brewing. “There’s a corner full of toys, legos, tables and chairs. And there’s a big outside area with ping pong and corn hole. The kids can hang out, and the parents can hang out, have a beer, fill a growler.”

Although it’s not just visitor’s kids hanging out at the brewery – Kristen and her husband Dan have been homeschooling their three children there for the last seven months.

“We wanted to give the brewery everything we had but still figure out how to be a family,” said Kristen. “Homeschooling is awesome. It allows us to be together and make our own schedule.”

Math lessons include counting change from the cash drawer, measuring ingredients, and figuring out ratios of hops and malt to 55 gallon batches of beer.

Katherine May, one of Daniel and Deb Carey’s daughters recalls growing up at her parent’s brewery in New Glarus, Wisconsin.

“Building the business took a lot of time on my parent’s part, so the best way for me to spend time with them was at the brewery,” said Katherine. “I remember watching my mom hunched over a light table hand drawing all the labels, and I’d bug her to teach me to draw a bird or some other kind of woodland animal. My dad would let me look into his microscope to see all the bacteria swimming around.”

Deb Carey recalls her experience of raising two children while running a brewery.

“It was horrific,” said Deb. “We’d get up early in the morning, get to the brewery and get the equipment ready. Then I’d run back to the house, get the girls ready for school. Run back to the brewery. Go back home, cook meals, help with homework, then run back to the brewery and stay until midnight. We didn’t have a day off in two years.”

Incorporated in May of 1993, New Glarus Brewing Company began producing beer in October of the same year. Without any outside financial support, Deb worked fervidly to find investors. The main selling point: her husband, Daniel Carey’s ability to brew incredible beer.

“He really is a talent in of himself; it’s a big reason why I wanted to start a brewery,” said Deb. “Dan’s been spontaneously fermenting beer since the 80’s and we’ve got the biggest cool ship in the country. He really does know his stuff.”

In the beginning, Deb described working at the brewery like “running the gauntlet” – if they were still standing at the end of the day, it was a good one.

With two girls under the age of five, Kara Richardson left her job as a teacher when her husband Matt opened the Tilted Barn Brewery in Exeter, Rhode Island last year. For now, Matt continues to work for the Department of Agriculture full time.

Only open for six months, the couple is still nailing down brewing logistics. Matt is in the brewhouse twice a week; about 25 hours of brew time.

“Eventually it’s going to be too much for me to work outside the brewery. It’s that jumping point that’s a little scary to think about, especially with a family,” said Matt.

Luckily for the Richardsons, Kara’s parents live down the road, and Matt’s parent’s are 20 minutes away in Warwick. On Saturdays when the brewery is open, one of the moms watches the kids, while Matt’s father and sister help out in the tasting room.

At Full Sail in Oregon, Irene Firmat remembers the decision to start a family while running her brewery.

“We were well into the brewery when we decided to have children,” she said. “We were married, we were in love, and we wanted kids. You can’t think about having children like making a business decision. Having them has been a pleasure.”

And although the Full Sail kids, now aged 20 and 23, aren’t involved in the family business, Irene maintains full confidence in her business partner.

“When you’re watching somebody do something they’re really good at, it makes you love and respect them even more,” she said. “Some people say, ‘oh my god, how can you be working together and married?’ and we think, how could you not be?”

***Published in the all-female edition of American Brewer Magazine. July 2015***


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