Mark Peffers started working part-time in a local supermarket in Westchester, N.Y., when he was 15 years old. When he got older, he was hired full time. He worked his way up to the manager of the frozen foods department and he has been with the supermarket chain for the past 24 years. About a year after he became a full-time employee, he realized the work wasn't his calling, but the job offered him financial security so he stayed.
But, a hobby soon offered him a new career opportunity. Peffers had started brewing beer seriously in 2008, a few years after his sister-in-law got him a simple brewing kit for Christmas one year. Mark realized he wanted to be a brewmaster after he let a co-worker sample a beer he brewed. Peffers recalls, "after work, a co-worker of mine was willing to try the beer, a rasberry wheat beer. When he took the first sip, his eyebrows went up in satisfaction, his eyes lit up, and a huge smile came to his face. That was my 'aha' moment, and I have been brew-in-the-brains ever since!"
What exactly do brewmasters do?
According to Peffers, a brewmaster formulates beer recipes, which includes quite a few calculations. Brewmasters can have everything to do with the brewing process of the beer -- beginning with weighing the malt (which is mostly barley or wheat), grinding the grains, and feeding them into the mash tun (a copper vessel) where they mix with hot water and sit for up to one hour. The liquid, called wort, is then separated from the grains and boiled for a specific time during which hops, spices, and other adjuncts like corn, rice, or oats are added depending on the type of beer being brewed. After the boil, the wort is rapidly cooled and sent through clean and sanitized pipes to a fermenting tank where a specific strain of yeast has been added. The fermentation process can take four to 21 days depending on the type of beer. The beer is then carbonated and sent to a holding tank where it is then served at the bar in micro-breweries and/or packaged (canned, bottled, or kegged) and then shipped out to a distributing company. A brewmaster can be involved in this entire process to ensure the quality of the beer.
Deciding to take the plunge
Peffers had always been a big fan of great beer and enjoyed going to microbreweries to taste hard-to-get beers and seasonal beers. One day when he was buying some of the beers he recently sampled, he ran into one of the vendors he did business with at the supermarket. They started chatting and Mark mentioned he had gotten into home brewing. The vendor told him about an article in the business section of the previous Sunday's newspaper about the brewmaster at the Gilded Otter Brewing Company in New Paltz, N.Y., and how he was teaching people how to brew beer. Mark read the article and learned that the brewery was associated with Vocation Vacations, an organization that matches people looking to explore a career change with a mentor. He signed up immediately and got connected with brewmaster Darren Currier in 2008.
In addition, Peffers researched schools that train people to become brewmasters. Not that many of them exist, but Peffers decided on the University of California-Davis Master Brewer's Program, which he will attend from January to June 2011. Luckily he was approved for a student loan, and this combined with the savings he has accrued over the years will help cover his expenses while attending the program. He plans to retire from the supermarket in January 2011 and hopes to land a brewing job shortly after the program ends.
Following his two-day stint at the Gilded Otter Brewing Company, Peffers continued to stay in touch with his mentor Currier, and in July 2009 Currier offered him a part-time job as his assistant. Even though the job was entry level, Peffers jumped at the opportunity and is enjoying his time there. "There is no way I would be working in a brewery for over a year now without the help of Brian Kurth's Vocation Vacations company and Darren Currier!" Peffers says.
Challenges along the way
"Going back to college was one of the first obstacles I faced," Peffers recalls. "I have an associate's degree, but in order to be eligible for acceptance into any professional brewing school, prerequisites are required and I had to take classes in biology and chemistry. Going back to college after 10-plus years was challenging when I work six days a week. I took one course at a time and I have completed four classes." He also had difficulty getting a student loan for a non-degree program with not-so-great credit, until his brother Erik, agreed to cosign the loan.
In addition, Peffers is coming to terms with the fact that he is actually leaving his job of 24 years for good in January and he needs to find a place to live while in California attending UC Davis. "To say that I am not nervous or scared would be a lie!" he admits.
However, Peffers reports, "all of my friends and family have been supportive of my decision to do this, which has been great! They know that I have not been happy in the supermarket business. Quite a few have actually said to me while talking about brewing and a hopeful career in it, "Look at your face, look how happy you are! I have never seen you like this!" I had one skeptical co-worker who is completely supportive now after tasting some of my homebrews."
His advice for others considering a career change
"Making a complete career change when you are almost 40 years old is not for the faint of heart!" Peffers says. "You must completely immerse yourself anyway you can into your new career choice -- no, I did not jump into a big vat of beer; not yet, anyway! My one day off from the supermarket is spent at the brewery learning everything I can.
"Read books and become as well educated as you can in your new field. Brian Kurth's book, 'Test-Drive Your Dream Job' is a great resource that can help you face the fear, the challenge, and the willingness to take a step back in life in order to find work you truly love. Money and benefits are great, but being miserable at work every day is not! If you have found your true passion in life, why not get out of your boring, mundane job and pursue it as a career?"