Learned to homebrew in a college dorm, volunteered on the bottling line at the local brewery, took an overnight shift in the brewhouse, bounced from job to job before saving enough scratch to open a nano in a warehouse—all before the age of 30. That’s the typical craft brewer career track, right? Maybe.
Bright-eyed kids who fell into the beer business before their 10th high school reunion ignited the American craft beer boom; Fritz Maytag was 28 when he bought Anchor Brewing. Ken Grossman turned 26 the month that he founded Sierra Nevada. Larry Bell of Bell’s Brewery was 27. The Widmer brothers? Kurt was over the hill at 32, but Rob was just 28. It was the same for wave after wave of newcomers who followed: Adam Avery opened his namesake brewery when he hit 27; Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head, 26; Vinnie Cilurzo, Russian River, 27; Patrick Rue, The Bruery, 28.
So what do we make of Andy Mason, who started Lost Province Brewing Co. in Boone, North Carolina, in 2014? He’s 61.
Or Jay Mahoney, John O’Brien and Bill Pozniak? When they opened Third State Brewing in Burlington, New Jersey, earlier this year, they were all over 50. And Don DiFrisco, who is preparing to open Hell ’n Blazes Brewing in early 2016 in Melbourne, Florida? He’s 53.
These and dozens of other gray-haired entrepreneurs are among a number of new brewers that have abandoned long, successful careers in other professions to risk it all on malt and hops. At an age when they might otherwise be counting down the days till retirement, they’re cashing in their 401(k)s, pulling on rubber boots, and following their inner Maytag to brew a better beer.
When the kids are grown, the mortgage is paid off and the retirement horizon looms, some people aren’t satisfied with just improving their golf swing. They don’t want to quit working, but the same 9-to-5 doesn’t cut it.
Increasingly, aging Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are deferring retirement and pursuing an “encore career.” According to a study by MetLife Foundation, about 9 million Americans between 44 and 70 are now working in a second career, and more than 30 million others are thinking of doing the same.
There are no reliable statistics on the number who have gone into the beer business. Anecdotally, though, it seems like a growing trend. Martin O’Neill, director of the brewing science program at Alabama’s Auburn University, noted that most of his department’s students are over 35 and seeking a new career.
“Their main motivation is the need for independence,” O’Neill said. “They just weren’t getting that in their previous job.”
Lost Province’s Mason, for example, worked for 40 years in forensic toxicology as a researcher, medical examiner and expert witness in hundreds of criminal trials. “I really didn’t have anything else I wanted to do in the profession,” he said. “In the last few years, I wasn’t having a lot of fun. It was time to go.”
Homebrewing was his hobby since he was in his 30s. He said he was “fascinated by the wonderful combination of science and art … the nerdiness and the creativity.”
He left his career behind, his wife—the director of a homeless shelter—did the same, and together they opened Lost Province Brewing Co., a brewpub specializing in Neapolitan-style pizza.
“It’s been a challenge,” Mason said. “But I feel like this is meaningful and fun.”
Indeed, “re-careerists” typically move into jobs that give them personal satisfaction, even if it means lower pay. Often, that means teaching, health care or social work.
But brewing a great pint of beer and serving it to others can be equally satisfying.
“Beer gives me a reason to get up every morning,” said 65-year-old marketing executive Alan Gladish. A longtime homebrewer, he had considered starting a brewery, but instead got hooked on malting. In 2015, he launched Double Eagle Malt in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, one of about three dozen small craft maltsters that have opened in the past five years.
“I didn’t want to be on my deathbed saying, ‘Damn, I wish I had tried that,’” Gladish said. “If I’m going to do something with my life, now’s the time.” Same goes for Mark Cook. As a kid, he wanted to be a musician. “But tell your parents you want to be in a rock ’n’ roll band, well, that doesn’t really sit well with them,” he said. “They tell you, ‘You need something safe.’”
That’s how he ended up in medical school and then as an optometrist.
“I knew after a year of being in practice that I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my life,” Cook, 52, said. “But student loans, kids … I had no choice. The kids are out of the house now. And I’m a grown-up. I can choose my own job.”
He and a friend, Jim Jorgenson—a 50-some-thing printing machinery engineer—pooled their money and opened Bent Kettle Brewing, a contract brewery in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. Eventually, they hope to have enough time and cash to open their own facility and run it full time.
Others see owning a brewery as an opportunity to work with their families.
“I wanted to do something fun,” said Hell ’n Blazes DiFrisco. He had been a government contractor for the past 15 years, manufacturing digital fingerprint equipment and restricted, sensitive, and classified surveillance technology. As the economy turned south, he “sunset” his business, evaluated the skills of his friends and family “and realized I had too much beer and brewing talent around me not to consider it as an opportunity.”
When Hell ’n Blazes opens soon in a century-old former hardware store, DiFrisco will be working with two of his sons and a nephew.
“It’s nice to do business with friends and family in a small-town environment,” he said.
But be warned: It isn’t all frothy suds and hoppiness. Brewing is a hard job, with long hours of cleaning and heavy sacks of grain to be hoisted. That’s why it’s still mainly a job for the young.
“Mentally, I feel like I’m still 26,” said Cook. “But, physically, I’m not 26 any more. After spending a day brewing, yeah, I’m tired. And the next day I’m sore. But it’s the good kind of tired and the good kind of sore.”