A Day In The Life Of: A Technical Brewer

"There is always something new and exciting to play with and the list of beers I want to brew is endless. Once you start playing with one ingredient it can lead you down a rabbit warren of other ideas."


He works in a small brewery equipped with more bells and whistles than pretty much any of its size. He has access to all manner of new ingredients and is encouraged to experiment, to push at the limits of where he can take beers – and, occasionally, cider and seltzer – across a wide range of styles.

He also has more than two decades of experience in pretty much every part of the wider beer ecosystem, from hospitality to repping to brewing to consulting to judging, and has seen his beers pick up golds and an AIBA trophy along the way. Brewers and industry specialists across the country will bounce ideas off him. Yet you’ll never get to taste anything he brews.

Meet Glenn Harrison, technical brewer at Ellerslie Hop. Or, as he likes to describe his role at the brewery-meets-lab within their Mitcham HQ, The Supreme Leader of Glennsylvania – population: one; total COVID cases: zero.

His is a pretty rare and specialist role. Operating on a kit of a scale similar that of many homebrewers – albeit with a standard of equipment and tools rather higher than you’ll find in amateur brewers’ sheds – Glenn’s role is to, essentially, play around with new ingredients and techniques in order that the wider Ellerslie team is better equipped when working with customers.

That might mean using the same hop variety in a similar base beer but with different dry-hopping rates at different times in fermentation, or pushing yeast strains to temperatures way higher than they’d normally be pushed, all with the aim of learning more, of understanding what does – or might – work, and building a body of evidence.

"Every time a new ingredients comes out I can do a hundred experiments with it," Glenn says. "I'm learning stuff all the time. When I started brewing, my rating of what I knew was nine out of ten – 12, 13 years on I know five out of ten!

"There's new ingredients and new styles; I'd never commercially brewed hazies or seltzers, but now I'm doing seltzer trials. It's a growth market and we get so many enquiries."

 

Two of the myriad trials always bubbling away in Glenn Harrison's brewery at Ellerslie Hop.

 

Prior to joining Ellerslie, he’d amassed plenty of knowledge of his own within the beer industry. When we first met (playing for Mountain Goat’s indoor cricket team of all places, meaning he’s still “Glenn Cricket” in my phone), he was the sales rep for Prickly Moses, soon to take up his first pro brewing job at Hargreaves Hill. He’s since been head brewer at Temple Brewing and oversaw the transition of Napoleone Brewers to Detour Beer Co, while also being an ever-present judging at major beer awards.

And it was that breadth of experience Ellerslie boss Greg Croke wanted to tap into.

"I've known Greg for years, and we were looking to do something together," Glenn says. "They had a little brewery for 12 months that wasn't touched; I came in to do one or two days a week, it extended, and we've spent more money on it than we intended!"

The ongoing investment has been necessary to ensure the processes and, thus, results he obtains reflect those brewers can expect to get from the larger commercial breweries in which he spent most of his professional career; "It has to look and work like a proper brewery," he says.

That said, in Glennsylvania, it doesn't always have to "work". In a world in which brewers are putting out more new releases than ever, their first "trial" batch might be a full scale brew measuring thousands of litres. With Glenn's beer destined to be tested then dumped, he has the freedom to fail; if a commercial brewery's full scale batch of beer doesn't turn out as planned, you'd hope the brewer would dump it, but this isn't always the case and ordinary – or faulty – beers still hit shelves and taps.

"I purposefully muck up a beer so we can go to brewers and say to them, 'After this point is where we get this...' or 'If you push it one way or the other, you get this...'

"Brewers are told we can only ferment between certain temperatures, but what happens if you don't? Sometimes [the guidelines] are right, but sometimes you can push it harder."

One of the people who benefits from such work is Ellerslie sales manager Rachelle Rochecouste, who adds: "We can tell people a lot about how a new yeast works, for example, or it there are issues with it. It helps us know our product more thoroughly."

On occasion, they bring in brewers to conduct trials with them too as, ultimately, as well as bolstering the company's technical knowledge and sales pitches, Glenn's role is designed to provide insight to their customers.

"I think the industry is getting better," he says. "It doesn't need a huge amount of education. There's a little bit of fine-tuning that will help."


To find out more about his role, we've resurrected our A Day In The Life... series, so here's Glenn in his own words to tell us more. If there are any roles in the industry you'd like to know more about, drop us a line.


Technical brewer Glenn Harrison in front of fermenters filled with the same sour base beer being taken in different directions.

 

What is the key purpose of your role? 

To provide technical knowledge and support to our customers and to our sales team. A large part of this is experimenting with ingredients on our pilot brewery so we can really understand how they work in various conditions. We then pass that information on to brewers before they start using them to make sure they get the most out of them. I also offer brewers practical help on brewing issues they may have, advice on process improvement, and occasionally assist with recipe development too.  

At the end of hop harvest, I carry out a lot of testing on the new season hops so we can see how they compare year on year as well as assessing new varieties going through our breeding program. Last year, I experimented on some potential new hops and we decided a couple looked like they were worth moving to the next stage of development. This sort of stuff is really fun and exciting to be part of.

The other part of my role is more about education and imparting my knowledge and experience to less experienced brewers in the industry. At the moment, I’m planning an onsite sensory course for brewers in Melbourne that I’d like to bring interstate when possible. I also have a few other plans up my sleeve, too, that I can’t talk about just yet.


What benefits do you bring to Ellerslie and their partners, the brewing community, and even punters who do no more than enjoy beer? 

I think the biggest benefit I bring is practicality. I have hands-on brewing experience and knowledge. Reading about things or listening to podcasts is a great way to learn, but I still believe the best way to learn is by actually doing things yourself.

Over the years, I've learned a lot of things, both good and bad. Adding this experience with the trials and experiments I now do at Ellerslie, I can better understand how different ingredients and new methods work in real life, not just on paper. I come at this role as a brewer, not a scientist or a sales person or anything else, and that’s the angle I take when I’m looking at things. This gives us added trust from our customers as they know that we invest our time and money into making sure all of our ingredients do what we say they will do.

We also share this information with our supply partners so they can share it with their other customers around the world, too. Hopefully, this leads to everyone making and drinking better beer!

 

Two very different yeast strains at work in Glennsylvania.

Are there many people doing such a role in the wider beer world?

There are technical brewers working for growers and distributors but I’m not sure many have invested in building a quality pilot brewery to conduct trials and share information. One week, I might be doing malt efficiency trials, the next week it could be trialling a new yeast strain from Lallemand or a new experimental hop out of Hopsteiner in The States.

There is always something new and exciting to play with and the list of beers I want to brew is endless. Once you start playing with one ingredient it can lead you down a rabbit warren of other ideas.


What skills does someone need to be suited for your role? 

Real world experience is definitely top of the list. I’d like to think with more than ten years brewing experience people are happy to take my findings and advice onboard. I also need to consider the practical and financial implications for everyone when planning my trials. How does it help brewers? How does it help Ellerslie? 

In a nut shell, I need to have a good understanding of not only brewing the beer, but also a brewery’s operations and the financial implications that need to be taken into account. I can then tailor my recommendations to ultimately get what our customers are aiming for.


What does a typical day look like for you? 

My days are certainly varied, that's for sure. No two days are the same but typically speaking, if it’s a brew day I’m usually at work by 6am and I get straight into brewing before anyone else arrives.

My first four to six hours are a typical brewer’s day: brewing, checking ferments, cleaning tanks, etc. I then try to spend a few hours answering emails and returning phone calls. I also spend a lot of time putting all the data I have collected into reports or presentations that can be used by our customers or our sales team. 

Once the world gets back to some sort of normality, I’ll start travelling around a lot more again, visiting breweries all around Australia and possibly other parts of the world. I find that when I’m in a customer’s brewery there are things I’m able to pick up on that I can’t over a phone call or email and that may help solve an issue they’ve been having, or explain why their results are different from what others are getting. Every brewery is different.  

Basically, I believe I have the best brewing job. I get to be in this amazing industry, I get to brew and experiment with new ingredients before anyone else can, I get to talk about beer and, most importantly, I get to travel around and taste heaps of great Australian beers.


For other A Day In The Life... articles, head here. And do let us know if there are parts of the beer industry you'd love us to feature in the future.

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