Hi! Welcome to the brew blog.
This is the story – and reflections – of my journey into the world of beer brewing. And it starts, unofficially, long before the pandemic of 2020.
In 2014, I moved away from my home in Atlanta, GA; away from everything I ever knew and started living with my partner in Norfolk, VA. The Hampton Roads area was burgeoning with craft beer and a couple breweries had made themselves household names. Excited at the prospect of doing something new, something other than bartending or food industry work, I enthusiastically applied to the closest one – and I never heard back. My partner was supportive nonetheless and we even tossed around the idea of home brewing.
(It would be four more years before we started home brewing.)
Two years later, we were living in rural North Carolina. We had big box stores and a few bars with a decent craft beer selection, but no breweries for hundreds of miles. And the wineries left something to be desired in terms of variety. We began growing our own grapes with ideas of being home vintners someday. My partner began doing all the reading and researching, but it would be years before we could produce anything viable from our own grapes.
And two years after that, we moved to southern Jersey. Land of breweries and the newest (officially recognized) wine region in the country. I became fixated on trying to get my foot into the door of one of those breweries. Or, at the very least, a winery. It took several months and a government shutdown, but by sheer luck and terrific timing, I got hired as a bartender at MudHen Brewing Company in 2019, just before their 1st anniversary.
It was the newest brewpub in Cape May County and it’s the only brewery in Wildwood as of time of publication. MudHen is in a league of its own – a huge food menu, craft seasonal cocktails, and 10-11 beers of their own on tap with no outside beers sold on premises. When MudHen hires new people, they are destined to attend beer school with the head – and only – brewer, Tony Cunha. It took a little over a month before I was able to attend my first beer school, but I was eager to learn about the product made on-site.
I was thrilled to attend my first beer school. Tony gave us a thorough run-down of the process, from milling the grain to the serving tanks in the cold box. It was a lot of information, but all we needed was the bare bones of what went on in our brewery. We did a tasting afterwards and I think I mentioned one of his beers tasting like PBR, which I love, to which he said, “Thank you.” And I think he meant it, so I thought I was off to a pretty good start. I tried our IPAs and – never having found an IPA I wanted more than one of – I was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved our Baker’s Double IPA. I expected bitter beyond belief and was instead met with hints of citrus, a balanced, slightly-bitter IPA that sat at a hefty 91 BUs. Even better? We had it on nitro and if you’ve never had an IPA or DIPA or even TIPA on nitro? You’re missing out.
I digress. I was fairly intimidated by all the knowledge that Tony bestowed upon us that day, but a lot of it stuck. I wanted to serve our product – his creations – to as many people as possible. I knew that if I could change my mind about IPAs, I could change someone else’s mind about them, too. “Hoppy” was no longer a deterrent for me to try a beer and it shouldn’t be anybody’s deterrent, honestly. We’ll get to an entry on hops some other time. I wanted our guests to love our beer as much as they loved the idea of being in a brewpub, so maybe I felt a little heavier weight on me to serve the product to the best of my ability. Every time Tony was on the other side of that big glass window, watching me pour, I would sweat. Was there too much head on this beer? Not enough? Did I rinse the glass, first? Is everything I’ve ever learned about beer service wrong?
And I guess he saw me learning or saw my passion for beer because he completely took me by surprise when he invited me out to Denver last year. I went from being the New Kid to part of what felt like an elite team to represent our brewery and introduce our beer to the West and what an adventure it was! That, too, is a whole other blog post.
On the way to Denver, I rode with Tony to the Philadelphia airport. We talked shop and eventually he mentioned he was looking for an assistant brewer. I thought, surely there must be someone with experience he can find for that position – ESPECIALLY someone local. Someone who wouldn’t need to learn every single little thing about the equipment or who could already hoist 55lb bags of grain above their head. But the weeks moved forward and nobody filled the position. Season was coming to an end, bar hours were getting shorter, and I took a leap and inquired about the assistant brewer position, despite having JUST begun home brewing with my partner. Tony was more supportive and welcoming than I’d ever imagined taking on someone with basically no experience, but I’m forever grateful for it.
In late 2019, I began working festivals all over the state, as well, while waiting for official word when I’d start my journey as assistant brewer. Then, one day this past February, Tony gave me news that I’d be official on March 1st with my first day as his assistant March 3rd. We bottled for the World Beer Cup and began prep for Atlantic City Beer Fest – the next biggest festival we’d be going to with a team. But Covid-19 began spreading stateside and large events were getting canceled one-by-one. Still, I felt like our little bubble down here might provide some solace from the pandemic. But on March 16th, I got a text from Tony – no work until further notice. I was broken-hearted, unsure of anything at that point. I got the same text from my bar manager, which meant I was out of work for an undetermined amount of time and I was devastated.
I filled my time with home brewing. My partner and I had brewed an Altbier in February, just before our fifth anniversary, and so we bottled that and brewed a Dunkelweizen. In April, I visited Tony and we had the extra bottles of beer we’d sent off to WBC, which got turned into hand sanitizer, wondering where we would’ve placed in competition. And then, in late April, Tony gave me the second-best news of 2020 – I’d be resuming my position as assistant brewer.
So, here we are. Amidst a global pandemic, I’ve begun my journey. And I have so much more to share about how I got here and where I’m going.