A Career in Beer:
New Mexico’s fast-growing craft brewing industry opens new job avenues for UNM grads.

By Gwenyth Dolan

 

Skye Devore (’03 MBA) never intended to own a brewery. She wanted to be an FBI agent.

After graduating from the accelerated 3-2 MBA program, which she heard was a good background for FBI agents, she started working at a small family-owned manufacturing company in Albuquerque. The family was involved in several side-businesses, one of which was Tractor Brewing.

One day the person who had been running the brewery left and the owner came into her office and said, “How would you like to run a brewery in your spare time?” .

She said sure, thinking it couldn’t be different from running any other business. And it wasn’t. But adjusting to the craft beer culture took a little time.

“I went for my first ride along with a distributor and they said, ‘What are you having?’ and I said ‘Miller Light!’ And they were like, ‘No you’re not,’” she remembers. .

That was 10 years ago. Today she owns Tractor Brewing, teaches the introductory brewing class at CNM and is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer).

Devore’s career has paralleled the explosion of craft beer in New Mexico.

“It used to be that we had to make really light beers that were really approachable,” she says, “Now we’re a destination, we’re an anchor tenant, we are the draw. It’s not like ‘Who can I trick into trying craft beer today?’”

Today, customers are beating welltraveled paths to the award-winning taprooms and brewpubs that dot Albuquerque, Santa Fe and other cities across the state. And their thirst has created new job opportunities.

Skye Devore '03

 

UNM graduates— folks who studied theater arts, bioarcheology, Spanish, fine arts, business and medicine—are filling a lot of those jobs. None of them went to school knowing they wanted to work in a brewery.

What they have in common is an irrepressible passion for beer, the willingness to experiment (and fail), a strong sense of “Why the heck not?!” and a commitment to researching the product. Apparently there’s lots of research involved in making beer.

As the industry has matured its employees have diversified, says John Gozigian, head of the New Mexico Brewers’ Guild.

“We have a bunch of breweries that have grown so much that they now have specialized positions: accountants, HR people and marketing people, people who come out of the sciences who are running the labs,” Gozigian says.

What? You were imagining a horde of bearded slackers stirring homemade IPA in five-gallon buckets? Not even close.

Monica Mondragon (’07 MS) earned her degree in bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology and went to work at the Office of the Medical Investigator after graduation, doing toxicology labs in the autopsy suite.

But in her off hours, Mondragon and her husband were making their own beer and they were active in an enthusiast group, the Albuquerque Craft Beer Drinkers. She had taken over leadership of the group when she saw a job listing come across her email. Santa Fe Brewing was advertising for a lab technician, someone to measure yeast growth and gas levels and test for dangerous microbes.

“I thought: ‘Yeah, I could totally do that,’” she remembers.

The work she does now is not so different, really, from what she did in the autopsy suite, or what she’d be doing in other jobs; say at General Mills or Sandia Labs. But the culture is different. “The attitude is different. It does get stressful in the busy seasons and we all have to work harder, take shifts working the festivals, meet deadlines and fill orders, but it’s more fun,” she says.

Mondragon runs a chapter of the Pink Boots Society, a group of women working in the industry, and through it she’s made great friends with other women across the country.

“After working in academia and science for a long time, I like working with these people and hanging out with these people,” she says.

Having a scientific background is helpful for Missy Begay, the co-owner of Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. in Albuquerque’s Wells Park neighborhood, but running a brewery isn’t really her day job. Begay is a resident physician at UNM Hospital.

Monica Mondragon '07

Missy Begay

 

“There’s definitely an advantage because you really understand things like fermentation, oxidation and when things go wrong,” she says. “But it can also hinder you because brewing is definitely not like medicine. Yeast can’t talk.”

Begay and her business partner at Bow and Arrow, Shyla Sheppard, are inspired by their love of the land and the pair forages for some of the ingredients in their beer.

Begay is the creative director of the 15-month-old brewery, in charge of the business design, branding and social media. And she’s pretty well set up for that. Begay was a national high school poetry slam champ and she’s an avid photographer who travels around the state meeting people, taking pictures and promoting the brewery.

“I love going out to Four Corners and looking for sumac, meeting farmers and people who collect herbs, and photographing them,” says Begay, an avid Instagrammer.

Her interest in beer can be traced in part to her grandmother, who was a traditional Navajo herbalist. She’s fascinated by the history of beer in the Southwest, which she traces back to corn brews made at Chaco Canyon.

John Russell Heine '11

 

As Begay looks for reasons to pick up her camera, John Russell Heine (’11 BAFA) was looking for reasons to put his down. He was working as a camera operator in the film industry when he realized he was in the wrong business.

“Film just didn’t do it for me. I didn’t have any passion for it,” Heine says.

So he put down the camera and picked up a job at a homebrew supply store. When he decided to become a professional brewer, he enrolled in a brewing studies program the Siebel Institute in Chicago and continued with another program of study (real study, not just drinking) in Germany.

When he came home from Europe he stopped by Marble Brewery and ran into a friend who was working there. Now, he’s head brewer.

The Siebel program had given him a solid foundation in the science and theory of brewing, and it was geared toward medium and large operations, so Heine was perfectly positioned to help Marble grow while continuing to improve quality and efficiency.

“It’s a really fun industry,” he says, cautioning that it’s not all fun. “I like to say making beer is 90 percent cleaning and 10 percent paperwork,” he laughs.

The success of well-established breweries like Tractor, Marble, Santa Fe Brewing and Il Vicino’s Canteen Brewhouse, headed up by Gregory Atkin (’80 BBA, ’83 MBA), has paved the way for dozens of smaller businesses and created opportunities that might have seemed impossible a generation before.

Zach Gould '13

 

Zach Gould (’13 BA) is the co-founder and managing partner of Ale Republic, a Cedar Crest brewpub that got its start through a crowdfunding effort on Kickstarter. He met his business partner, Patrick Johnson, through Beer Underground, a club Johnson started while he was still at UNM.

Gould, who is only four years out of UNM, describes his job as brewer, server, bookkeeper, janitor, cheerleader and barback. Although Johnson is the head brewer, both men “wear every hat imaginable.”

“We like to make beer other people aren’t making, either because its not commercially a well known style or because someone hasn’t thought of it yet,” he says. “People who live here love beer and it’s awesome to have an audience really excited about what you’re doing.”

Ken Wimmer (’81 BAFA) also discovered the craft beer movement while he was at UNM, but for this theater arts major, a career in beer had to wait a little while. About 25 years.

Wimmer got out of college before many other local brewers were born and long before New Mexico’s local beer movement really took off.

He spent 25 years teaching drama and English in Albuquerque Public Schools, but whipped up pale ales, stouts and porters in his off-hours. When he retired from APS he decided to take a job at The Grain Hopper, a home brew supply store in Rio Rancho.

When he heard about a new brewery opening, he thought “Why not?” Wimmer approached the owners, gave them samples of his homebrews and showed off some of his recipes. They were sold. Now, he’s the house brewer for Hops Brewery, which opened this summer in Nob Hill.

For Wimmer it was worth the wait.

“What’s great about working in beer in New Mexico right now is how vibrant and alive the scene is,” he says.

He’s thrilled that finally, customers’ tastes have caught up with the enthusiasm and wide-ranging curiosity of the brewers.

Wimmer sees a bright future in the industry and encourages beer lovers to think of their hobby as a possible career.

“Just do it,” he says. “Just plunge into he deep end. Get a mentor, experiment and do lots of research.”

Ken Wimmer '11