Two techies walk into a bar. One is tall with a ponytail, the other is short, not much hair, great beard. They sit in silence as they consult the six-page list of beers on tap: IPAs, double IPAs, triple IPAs, farmhouse ales, sours, milk stouts, nitro milk stouts; the list goes on. iStock “The worst
Two techies walk into a bar. One is tall with a ponytail, the other is short, not much hair, great beard.
They sit in silence as they consult the six-page list of beers on tap: IPAs, double IPAs, triple IPAs, farmhouse ales, sours, milk stouts, nitro milk stouts; the list goes on.
“The worst thing about Las Vegas is not being able to get a decent craft beer,” one of them says to the other, clearly dejected. The other pulls out his phone and starts consulting his Untappd app, so that he can cross reference any beers he might have earmarked with the menu, hoping to sample something new out here in the middle of the desert.
It was the evening before Amazon Web Services kicked off its biggest conference of the year, and these two software developers from San Luis Obispo in California were here for a busy week of learning about the latest advancements in cloud computing. They loved talking shop, but they really loved talking beer. They were amongst their people.
Bits and brews
Engineering and brewing have long gone hand in hand, but the craft beer boom has neatly coincided with the growth of technology jobs in urban centres like San Francisco, Seattle, London and Dublin, creating a captive, and very passionate audience.
Seattle, for one, is not just home to two of the biggest technology companies on the planet in Amazon and Microsoft, but Washington State’s Yakima Valley is also home to the a large majority of the world’s most popular hop varieties when it comes to brewing craft beer: Simcoe, Centennial, Citra and Mosaic, to name just a few.
Former Amazon network engineer Grainne Walsh remembers getting caught between the two worlds back in the late 2000s, when she discovered Seattle’s “incredible beer scene. It was really eye opening to see that, where you could just go into any bar and find interesting beers,” she told Techworld.
Walsh eventually left her engineering job in 2011 to start up Metalman Brewing, a microbrewery based just outside of Dublin, before the craft beer boom really took hold in Ireland.
“At the time I was conscious I had to get out of tech and knew in my heart and soul that I wasn’t going to be as geeky and avid and as obsessive and passionate as a lot of people I worked with were,” she said. “When they wanted to talk about APIs I wanted to talk about IPAs.”
Metalman started out by selling a lot of beer to the offices of other tech companies in Dublin, like Airbnb, showing a real thirst for its product from the tech crowd.
When asked if technology geeks tend to make good beer geeks, Walsh liked to think it was a broader type of person who becomes as obsessed with beer as she has.
“It is the concept of being really geeky about anything and this thing you and a limited number of people get really excited about and being different to the a mainstream culture and interested in other things,” she said, “so techies tend to love craft beer but also good coffee, good food and other things that aren’t as traditionally mainstream or average.”
Bread and beer
Now, as people who work in technology increasingly face the risk of burnout, they are looking for ways to spend their problem-solving energies in ways that don’t involve their laptop screens or video games.
Andy Parker, the founder of Elusive Brewing in Wokingham had worked in IT for 20 years when he started home brewing as a hobby in 2012 to “escape from the stress and pressures of IT,” he told Techworld.
“It was something I did to bumble about the kitchen and not worry about anything IT related,” he said, “but the engineering background comes in handy. It’s all fairly scientific.”
Now his old electronic engineering skills come in handy when monitoring and maintaining the equipment in the brewery.
“My last role was a solutions architect and it was all performance tuning and getting that iterative approach right, to make a change and monitor over and over again,” he said. “Brewing is really similar. That desire to perfect what you do aligns really closely.”
Just as techies in San Francisco have become obsessed with making the perfect loaf of Sourdough bread, brewing appeals to similar personality traits: obsessiveness, technical skill and the need for constant iteration in the pursuit of a perfect result.
Take former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold’s five-volume 2,500-page tome Modernist Bread as the physical embodiment of this obsessive streak in a certain class of engineer.
In her piece on the topic, Eater writer Dayna Evans asks: “Aren’t the tech bros creating a parody of themselves in tinkering with bread – bread, for crying out loud! – in such an obsessive way?”
“Shouldn’t we encourage more technologists to pick up hobbies like this?” Fred Benenson, a former VP of data and now a fellow at Kickstarter rebuked. “It connects you to your environment, friends, and being present with food. Maybe we shouldn’t be thinking about the trend as some kind of threat to the purity of baking, but more about an opportunity to help technologists rehabilitate their humanity in the kitchen.”
Early bread and beer production are both thought to date back to around 5000 BC, and there can be something grating about tech bros (and broettes) ‘disrupting’ these traditional processes, especially when it is documented obsessively on Instagram and personal blogs.
In the same piece, Maurizio Leo, author of The Perfect Loaf sourdough bread blog, provides the most striking example of an engineer bringing their lexicon to a traditional process like baking.
“I spent a lot of time – I don’t want to say ‘debugging,’ because that sounds really technical – but just working on recipes and trying to teach myself and there really weren’t a lot of materials out there at the time to do that,” he told Evans. “With bread baking, you kind of follow an algorithm to produce a result and that result isn’t always what you think it’s going to be, so you kind of have to step back and debug and diagnose the steps along the way.
“That iterative procedure and working through those algorithms kind of appeals to engineer. There’s the precision part of it, but also, when it comes down to it, technical people like to work with their hands. You want to construct something and I think bread is a good way to do that.”
Daniel Lowe founded Fourpure in London’s brewery-heavy Bermondsey district with his brother Tom in 2013, but he started his career in IT. He has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and software engineering from the University of Birmingham, after which he founded a data networking company which was eventually acquired by a private equity company, meaning that when he left a non-compete clause made him reassess what he wanted to do next.
“I wanted to enter a different industry where I saw similarities in terms of opportunity for high growth,” he told Techworld. “I wanted to disrupt, to use technology where other people traditionally haven’t and bring intelligence and analysis and trending and backend systems to an industry where they weren’t commonplace, to bring this startup of mine a competitive advantage out of the box.”
In short, he wanted a high growth industry that was stuck doing things as it had for hundreds of years, relying on paper brewing books and centuries-old processes. “I think few people in this industry use any systems whatsoever,” he said. “People thought I was crazy and said that’s not how it is done. It wasn’t even a philosophical argument, they thought it was madness.”
This data-centric approach has allowed Fourpure to double in size last year and, after being acquired by Australian food and beverage giant Lion last year, is planning to double in size again in 2019.
Essentially, Lowe puts the tools and data into the hands of brewers to ensure they aren’t wasting their effort brewing something they can’t sell.
“We have some developed metrics on what works in the market and our brewers use the systems we have to create recipes and show them the finished goods price… so they have the tools to go back and develop it within the guidelines we have set out,” he explained.
Leaving tech for brewing
Lowe isn’t a brewer, rather he has successfully applied a tech startup mindset to the brewery business. Then there are people like Jaega Wise, the head brewer at Wild Card in Walthamstow, London. Before brewing full time she studied for a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at Loughborough University and worked as a production technician at GE Water and Process Technologies (now SUEZ).
Commercial brewing is by its nature an exact science – a degree change in temperature at one stage of the process can change the flavour of the end product – but Wise believes that the best brewers have to combine an aptitude for science with a good pallet.
Walter Isaacson, the biographer of Leonardo Da Vinci and Steve Jobs, told Forbes: “The theme of all my books is that true creativity and innovation come from being able to stand at the intersection of art and science” and this is something every brewer I talked to alluded to.
“The two go hand in hand,” Wise agrees. “Beer is a science and an art, you cannot do one without the other… The best brewers are scientists. It’s perfectly possible to make beer with a finger in the ear attitude but can you do it twice? There needs to be a mixture of both.”
Engineers don’t just make good beer makers though, they have long made good beer consumers.
Many tech startups have in-office bars with rotating craft beer taps and even on-site brewmasters. You needn’t look any further than the tech startup’s favourite co-working space of WeWork and its (recently changed) free beer policy, to see the link between working in technology and enjoying a craft beer. In fact, craft beer taps have joined the ping pong table as a clear marker of a ‘cool’ tech office in recent years.
Sebastien Tron is the cofounder of Hopsy, a Californian startup which deliver keg-fresh beer and a specialised tap machine to homes and offices. “We started with technology employees as early adopters. Lots of tech companies bought beer from us,” he told Techworld.
“In places like the Bay Area, where people are well connected, I think there is a pretty big connection with craft beer. People who work in technology tend to be early adopters and technology enables craft beer to grow,” he said. “The first aspect makes it obvious in areas where the tech scene is so present that people have a mindset of early adopters and will try more things or want be at the leading edge.”
Greg Avola, the cofounder of Untappd, a popular app for tracking and rating beers, told Techworld that although Silicon Valley techies were its best early adopters, its usage tends to “flow where the beer flows”, with New York, Chicago and London dominating check-ins on the app.
That being said, he believes the beer geek “mentality lives on” in the technology community, especially when it comes to seeking out the latest fads, which last year was for New England-style IPAs and this year, he predicts, for sour beers.
Untapped has 6.5 million users, and although the company doesn’t report demographics, Avola admits that it skews towards the male gender, much like the technology industry itself. “One thing we are focused on for 2019 is being more globally accepting to all types,” he added.
Richard Brewer-Hay has made a career running social media for some of the biggest technology companies in San Francisco, starting with Yahoo! and now as director of PR and social media at analytics company Splunk, but his true love has always been making and sharing beer.
He started home brewing the week after his honeymoon in 2003, soon opening his side gate to the local community of mostly new dads to drop off their stroller for a quick beer and a chat, a community activity he fears is disappearing with the next generation of technology workers.
With the rise of food and drink delivery apps, people are going out less in the Bay Area, crippling already hamstrung local businesses and killing any sense of community outside of company bubbles. So Brewer-Hay saw his role as more of a publican than a brewer, something he has carried on at Splunk, where he helps curate the beer taps in the 1st-floor bar of its downtown office and even collaborating with the nearby 21st Amendment brewery to make a company beer.
“I’m not a tech head really,” he told Techworld. “I don’t look under the hood of machines, but most good brewers do and are scientists and chemists and some of the best beers I have had are by very introverted people who are fine tuning their craft. I am more of a publican that just so happens to make pretty good beer.
“In Silicon Valley there isn’t the same pub culture as there is in Britain,” he added. “So there is a desire for interaction and in the tech scene in particular I feel that interaction is going away.”