As the beer scene in Bellingham and Whatcom County continues to expand and defy any preconceived expectations of its growth, it’s interesting to note how many from our brewing community came to their beer making from vastly different walks of life. Most – if not all – embarked on careers in disparate fields, found themselves awash in vocational conflict and left their industries to follow their hearts to the brewing process. Here’s some of the stories behind the beer you love.
Wander Brewing’s Chad Kuehl, 37, was an industrial engineer working as a technology consultant in British Columbia in his younger years, but gradually realized that desk work was not his cup of tea – or growler, as it were. “I wanted to work more with my hands,” he reflected. “I wanted to be on my feet and at the end of the day, I wanted something tangible I could hold in my hands.”
The engineer in Kuehl was attracted to the concept of fermentation, and he and wife Colleen had loved craft beer since their years living in San Francisco. The two began brewing beer in their apartment and touring Northern California breweries weekends. They spent a year backpacking around the world and along the way, determined that beer was their future career. In 2010 Chad embarked on a six month trip to brewery school at Vermont’s American Brewers’ Guild. By spring 2014 Wander Brewing opened, with just three other breweries operating in town.
As he reflects on his career change, Kuehl says his life at the brewery is full of A-ha! moments. “When I leave the brewery at the end of the day I walk through the production area and see people drinking beer I crafted: grain I milled, hops I threw in and a recipe I spent a couple of weeks refining. It’s really cool to see them drinking something I created, and I get to do that five days a week!”
Chuckanut Brewery’s Mari and Will Kemper are the beer veterans in Whatcom County, since they had their start in 1984, when most of our other brewers will still in elementary school. Will was a chemical engineer working too hard in the 1970s. Wife Mari, a dance teacher who managed events and conducted workshops, suggested he needed a hobby and that maybe, just maybe, he should try brewing beer. “He brewed in the garage for our friends and loved it from the beginning,” she recalled. “In fact, his beer was great from the beginning, and a terrific fit for him as a chemical engineer. But I had no idea when I suggested this hobby, what a rollercoaster I was getting onto!” Both left their first professions to turn beer into a full-time career, eventually opening Chuckanut in 2008. “We’ve gone through thick and thin,” she admits of the 40-year marriage, “but we’ve always had beer! We’re nerdy artists,” she continued. “We have a vision, we believe in what we’re doing and the quality of our products – not just the beer, but the food. What’s more, we’re getting better and better at it each year.”
The two Trosset brothers who form two thirds of Aslan Brewing Company – Frank 33, and Boe, 31, were building houses with their father in the years prior to 2014, but they weren’t loving it. Frank had started brewing beer as a hobby in 2010 but it wasn’t until the two brothers met Jack Lamb on a 2012 ski trip that they realized they were way more passionate about brewing beer than they were about home construction. Lamb, who had a job offer in Seattle doing marketing for Microsoft’s Xbox team, felt conflicted about the life in a “cubicle zoo” he was about to embark on. At the time he wanted to use talents and sweat equity to build something. The three men hit it off, ditched their jobs, formed a partnership and opened Aslan Brewing in Bellingham instead. A fourth, silent partner, Pat Haynes, joined them with experience in the restaurant industry at McKay’s Taphouse and Chuckanut Brewery. “There was a huge learning curve,” Boe admits of the 80-hour weeks they invested to get the organic brewery open. “But being in this business provides a wonderful connection to the community and it’s a very creative outlet – we’re creating liquid art. It’s been really nice to create and share our beer.”
David Vitt of Kulshan Brewing Company started his career as an auto mechanic and auto glass technician, following his father’s footsteps. “My biggest interest was working on cars doing restoration and hot rod modification,” he said. While he loved the work, it took a physical toll on his body. “Even in my early 20s I could tell that I needed to do something else or risk developing chronic injuries,” he said. Fermentation and home brewing had been a long-time hobby, so when he was given an opportunity to work in the brewing industry at Olympia’s Fish Brewing Company in 2005, Vitt was quick to accept. “I thought, ‘wow, this could be really rewarding and fun.’ The brewery had lots of younger folks with a common interest in making beer.” Vitt also found the mechanical aspect of brewing appealing. “It scratched my itch for fixing and building things. I immediately took my knowledge of cars and applied that to learning as much as I could about pumps, piping, welding, fluid dynamics, gas dynamics, steam boilers, electrical, valves, filters, bottling equipment, refrigeration and more. And then there’s the whole science aspect that is brewing – another lifetime of learning.” He dreamed of starting a brewery in his home town and wasn’t discouraged, back in 2012, when a friend declared him nuts because Bellingham already had two breweries at the time. “The challenge to learn about all this stuff is what keeps me engaged,” he reflected. “That and the awesome people that are in the industry: the customers, the community and the beer. It’s the best industry I can think of!”
Whatcom County beer lovers will likely agree. Our paths in life are often circuitous and though we may start careers in one place, we never know where different paths will lead. We’re lucky that for these four brewers, the yellow brick road led to Bellingham and satisfying second careers in beer.