From classroom to cask ale: How I quit teaching to become a brewer

A white wine for the lady? No thanks. 

Sue Fisher is Senior Brewer at Gadds’ Ramsgate Brewery. She has always enjoyed a nice real ale, but it took a while to realise she could turn her passion into a career. 

After a long career in teaching, Sue decided to take the plunge and worked her way into the brewing industry. She is now living every beer-lover’s dream; surrounded by beer everyday at work.

Here’s how she did it…

Sue, tell us what you were doing before you became a brewer.

I worked for nearly eighteen years in the art and design department of a local further education college. I started out as a technician for a few years, then moved into teaching. 

I taught art to adults of 19 years and over, giving them a second chance in education and enabling many of them to start art and design degrees. 

What started you thinking about a career change?

I worked as part of a great team of people and I loved my job… until the age threshold for course entry was lowered to 18. 

The 19+ level had meant that anyone applying to the course had to have been out of education for at least a year, giving them time to consider what they really wanted to do.

But the drop in age level meant that students could go straight into the course from school. For the first time there were problems with group dynamics and behavioural issues. I began to not enjoy the job so much. 

Then the department started to shrink and I had job uncertainty. I began to wonder, “if I had another job other than teaching, what would I really like to do?” Well, I’d like to brew beer for a living, I thought. But that idea was put on hold for another two years.

Why beer?

My long standing love of beer, in particular, cask ale, or ‘real’ ale began in my student days. The moment that I was introduced to my first pint of cask ale by my then boyfriend and his friend sparked an interest in the process of brewing and making beer. At that point any home brewing I did consisted of trying shop bought kits with varying degrees of success, but it was all fairly drinkable.

I joined CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, and went to local and national beer festivals, sometimes volunteering to serve the beer as well as drink it. After finishing my degree I completed an enterprise course in running your own business. One of the tasks was to make a presentation about something you were interested in, I chose beer and brewing. A couple of years later my first ‘micro teach’ session at work was about, yes you’ve guessed it, brewing beer.     

What made you think brewing could be a realistic career choice?

Late in 2011 I did a course on how to brew with raw ingredients and basic equipment. The following year I bought my own 60 litre stainless steel kit and started brewing from scratch at home, experimenting with simple recipes and producing beers that I was fairly pleased with. 

It was then that I started to really think about the possibility of brewing for a living, but unfortunately I didn’t have several thousands of pounds to set up my own commercial brewery. 

Then in February 2013 I went to Craft Beer Rising, in Brick Lane, London. This was my epiphany. 

It was the first festival I went to where the actual brewers were there serving their beers and talking to customers.  I walked round the stands sampling and chatting to a few brewers about their beers, and in some cases, their branding, as my artistic background gives me this interest too. 

The atmosphere had a real friendly buzz, and I felt “Yes, this is it. This is what I want to be part of!” It was one of the most useful afternoons I’d ever had and really channelled my thoughts towards somehow becoming a brewer. 

What was the first step you took?

At Craft Beer Rising, I spoke to a couple of female brewers to ask how they got into the profession. I was advised to volunteer with a local brewery to get work experience, so that is what I did. 

How much volunteering did you do?

I was fortunate to have my Fridays free at the time and so in April 2013 I spent a great brew day with Peter and Mike Meaney at their newly formed Mad Cat Brewery in Faversham. 

Following that I helped out for a couple of days at The Foundry Brewpub in Canterbury and then I was invited to turn up at 5am to help with the early shift of a double brew at Gadds’ Ramsgate Brewery. I had a brilliant day helping with brewing and bottling and for some reason seemed to fit in quite well. Eddie told me to come back whenever I liked and “if we need you we’ll pay you”. 

Over the course of the next month I did a couple more days at Gadds’ and then became busy with my photography students’ end of year exhibition. 

In the meantime I realised that I couldn’t bring myself to do another year of teaching at the college so I gave my 2 months notice at the end of June.   

I told Eddy I’d handed my notice in. The following week I started helping out at the brewery again and he offered me a job.

And the rest is history!

I think it’s fair to say that brewing and the world of beer is a pretty masculine area to be in. Did you have any concerns about that?

Personally, no. Since leaving art college I’ve tended to socialise with more male friends than female and generally get on easier with men, so working in a team that’s largely male wasn’t an issue. 

There are a fair few of us female brewers though and I’m part of a group called Project Venus, set up by Sara Barton of Brewsters Brewery. I’ve also been involved with the International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day, founded by Sophie de Ronde of Burnt Mill Brewery

The brewing industry in the UK and across the world is a really friendly and helpful community and personally I haven’t experienced any sexist attitudes within it. 

I have had occasions where people make assumptions: I’m a woman and I work in a brewery, therefore I must work in the office….er, no, I brew the beer. I’m a brewer and I just happen to be a woman though, it’s no big deal.

What were the reactions of friends and family when they found out you were leaving teaching to become a brewer?

When I told my Mum that I had handed my notice in at the college, she said “Good!”

She knew I hadn’t been happy in my work for a long while (she has since also discovered her love for beer!)

When I told my best friend, she said “I knew it! I always knew you’d end up doing something to do with beer or brewing”. 

What was the most difficult part about changing career?

It took almost a year to become full-time.  At the start I was employed on a part-time casual basis and there were a few weeks where the brewery had no work for me, and the uncertainty was a little worrying. 

Wages are considerably less at the brewery than at the college. However, in my last two years at the college I was working part-time so the salary drop wasn’t as noticeable and I became considerably happier and less stressed. 

What challenges did you come up against when you started brewing?

When I started paid work at the brewery, Eddie told me the first week would be a test to see if I could handle the physical work. 

During that week I had aches in muscles I never knew I had, and on the Friday evening in the pub, a friend told me I looked absolutely knackered. However, it was good to feel physically tired rather than mentally tired. 

It’s a lot more physical, whether you’re brewing, filling casks or washing empties. I enjoy this though as you feel you’re getting a bit of a workout throughout the day.

I do get frustrated about my strength compared to my male colleagues, and after nearly 7 years I still struggle to lift a full firkin higher than about 2 feet! However, they do weigh over 50kg and we have a forklift, so for the sake of our backs none of us should actually need to lift them much at all. 

What do you love the most about the work you are doing now?

I’ve realised over the years that first and foremost I’m a maker. Whether it’s making a drawing, a photograph or a print, or making a pint of beer. I love that I’m making a quality product every day and when I create a new beer that customers love, the feedback from them is very special. It’s a great feeling to see people enjoying your beer and going back to the bar to order another one. It’s not unlike selling a piece of artwork!

What have been the highlights so far as a brewer?

Being part of the first International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day (IWCBD) in 2014. Female brewers (brewsters) across the world brewed their own version of Unite: a 4.5% pale ale and this was my first opportunity to devise a recipe for a commercially available beer. 

Later that year I experimented with creating a beer containing locally grown Kent cherries, which resulted in the creation of two bottled beers: both 5% pale wheat ales, one matured on Kent cherries and the other matured on Kent apricots. I Dream Of Apricots was awarded Best Buy in the Independent on International Women’s Day that year.

Creating a new beer is always an exciting time and I have had great customer feedback for recent beers such as Warhorse, brewed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day and Cloud Surfer, a hoppy, juicy pale ale brewed twice a year. Each time I am able to tweak the recipe either by adjusting the hops or the malt bill and the beer now has a significant customer following, with people asking for it before it’s brewed.         

Some might think that turning a passion into a career could actually be a passion-killer. Is the passion for brewing still there?

Yes. I have recently had the opportunity to step up to the role of Senior brewer. I’m enjoying the extra responsibility and learning loads everyday. I’m looking forward to the next new brews and the possibility of some collaboration projects with other brewers in the future. 

What advice would you give to someone thinking about doing something radically different in their career?

Be proactive. Do some research, get out there and meet people and if you can, get some volunteer experience, because that will enable you to find out if it’s something you really want to do. If it is, then go for it. 

Cheers to that!

Thanks Sue for telling us your radical career change story.

If you’ve been inspired to follow your passion but unsure of what to do, why not book a free coffee chat with a coach to get started on your journey?

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Gabrielle Collard
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I’m a certified coach from London, Marketing Consultant and founder of The Coach Space. For enquiries email gabrielle@thecoachspace.com or connect with me on LinkedIn.

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