The Road to Becoming a Brewer with Monica De La Torre
Monica De La Torre is on the road to becoming a brewer. Along the way, she’s discovered how hard work can pay off, and the positive effects of working with like-minded outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen.
We met Monica at what can only be called the “hot ditches” of Bishop, California. The 2017 Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing festival had just wrapped up and we were ready for some much-needed relaxation in a natural hot spring… or ditch. We bobbed about in the shallow (and only marginally warm) water while sipping spiked cider, chatting with some nearby climbers, and enjoying the tranquil view of the Sierras. As we drank and floated more girls arrived, disrobed, and quickly ran into the sleeting weather in seek of the refuge of the lukewarm spring water. Some wore our Arêt TOURA tops, some jumped in topless. One of them, we soon discovered, was a brewer in training named Monica. Her unique story piqued our intrigue, and we invited her down to San Diego to photograph our TOURA high cuts and get to know more of her story.
B: Hi Monica! Would you like to introduce yourself and explain what you do?
M: My name is Monica and I work at Park District brewing company and Mumford brewing company.
B: What lead you down the path to becoming a brewer?
M: I started out as a bar-back and asked to observe their brew days. So I showed up at 6 in the morning, because it’s a whole process. I love the science behind it, and I love the fact that creativity is involved. The head brewer where I work is is a woman: Devin Randal, who used to be at Pizza Port. She is a very intense person to work for.
B: Oh really?
M: Yeah, but not intense as in mean. She just knows what she’s doing and it’s what she loves doing. I think it’s amazing that she really cares about it. I consider her to be a mentor now. I started cleaning kegs, building grain palettes, scrubbing the floors and now I’m a part of the group!
B: Did you do any home brewing before brewing for your job?
M: Yeah, The first time I did it bombed.
B: Like literally or figuratively?
M: My friend Steven is a home brewer who had built home brew kits. He’s the one that really kickstarted it for me. I was always really intimidated by doing it. It’s very temperamental, one small mistake and everything can go wrong. That’s what we think happened on this first batch. Brewing is pretty much is 90% cleaning. Everything has to be sanitized to a tee. Any sort of bacteria can kill the yeast and stop the fermentation.
B: Have you brewed since then?
M: Yes, the assistant brewer Dave who I climb with we’ve brewed a few times. He’s extremely precise. We’ve made a whit bear that came out pretty well, and a smoked porter that wasn’t so great. It tasted like hot dog juice.
B: What is the most interesting ingredient you’ve worked with?
M: I’ve zested like, hundreds of kumquats. I’ve zested like hundreds of Meyer lemons… and taken off some fingertips in the process. Toasted coconuts, toasted almonds, chopped up vanilla beans. I recently named a beer from the other brewery I work at that is a coconut and vanilla bean. I named it Island Tings [giggles], it’s pretty good actually.
B: What challenges do you face on your journey to becoming a brewer?
M: I guess it’s just a lot to learn. Going from brewing in home vs. brewing on a commercial scale is vastly different, overwhelming and really daunting. I don’t want to screw anything up on such a huge scale.
B: Yeah, that’s a lot of pressure.
M: At one of the breweries I work at our beers go to distribution so If I keg a beer wrong, if it’s over-carbonated that keg is pretty much ruined. If I don’t sanitize something correctly the beer can be ruined while transferring it. I’m pretty much learning as I go, the biggest challenge is trying to remember everything. Before I was only working one day a week, but now that I’m doing it full time I’m able to retain a lot more information, so it’s not as scary.
B: More habitual?
M: Yeah, now I understand it more scientifically, and I’m not as afraid to speak my mind. Now I can say “Oh, this beer tastes like melon” because if it tastes like melon to me that’s valid since every palette is different.
B: Describe a day in the life.
M: I get up pretty early. I mill the grains and prepare the ingredients. Whether it’s barley malt, oats or whatever will go into the beer. Each bag of ingredients is about 55lbs. They mill, and start the boil. It’s all very time sensitive. I help brew, but since I’m starting out primarily I clean the kegs or make room for the next beer that’s going into fermentation. For the most part, I’m cleaning. There’s a mountain of dirty kegs, and my goal every time is to clean them… it never happens. It’s an endless mountain.
B: What’s your favorite beer to drink?
M: I like Saisons.
B: What do you like about them?
M: Well for starters, I could drink it right now. [it’s a beautiful sunny day and we’re laying out on a big blanket in my backyard]
They’re really light, really floral. Some have a nice fruit note. I love IPAs too, there’s a new trend called the “hazy IPA”.
B: Your head brewer is a woman as well, do you feel this creates a different environment for creativity than in brew operations lead by men?
M: No actually, I’ve worked for two different head brewers (one female, one male) and they both have very different styles. She [Devin] is very old school, while he [Peter] is very new school. Devin’s all about the apprenticeship and earning your dues, which I get. Whereas Peter’s mentality is more of “I’ll show you once, now do it.” I’ve never really thought about it though. I’ll have to ask her about it now that it’s on my mind!
B: Do you have your sites set on becoming a head brewer?
M: Not really, working in a brewhouse has given me freedom to climb more. Bartending I had to work until 3-4 AM. I was too tired and would sleep all day. With brewing, I have to get up early so most of my day is working and climbing. It’s something that’s really saving me. Last year I went through a really terrible breakup, I had a really bleak outlook on myself, on everything. I had been working with some egos at the bar (front of house) and the brewers Devin and Dave were like hey, why don’t you join us back here? We like you here. They’re all very outdoorsy as well, and they climb so now it’s a collective thing. We brew… we hike...
B: I love that you just used the word collective. [lauhgs]
B: It’s what we’re calling the website.
M: Oh awesome! Well, it is though! We’re all very encouraging. We encourage each other to bring our own lunch to save money, or just have one beer to go climb and make sure to leave time to do 20-minute ab workout. It’s really cool how we’re all encouraging each other. Me this year vs. me last year, completely different person. I think working in the brewhouse and climbing has helped.
M: But anyways back to the question. Do I want to become a head brewer? I don’t know yet. I just like the atmosphere I’m in and I’m really happy.
It’s not an ego thing for me. I like being a part of this team, this “collective”.
I like being able to work for them, and whatever the end product my name is still attached to it. It’s a healthy place for me to be in and wherever it takes me from here, whether it is head brewing or not, I’m open to it. I’m not pressuring myself into it. Like I usually do.
B: What advice would you give to other aspiring female brewers? Are there any resources or community outlets you would point them to?
M: Don’t be afraid to get dirty, and don’t be afraid to start at the bottom. No matter what age, no matter where you are in life. I literally came in and scrubbed the floor. I still do that to this day. I clean kegs, and I have no problem with that. It’s all hard work that you’re putting into it, and it’s your hard work. The people you are working for are going to notice that. And if they don’t then get out of there! There are breweries all over the place. Just walk into the tap room, give them your information and tell them I’m willing to clean whatever. Do you need your trash taken out? I’ll do it. People think brewing is a glamorous job. It’s far from it. [laughs] You’re gonna be disgusting, and don’t bother painting your nails because there’s no point.