Two decades ago Mark Duchow was planning his career as a mechanical engineer as a first-year student at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Needing a job to support himself, he answered an ad for a keg washer at a local brewery.
Over time Duchow worked his way up the ranks from scrubbing kegs to brewmaster and now operates his own brewery, Sweet Mullet’s, in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. And he hasn’t regretted the turn down a different career path.
“I said I’d stop doing beer and go back to engineering if beer stopped being fun,” Duchow said of turning his back on a gig in corporate America. “But it’s still fun.”
There are plenty of stories like Duchow’s choice to brew beer instead of following a more traditional career like engineering. Like Duchow, thousands of people in recent decades have ditched the cubicle for labor-intensive, hands-on work like beer-making and farming.
Craft brewing especially has enjoyed an unparalleled renaissance since then-President Jimmy Carter signed a bill in 1978 allowing individuals to home brew up to 200 gallons of beer annually, and employment in the industry is bubbling, too. Some 108,440 people worked for breweries in the United States in 2012, up from an estimated 100,000 in 2010, said Julia Herz, craft beer program director of the Brewer Association in Colorado.
The growth in brewing in turn has led to an increase in demand for hops, the plant that gives beer its flavor. James Altwies, president and CEO of Wisconsin-based Gorst Valley Hops, educates people on how to cultivate the crop. Many are farmers looking to diversify their crop yield, but he also encounters a number of “daydreamers” wanting to abandon their cubicles and hop into the field of hops.
“They’re tired of their cubicle life,” Altwies said. They’re “romanced by the idea of being in farming, but don’t want to be a traditional crop farmer. The beer business is hip and cool to be part of,” he said. “Those folks are the ones we find that have the most trouble making the transition.”
Altwies also offers a sobering statistic to those hoping to cultivate a new career field. He estimates that less than 1 percent of those who become hop farmers are successful in their new careers.
Despite the difficulties in planting their initial roots, organic farming also is growing in popularity as a career thanks to the relatively recent push for farm-to-table products.
Erin Barnett, director of Santa Cruz, California-based LocalHarvest, an informational resource on the industry, said in the past 20 years nonprofits and farmers with organic growing experience have helped educate others interested in raising food organically, which is eroding negative stereotypes about organic farmers and their craft.
Organic “farmers would get a lot of ribbing from their neighbors,” Barnett said. “But nowadays that certainly has shifted. I live in a small town of about 20,000 people, and the organic farmers here are like rock stars.”