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You learn by doing but you can find out more by listening, writes Alastair Gilmour.

The acclaimed Brewers Journal lecture series stopped off at Wylam Brewery with a range of topics presented by industry experts that had such an effect on audience members that they talked about it long after.

Presentations – organised by the monthly magazine aimed at the professional brewing industry – were so varied and well constructed that even the layman would have gleaned something from them.

Tim Sheahan, editor of Brewers Journal, introduced the session. Dave Stone from Wylam Brewery, spoke about The Battlefield For Hearts And Taps and how small, independent producers are fighting for counter space in pubs owned by national and global conglomerates.

In a world of hops, hops, hops, brewing technologist Fabian Clark from Muntons presented the case for looking at malted barley a lot closer than is currently the fashion and how it can influence beer through mouthfeel, flavour and body.

Sarah Barton, creator of Brewster Brewery, chose to focus on the changing face of brewing from her first introduction to the craft. She recalled her first invoice in 1998 was for a cask of beer at £55. Twenty years later, the likes of Greene King are selling beer direct for… £55. She has been long resigned to the fact that there is a battle.

The action of yeast came from Gino Baart, general manager of fermentation experts Fermentis, who offered an insight into sensory paths – “your wildest dreams” – through diversity, quality and production.

Sean Knight from industry leaders Fourpure Brewing Co looked at the environmental impact of brewing and how we can all create communities for sustainability.

Rich White, The London Brewing Company

Then Rich White from The London Brewing Company threw a full bag of spanners into the works by announcing his subject would be “the least interesting of the day”. Mental health in the brewing industry (which actually translates well into many professions).

Rich originates from New York; he holds qualifications in brewing technology from the World Brewing Academy and a certificate in brewing from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD), so he knows his stuff. He brought the American spirit of craft brewing innovation to the London Brewing Company, specialising in strong dark beers, IPAs and Belgian styles as well as barrel-aged and sour beers.

At the Brewers Journal seminar he asked: “It’s time to ask if brewing has a problem with mental health? I would say we do.

“Some would say we’ve got a dream job – and yes we do, but maybe that’s part of the problem – anxiety, masculinity, success, plus alcohol. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of brewers going home in tears, going home to their family as different people. It’s long hours; they’re solitary hours, it’s hard physical labour, you’re multi-tasking in a high stress environment – and when you’re also thinking about sales and staffing, you ask yourself ‘when am I going home?’”

Rich explained through his own experiences of coming to a new country with a fistful of awards to make new beers that his new employers would be proud of and drinkers would rave about was part of his problems with self-doubt and self-esteem.

“Me?”, he said. “The brewing industry is pretty much male dominated, you’re taking on additional duties and you might not have an employer you can speak to about things. You can never switch off.

“You have reduced energy, reduced efficiency, fatigue; you develop negativity and sarcasm, irritability; you work longer hours but achieve less. You experience self-doubt; there’s a lack of control, plus uncertainty and insecurity which you can’t avoid.

“Also, there’s a lack of job satisfaction which can lead to bad relationships with colleagues and problems with your working environment, such as noise, temperature and overcrowding. Small and medium–size employers don’t have access to the professional help that big companies have.

“You’re busy, you’re cash-strapped, not sure how to approach an issue and not able to tackle it. Mental health is still a taboo topic, it can affect your career prospects.”

Rich outlined a two-pronged approach to counter this: Take breaks, take holidays – holidays aren’t a privilege, they’re a right – eat properly, get your sleep, don’t overwork, talk – employers should listen more – learn, set clear expectations. Employers should know what’s expected of you, work through risk assessments and to not get upset or defensive – but learn.

“So where can I turn”, Rich asked. “The NHS is an obvious route, the Health & Safety Executive, and The Benevolent, the charity which provides advice and support to anyone who works, or who has worked, in the drinks industry.

He said: “The brewing industry needs to take mental health seriously. We need to be more selfish; talk, look out for each other – and employers need to take more responsibility.

“If people feel good they’ll be more productive, they’ll be happier and employers will make more money.”

The brewing sector needs to prick its own bubble and get out a bit more. You can start a conversation about burn-out and work-related stress in the craft brewing industry by following @BoilOverUk #NotAlone

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