Illustration by Julia Terbrock
Illustration by Julia Terbrock

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Beer industry employees in D.C. earn some of the highest average wages in the nation, according to the Brewers Association’s 2018 Economic Impact report. Workers make an average of $68,469 annually, second only to beer industry workers in New Jersey. But average earnings for brewery workers in D.C. are 41 percent below the national average, according to statistics furnished by Beer Institute chief economist Michael Uhrich.

By these measures, those who work inside breweries seem to make less than their peers who distribute and sell beer. A look through salary records on the company review site Glassdoor reveals that brewers in the U.S. make an average salary of $38,226. 

The District’s thirst for local beer and these figures made this writer wonder if the brewery employees testing water chemistry, macerating fruit, tending to yeasts, and filling cans have a good quality of life. More than a dozen current and retired brewers and brewery owners opened up about their wages, their work, and why they do what they do.

“If you want to stay in the industry, you need to marry well, and a lot of us have done that,” says Bill Madden, former owner of Mad Fox Brewing Company. It’s a common refrain. Talk to enough brewers and they’ll tell you their spouses, working in professions outside of brewing, tend to be the breadwinners. This can cause tension if one or both partners have unrealistic salary expectations of the beer industry.

Madden completed the Master Brewers Certificate Program at the University of California, Davis in 1995. He entered the industry as head-brewer-in-training for Capitol City Brewing Company, earning $30,000. “Once we had five units and I was overseeing all five breweries, I topped out with them around 50K,” Madden says. That was in 2004. 

Once he founded Mad Fox in 2010, he says his salary increased, but declined to say how much. Toward the end of the brewery’s run in July, Madden’s head brewer moved on, leaving him in charge of all facets of operations from brewing to distribution.

“I was working non-stop for six months,” he says. “Not taking a day off. At least 10 hours a day if not more.” While the beer industry supported Madden for 25 years, he says financial perks for brewers are hard to come by.

Hellbender Brewing Company CEO and head brewer Ben Evans puts in similar hours. “I’m in the brewery about 90 hours a week working,” he says. “Doing everything—literally. I’m not just the head brewer, I’m working the business end, I’m doing taproom managing, I’m managing our social media. I couldn’t have a family if I wanted to right now.” But, he says, “I absolutely love the industry I’m in and what I’m doing.”

When asked about the $68,469 average salary quoted in the Brewers Association report, Evans thought it sounded surprisingly high. “I’ve been paying myself essentially a fraction of what I do my employees, essentially making sure every penny outside of what they get paid is going into operating costs or expansion,” he says. 

“[$68,469] sounds like a lot,” 3 Stars Brewing Company brewer Meth Gunasinghe says. Gunasinghe has spent the last three years there and says he “wouldn’t trade it for anything.” Despite his reaction to the statistics, he says he’s seen a steady increase in pay as he’s risen through the ranks from assistant brewer to brewer.

According to the Brewers Association report, the District offers higher salaries than surrounding states: Maryland is listed at $48,864 ($19,605 less than D.C.), while Virginia’s average salary was $45,367 ($23,102 less than D.C.). 

“I think the Maryland and Virginia ones sound more accurate,” Evans says. “Ours would be way down if we factored mine in for the three of us [in production]. I know our guys are both over [$40K] but I don’t know what’s bringing it up to $68K … I would assume that there’s some ownership salaries in there that are skewing the numbers.”

The average wage numbers for the beer industry provided by the Brewers Association are higher than the wages of brewers, according to those interviewed for this story. Perhaps the numbers are being inflated by a combination of the inclusion of the salaries of distributors, retailers, and brewery owners.

While the beer consumer has seen a significant growth of breweries over the last decade, the labor market in brewing has seen some bloodletting in regards to earnings. Uhrich, from the Beer Institute, a national trade association for the brewing industry, importers, and industry suppliers, details a troubling trend. “Between 2008 and 2018, average earnings among brewery workers fell by an average of 8 percent per year, falling in 2018 to an average of only $45,000 per year.”

One local brewer, who requested anonymity, reported making $60,000 annually and said they believe their salary was high for brewers in the District. At their last post in a different D.C. brewery, they earned significantly less: $42,000.

Brewers have stayed in the industry despite falling salaries over the last decade. Madden, for example, felt that a big perk was being a part of the brewing community. “There’s all sorts of benefits that pop up there,” he says, ticking off a few. “Prestige, access, visiting other breweries and having the welcome mat put out for you. Let’s not even forget free beer.”

“I love brewing and I love the family aspect” says Sam Puffenbarger, a brewer at Alexandria’s Port City Brewing Company. He took an immediate $45K pay cut when he left a well paying environmental policy job for a brewing job at Atlas Brew Works. “But we do it because we love it,” he says. “If you do just a little research you know that you are not going to get rich as a brewer.”

He’s brewed at four breweries of different sizes that produce anywhere between 4,000 and 190,000 barrels of beer per year, and has seen how different companies treat their employees and how work culture differs. “Based on my small data set, it varies widely,” he says. “As a whole, I wish the industry would improve on salaries and benefits. It is a unique job that requires a lot of shitty, manual work, but also requires a lot of understanding of the science.”

Puffenbarger says Port City “is by far the best brewery I have brewed at as far as salary and benefits.” The company matches his 401(k), offers medical, dental, vision, and life insurance, provides monthly cell phone credits, and foots the bill for trips to gatherings like the Great American Beer Festival and the Craft Brewers Conference.

He also gets reimbursed for professional development events and three weeks paid time off, plus a free beer after his shift is complete, a monthly gift card to spend on beer and merchandise, and allotments twice a year for brewing boots and work clothes.

Port City is the D.C. area’s largest brewery, which explains why Puffenbarger has a meatier salary and benefits. Its founder, Bill Butcher, estimates Port City produced 16,000 barrels of beer so far this year.

According to Uhrich, many of the new breweries that have opened since 2008 remain very small.

“Smaller firms tend to pay less, and as a result, average earnings among brewery workers have fallen,” he explains. “In many industries, the larger, more established firms pay a lot more than the smallest ones, and there aren’t currently any major brewers located in D.C.” The Brewers Association defines small brewers as those who make six million barrels of beer or less annually.

The biggest brewery in D.C. history was the Christian Heurich Brewing Company. At its height, the company could produce 200,000 barrels of beer annually. Christian Heurich was a brewer prior to becoming a brewery owner. The conversation of compensation has been on brewers’ lips for centuries.

Heurich’s grandson, Gary Heurich, wrote The Christian Heurich Brewing Company, 1872-1956, published by the Washington Historical Society in the 1970s. Addressing labor practices at his grandfather’s brewery, Gary wrote about a salary request in the brewery at the turn of the 20th Century:

“The new brewmaster was Carl Eisenmenger who held that position until 1898. One day in 1898 he approached Mr. Heurich and demanded a raise. Mr. Heurich asked him what he would have to do if he (the brewmaster) died. Mr. Eisenmenger answered that Mr. Heurich would have to get a new brewmaster. To that Mr. Heurich replied, “Consider yourself dead.”