Last September things started changing at the Black Bear Brewery in Orono, Maine. The taproom expansion allowed for a larger bar, more tables, a small stage and space for darts and foosball. The transition made Black Bear’s taproom feel less like the place you ran in to fill your growler and get a sample of Tim Gallon’s newest brew and more like the spot you wanted to gather with your friends on a Friday evening after work. But the new taproom wasn’t the only change happening, there was a distinct change in the Brewhouse as well, one that maybe the dedicated locals picked up on or maybe not. Tim Gallon stepped away from the Brewhouse to focus on the business side of operating the brewery and in doing so promoted his five year assistant brewer, Matt York, to head brewer. Tim also hired on a new assistant brewer, Rebecca Thompson, to help Matt out in the Brewhouse.
The transition in the Brewhouse was pretty quiet, the beer hasn’t changed, only the people who mash the grains and fill the kegs. I sat down with Matt and Rebecca on Friday in the brewery taproom to find out a little more about them.
Matt York is 25 years old, and his professional brewing career started at Black Bear, he was Tim’s assistant brewer for 5 years prior to his promotion to Head Brewer. Rebecca Thompson is 34 and has been brewing for 10 months, she’s been with Black Bear for 5 months and prior to that was brewing at Marshall Wharf in Belfast, Maine. I asked Matt and Rebecca if they had been homebrewers before they got jobs in breweries, Rebecca told me she has been homebrewing since 2006, Matt told me “no I wasn’t, I didn’t even drink good beer”.
Homebrewers often dream of going pro, but brewing on a professional scale isn’t the same as brewing on the stovetop or in the backyard, I asked Matt and Rebecca about the dangers of working in a brewery, working with hot water, caustic chemicals, heavy kegs, etc. what were the dangers in their daily routine that kept them on edge. “Probably chemicals the most, yeah, you know eye protection, gloves and rubber boot, try to stay safe with them” said Matt “and CO2 is definitely another big one”. Both brewers agreed that the job has its hazards and that safety is part of their daily routine.
I asked them what their favorite part of the brewday was to which Matt replied “All of it, I like It all, a brewday is just a blast for me, I like it, I’m here early and I’m alone, and I just go through and try to hit all my numbers right on and make it quicker than the last one, it’s all just a lot of fun.” Rebecca as assistant brewer isn’t doing any brewing yet but helps with cleaning and day to day tasks that keep things running smooth, she told me “Just getting into the brewery and getting more hands on experience is what I enjoy.”
I was interested to know how the transition from assistant brewer to head brewer has changed the job for Matt and he told me “More responsibility, I’m pretty much doing all the brewing, operating the brewery, keeping healthy yeast and making sure we’re getting beer out the door, keeping everything clean, it’s all on my shoulders now”
There are a few female brewers in Maine but for the most part it’s still a male dominated profession, I asked Rebecca what she would say to a woman who was interested in pursuing a job in the brewing industry. “If you’re interested go for it, don’t think you can’t do it because you’re a woman, just go for it, do what you can to get your foot in the door and make it happen.”
The brewers at Black Bear all take shifts in the Taproom or can be found after work enjoying a beverage and mingling with patrons, I asked them “How much fun are these local beer fans”. Matt jumped on this question, “Oh, Awesome! We’ve got some of the best regulars, I love our regulars, I mean before opening the taproom, we were open a while and only distribution, you don’t get any interface with your customers and no feedback, then we opened the taproom and everyone told us how much they like our beer, the atmosphere is excellent in here and they make it happen, really” Rebecca agreed with Matt “He’s been here since the beginning to see things progress and I kinda just came in before the wall went down, I mean watching it as it’s grow since then, but I agree, the regulars, this place is what it is because of them.”
I rounded out our chat by asking them if they, as the new brew team, had any goals, recipes they’ve wanted to try or any fun stuff we should be watching for. Matt told me that Tim still comes up with the recipes then they sit down together and look at them and work them out. “we’ve been doing a lot more, dry hopped pale ales, and playing with some of the beers we’ve already got going, Like today we have on a raspberry porter, with Tim stepping away he doesn’t have to do the business stuff and the brewing so I have a little more time to do stuff like a raspberry porter or a coffee porter and get them on, on a Friday.”
I enjoyed my chat with Matt York and Rebecca Thompson, I believe they’ll make a good brew team at Black Bear and continue to produce the beer we all expect, and if the interesting one-off infusions they’ve been pouring in their taproom on Fridays are any indication, maybe a few things we aren’t expecting. Tim Gallon has admitted to me that he misses being in the Brewhouse, echoing the same sentiment that Matt York did when I asked him his favorite part of the brewday, being alone in the Brewhouse early in the morning, just doing what he loves doing, but at the same time when I asked him how the transition has been he simply responded with “I couldn’t be happier.”