A Chat with the Head of Quality Control at The Bruery, Jessica Davis
As someone who has been getting into beer and learning more about both it and its production, there is a very important element to beer production that is not evident to outsiders: the science of it. And while there may be brewers who are knowledgeable about the science aspects of it, some breweries hire people to work on what is known as either quality control or quality assurance. These “beer scientists” are the ones who are responsible for making sure us customers drink quality beer. Clearly, this is an important job.
Recently, I had the opportunity to meet up and speak with the head of the quality control team at one of the best breweries in the country to find out about what they do. Meeting Jessica Davis, one encounters a short, yet confidently fit young woman who exudes a shiny personality. When I met up with her, in addition to hoop rings adorning each of her ears and a nose stud on her left nostril, she was appropriately wearing a The Bruery t-shirt, ripped jeans and a belt with, curiously, a very large Stone Brewing belt buckle. Apparently, this sartorial accessory which bridged the top and bottom of her outfit, is a reflection of her first beer employer and towards which she still has very fond feelings.
In her two and half years of working at The Bruery, Davis has been managing the lab for The Bruery, including The Bruery’s recently launched sour & wild brand, Bruery Terreux™. With my naïveté regarding what quality control and quality assurance with beer (or, as I like to call it, the “sciencey” part of breweries about which most people do not know), I had to find out what it is that they do. Davis succinctly stated that “Quality assurance is proactive; quality control is reactive.” Expanding upon that statement, she said that quality assurance is “checking the beer as it is fermenting”, whereas quality control concerns when “the beer is already in the bottle, is it going to be okay?” For quality control, it’s making sure that, by the time it leaves the facility, the beer will still be good even once it’s on shelves.
While quality control is pricey – it’s all overhead – it pays off in that it protects the brewery’s products. Sometimes, Davis said, there is a recalcitrance on the part of brewers to listen to the quality control people. However, “a lot of breweries have to make mistakes” before they listen to quality control, but everything’s a learning curve. “I like to think of quality assurance as educational,” she said, “because I can’t police people 24/7”, so you want to give people the tools to enforce quality “because they are the ones making the beer.”
One important element of quality control is dealing with batches of beer that are not quite right. However, “if anything is off in the analytical data, you can catch it” and, Davis said, “you can make corrections to compensate” for that beer by blending it with another batch of beer. Also, blending is not unique to beer production, “blending is a big part of alcohol production,” as she pointed out, as it is used in wine, whiskey, and other alcoholic beverages. Indeed, “a lot of times, it’s a fine-tuning process.” Since there is so much money spent on any given batch of beer, no one wants to pour it down the drain – neither the brewers who put their efforts into the brewing of that beer, nor do people concerned about pouring out those liquid assets – so, they want to save it, if possible. Nevertheless, there does exist the possibility for batches of beer to not be good, even for it to be blended, which forces them to dump it all out.
While at The Bruery, she has found that “Patrick Rue is one of the few brewery owners who has invested in quality”, including the right space and equipment to facilitate the science of it. Davis said that they have a “great facility to expand into”, which sounds great for those who enjoy great beer! Every beer lab, she pointed out, has three primary functions – sensory, analytical, and microbiology. On her team, she has two others: one who specializes in the sensory aspects of the beer, as well as the yeasts, and one who specializes in the analytical data, while she focuses on the microbiology of the beer.
Davis is a member of the American Society of Brewing Chemists, where she gets to “interact with lots of different people in the industry.” Furthermore, she is part of their publications committee, which, oversees, amongst other publications, a quarterly journal, which helps further the scientific knowledge of the brewing community.
Her road to The Bruery is neither a simple one, nor is it straightforward. For her undergraduate studies, she began with a focus on computer science, but found a greater interest in biology, switching her major and graduating from California State University, San Marcos, with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Coming out of college, she began working in the pharmaceutical industry, where she stayed for seven years, until they began laying employees off left and right. Seeing the writing on the wall, she had a good opportunity to get out of the company and move on. Initially, she worked in fitness, including as a physical trainer, but decided to leave, since “people want to look like you, but not work at it.”
Since she was living in Escondido and happened to be visiting Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens and thought she might want to work there. So, despite no experience in brewing, she applied for an assistant brewer position at Stone Brewing, which she actually got. After working there for six months, she was eventually moved up to the lab. Despite her lack of brewing experience, one thing that did give her a leg up in getting the job was her pharmaceutical experience, which helped propel her towards that lab position.
Since her boyfriend was moving up from San Diego up to Los Angeles for a job, she decided to leave San Diego and Stone Brewing, as well. She left Stone Brewing on good terms and it holds a special place in her heart, as it was her “first brewing family.” Being in Los Angeles, she found a job at MillerCoors, of all places, which was very different. While there, she “learned a lot; it was a great experience”, however, “the big corporate environment was not for me.”
After about a year at MillerCoors, she received an email from Tyler King, asking her if she wanted to come and work for The Bruery, to which she agreed. She found it interesting that people in the beer industry tend to stay in the beer industry and that she thought the pharmaceutical industry was small until she came to the beer industry, which is how she knew King. Moving over to The Bruery, she greatly enjoyed the smaller environment and that she has “way more influence and that it’s very rewarding.” In working at a smaller brewery, she finds that “the problems are more complicated and challenging”, especially the microbiology.
Davis stated that she has “a lot of gratitude towards those people who gave me the chance” and that “craft beer is way more fun than pharmaceuticals.” She has also found that “craft beer has a lot of learning opportunities” and that she has “a lot of pride in what I do.”
Looking forward, Davis is “really excited about sour beers; it’s a new frontier. People have been making them for a long time, but not consistently.” So, she is “excited to dive into sours scientifically and how to make it work consistently.”
It is evident that Davis and the larger team at The Bruery are making phenomenal beers and we should be glad that The Bruery has invested in this important element of the beer-making process.