Considering the most current iteration of San Diego’s craft beer industry dates back to the early 1990s, it’s easy to inadvertently (or purposefully) gloss over those still relatively new to it. Millennials are touted as the biggest group of weekly craft beer drinkers in the United States—an age demographic skewing as young as 23 years old, according to the Pew Research Center.
That means of the approximately 6,500 beer-related jobs in San Diego alone, a decent chunk of them are occupied by employees barely over the legal drinking age, each one yet to obtain the professional longevity so often idolized by beer circles. That’s not to say the accomplishments of early beer pioneers are anything less than monumental, which of course they are; simply that the newbies behind-the-scenes often toil in laborious, underappreciated positions equally essential to the success of any brewery.
A cellarperson is one of these semi-invisible positions. They’re customarily overshadowed by the more recognizable role of brewer, who tend to be the first, and sometimes only, face of a brewery. But breweries who have the ability to hire a support staff that separates brewers from cellar duties give these production worker bees a big advantage—the possibility of upward mobility, along with the experience to execute virtually any job breweries of all sizes may require.
Holly Doner fits both of these criteria, as she’s both new to San Diego beer and works as a cellarperson at AleSmith Brewing Company, a position she’s held only for a few months. Her path to production didn’t initially come from a place of passion for the product; rather, it unfurled as a better career option as opposed to her original plan, which was to become a veterinarian. It was during her enrollment in the animal science program at the University of California, Davis where Doner first heard about the Master Brewers Certificate Program.
“I was like, well, maybe I’ll try one of the classes and see if I like it,” says Doner. “I totally fell in love with it.” She ultimately ended up graduating from UC Davis with her animal science degree, but “had beer in the back of my mind the whole time I was up there.”
It wasn’t until she moved to San Diego in 2017 that she realized opportunities in the craft beer scene far outweighed the possibilities of utilizing her degree. With the myriad of beer-related educational courses available at schools like SDSU, UCSD, and more, Doner decided to pursue beer instead. “I just didn’t have the heart for [vet school],” she explains. “There’s a ton of room to grow [in beer].” (It’s a testament to craft beer’s growth that it’s now considered a stable profession as opposed to glorified labor of love.)
Doner enrolled in the UCSD Extension brewing certificate program, where she soaked in beer basics and local history with professors that included Chris White (president, founder, and CEO of White Labs, Inc.) and Yuseff Cherney (head distiller/co-founder of Cutwater Spirits and formerly of Ballast Point). It was there that she first heard about the opening at AleSmith.
“This was the first beer place that I applied to, so I wasn’t really expecting anything. And I ended up getting my job,” she says. “It’s been a crazy learning curve, especially at such a big facility.” Doner admits joining such a large-scale, as well as well-regarded, brewing operation so early in her career caused her some stress. But she’s quick to applaud her co-workers for an intrinsic willingness to share knowledge with a relative rookie.
Doner’s days as a cellarperson range from fairly strenuous (“It’s very hard, physical work—I definitely underestimated that going in!”) to somewhat monotonous (“Cleaning… a lot of cleaning,” she chuckles), but the variety has allowed her to cultivate a surplus of skills she hopes will one day help her achieve a new goal: owning her own brewery.
In the meantime, Doner hopes to see more women getting into the production side of beer. “I’m definitely the only one in the production area working with a bunch of guys, which I don’t mind… but it would be nice to have more girls in the cellar.” She provides some words of encouragement for women hesitant to break in.
“Stay dedicated and don’t get discouraged, because it is a lot of hard work at first and it is nerve-wracking. Stay focused, work hard, and it’ll work out.”
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