Lee and Meredith are a rare beer industry couple. They met at a brewery. They dated at a brewery. They got engaged while working at a brewery and then got married. And they still work at the brewery. They make, sell and market beer all day, drink it at night, and in their free time, take beer trips. I'm here today to try and figure out how the hell they make that work.
They're both members of Half Acre's tight-knit family. Lee's a cellarman and brewer at the new Balmoral production facility and Meredith, who’s got one of my favorite "How I Got My Job" stories is the marketing/events/everything else person at the brewery. She’s the voice behind Half Acre’s bizarro brand. These two are fun to drink with but shit, they're really fun to interview. Lee is warm, kind and bombastic, with wild hair, an unkempt brewers beard and a laugh that fills rooms. Meredith on the other hand is a much more careful, think-before-you-speak kind of person but in a kind way - she makes you feel important and listened to. The two of them together are hysterical. We got to our five questions over various Half Acre beers at their new Balmoral Ave production facility.
What Are You Drinking?
Meredith: Freedom of ’78. It’s got like 800 pounds of guava but it’s not sweet. The label is a bunch of Half Acre employees at the Half Acre house. This was supposed to be a take on the Freedom of ’76 album cover by Ween, where a bunch of people are hanging out in a front yard but it doesn’t look anything like it. Nobody’s showing their boobs, nobody’s smoking a bong. Turns out Ween is much cooler than us.
Lee: It's a fruity IPA. Really bitter. The fruit matches the hop profile pretty well. It’s overly fruity but it’s so dry that it works. Historically, we really avoid anything that’s non-traditional "Half Acre." Mainly, I think it’s because we had no space and were under such tight reigns for production, and didn’t have a lot of freedom for exploration. Now we finally have enough breathing room to do some throw back beers. We didn’t have enough time because of the move to come up with new recipes every week so we went deep into the archives and pulled out all these different beers that we’d forgotten about. Summer Rules, Get Right, Kalla Knife, Meat Wave, Shrub Tundra, Akari Mist… which is a firkin that we’d dub Akari Mist, because it’s Akari Shogun with lemon and lime zest. We brewed a big batch of it but they didn’t want to call it Akari Mist. I can’t imagine why.
What’s Something We Can’t Google About You?
Lee: I don’t think you can even Google me period. I’m not really important enough to have a Google vibe. One thing I’ve recently been getting into… Meredith has trouble with Gluten. Beer’s fine but bread makes her stomach hurt so I’ve been trying to do a lot of Gluten-free baking. I usually just judge everything I make by "is it not terrible?" A couple weeks ago I made biscuits and I was feeling like my biscuit game was really getting on point… but then one of our co-worker’s wife brought biscuits in and DAMNIT! They were better.
Meredith: I feel like you could probably Google everything about me. My nick name around these parts is Merder, sometimes shortened to "merd" which means "shit" in French. I love it. Because it hardens me, which I’m always trying to be perceived as. I aspire to be a hard person. It comes from when I was a camp counselor in Sweden and Swedish children can't say "Meredith" to save their lives because of the "th" sound. So "Merder" was easier. And then they found out about my fear of butterflies. You might be able to Google that about me. I hate butterflies.
How Do You Explain Your Job To Your Mother?
Meredith: My Mom actually has a good handle on what I do because I talk about it more with her. Most of the time people ask what I do and I say the easy things... I do our Facebook and our Twitter and all of our email correspondence. That’s the easy part and it’s like 15% of my day. The rest of it is too messy to explain to anyone so I don’t even bother. My Mom gets it. I like to use the show Veep as an example. All the people around her have to do whatever it is in the moment that JLD needs, and that’s what I do around here. We need a keg delivered to Freemont so I’m packing it up in my car and driving it out. I’m figuring out how to change our address. Or we’re having a party… and figuring out how to have a party.
As hard as any of my days get, I still work for an amazing company. That’s the exact same thing that frustrates me because when I do go to that easy answer, people are like, "Oh." And them I’m like, "yeah, but it’s so much more than that."
Lee: Man, I’m a total momma’s boy. We talk all the time. I grew up pretty conservative. They weren’t against alcohol, they just never really drank it. So when I got a job at the brewery they were like, "Oh boy. Okay. Well, we thought you were gonna be a teacher but I guess drinking for a living is good too. We’ll try and be supportive." They visit me every summer and the first year you could tell they were hoping it was a phase, and then by the second summer I was doing something different and they were like, “Oh, this is kinda neat” and then every year this place gets bigger and my role changes and they’re kind of like, "You DO have a legitimate job. We’re into that." My Mom, with me being the baby of the family, she wants to know everything. She’s the most supportive, nicest woman you’ll ever find in your life. She tries to sit down with me all the time to find out exactly what I do so she can tell her friends. She writes everything on 3x5 cards... like, word for word, and then memorizes it. I think that my mom could describe my job to people better than I can. Especially when I started getting into it, and people would always ask me what’s a cellar man… and I’d try and give this long explanation and they’d ask what a CIP is and what dry hopping is and then finally one of the other cellarmen really put it nicely when he called it "beer babysitting." The brewers brew the beer into the tanks, I get the tanks set up to be brewed into and then I babysit it until it’s ready to be packaged. But that’s not good enough for my mother, she needs the nitty gritty.
What Makes The Beer Industry So Exciting?
Lee: I think for me it’s maybe a little bit different being from a production background: I learn something every single day. I think that I would just get bored really easily if it was just the same old stuff. I also think the beer industry is really awesome because it’s so professional in one sense, if you’re going to survive as a beer company, you’re going to have to learn how to make the best damn beer you possibly can but then there’s other pieces that are just so completely unprofessional. A big thing for me is I wake up every morning and I put on a t-shirt and some Carharts and some boots and I don’t cut my hair — ever — I don’t shave my face, I never really been the most well-dressed person. Yeah, you’re not going to make as much money as elsewhere... but it's also amazing to go out to bars and see cans and I KNOW that I’ve touched them. Or I cleaned that keg, I wrapped it, I helped load it into a truck.
Meredith: I think it’s kind of similar. Both of our perspectives are probably different from a lot of people you talk to because we’re not in front of people the same way. I’m not meeting other industry folks that often, I don’t think it’s the same as sales life. I think for me it’s Half Acre. We talk all he time that we could move to California, or get other brewery jobs — but would it ever live up to what we have here? We always conclude that it wouldn’t. It’s not the industry for us, it’s Half Acre itself. I get to be creative every day, to try and create things and write things and use my brain, and I don’t know where else I would get that and be as happy. I am myself every single day at work. I don’t have to put on my "work person" every morning and then take it off when I get home. These people are some of my favorite people in the world and being here is great — it’s still hard, it’s still work, you still get pissed but it’s always great to come back to. We hang out NOT at work. It’s phenomenal. It’s like, I cheer for Half Acre. I’ve only been here for three years but I feel so much ownership. I mean, I graduated with degrees in Philosophy and Scandinavian studies, and now I get to write riddles and hide things around Chicago once a month and make people find them. That makes NO sense but I get to do it and it’s great.
What makes the beer industry so frustrating?
Lee: The biggest thing that drives me bonkers about this industry is the constant talking about the next release or what you got in your cellar. There’s a point to where I just want to be like, "it’s just beer!" I mean, we're a couple where we both work in the beer industry, so this is like pot calling the kettle black, because I’m as bad at this as everyone else. But I think that if I worked for Half Acre Rug Company, I wouldn't obsess over rugs. I wouldn’t marry a rug girl and we talk only about rugs. I wouldn’t read rug blogs. I wouldn't take rug trips.
Meredith: I spend a lot of time on the internet and I’m afraid of the internet. I’m afraid of those people who are going to be mean to me online. It’s like, it’s just beer! And I hate when people talk to me and are super excited to be here and then later on Beer Advocate you’re like, "Oh man, this didn’t pull any whales." I’m like, "Come on dude, just drink it. Be happy. Just drink it. And be happy. Empty out your cellar." I mean, they have all the right in the world to grow their giant cellars and it’s great but THAT’S what’s most frustrating to me. The haters or the people that want to take all the fun out of it. How can you take the fun out of beer? It’s amazing to me.
I care about what people say about us. I read all of the forums and all of the comments and all of the Untappd check-ins all the time because what we’re producing and how people react to it matters. So when people are saying disparaging things — and luckily that doesn’t happen too often — it just hurts. I take it personally. Half Acre is a part of me.