She Blinded Me With Science

Catching up with Lynn. An honest conversation with Lynn Pronobis of Union Craft Brewing.

Meet Lynn Pronobis, chemist, brewer, athlete, friend, and all around extraordinary woman. Lynn began her career at Union Craft as an intern in 2012 while completing her chemistry degree at UMBC. She wasn’t planning on a career in brewing, she actually started out wanting to go to med school to become a heart surgeon. After working at a hospital she gained clarity and realized that it was not the right path for her to lead a happy, healthy life. Next she explored a career in pharma – but soon grew disenchanted with the process and the waste. A career in brewing was never on her radar, but an internship was an integral part of resume building in the waning years of college and a brewery seemed like a great fit where she could apply her acumen in chemistry while gaining valuable experience. To call Lynn a ‘knowledge sponge’ would be an understatement- she has a subconscious drive to learn everything she possibly can, to immerse herself in process and execute her duties swiftly and efficiently, all while finding ways to improve the final results. This is her nature, and she is by nature a scientist.

It was not until her second internship with Union that she realized she was in the right place- perfectly suited for a career where she could meld her scientific background with her need to be challenged both physically and mentally. Union not only provided all of these things- they also provided the team environment she craved. Having played softball for UMBC, Lynn was not only used to the team atmosphere- she required it. Lynn has performed just about every job in the brewery as part of the learning process, and she has grown right alongside the brewery. She is responsible for launching their cask program- which has become an incredible and indelible success. What started as an experiment has turned into an important component of Union’s portfolio.

Lynn Pronobis in the brewery with her casks- no place she would rather be.

For Lynn, casks were the perfect platform to figure out how to combine flavors.  It is also a place where her rigid scientific training flows seamlessly into art. Lynn will be the first person to tell you that her base of operations – her foundation- is math and science where everything begins. She starts with her end goal and works backwards to attain it. That is not however where it ends. Cask beer is art just as much as it is science and Lynn has found the sweet spot in the give and take between the two.  In 2018 she broke her own record by taking over 350 casks to market, something most would have thought implausible in the not too distant past in Maryland. Although many people still don’t understand what casks are, in Baltimore the population of those that do is incredibly rich, according to Lynn.

She has a well-earned reputation for her casks. Many accounts are wary of casks until they find out it is made by Lynn. She instills confidence- they trust it because they trust her. This is what she has been working toward- trying to make her cask program the very best in the state.  It hasn’t always been easy however and there is a trail of lessons learned, some surrounding fruit, some surrounding process. Her motivation is strong as she wants to make THE perfect dark sour, a lesser known style and measurably more difficult as a kettle sour.  This woman appreciates a challenge! Anyone that has sampled her dark sour and the dark fruit undercurrent that delicately tantalizes the palate knows how very talented she is. Many believe she has already achieved her goal of producing THE perfect dark sour.

Casks are also the vehicle that inspired her recipe writing. There is a freedom with the cask program- total control over process and ingredients that she enjoys. There are certain limitations however that are not present when brewing. One example would include the ability to add and then remove ingredients after a desired time (which you cannot do from the cask). After watching Kevin Blodger write recipes for years she gained a tremendous understanding of the relationship between malts and hops, and how the flavors interact. Kevin has been a font of knowledge that she has eagerly tapped into.

Sampling the Bourbon Mezcal aged Old Pro from the barrel.

Lynn has a hand in almost everything happening in the brewery. She is responsible for brewing operations in addition to the barrel ageing and cask programs, distribution oversight, and a host of operational processes. One improvement that she is very proud of is her keg location map. After attending an MBAA seminar on managing a warehouse, she was struck by an idea to improve efficiency. She created a 16 lane layout, complete with coded markings allowing for swift keg access and retrieval for rotation and distribution. This coded language can be seen throughout the brewery from the brew schedule, to the barrel program, to her meticulous recipe notes. My favorite was a cask note marked ‘killed it’, an indicator that a cask turned out exactly as planned. Having tried that particular cask I could not agree more! These are all hallmarks of an orderly, scientific mind.

The brew schedule in Lynn’s code.

This mind has served Lynn quite well. She is extremely sharp with an uncanny ability to see the big picture where many get mired in the details. She has a maturity well beyond her 29 years which, combined with her extensive brewing experience has now cast her in the role of learned mentor- be assured however that her thirst for knowledge is never quenched. Her life hasn’t always remained as tidy and easily quantifiable as science; in fact quite often it has been a battle.

A female in a predominantly male industry faces intense scrutiny, and Lynn is no exception. As a gay female this has brought a greater range of challenges and reactions. As a woman, Lynn quickly grew tired of the assumptions that she was either a bartender (because she couldn’t possibly be a brewer), or incompetent because she was a woman, or very young, or both. She only wanted to be looked upon as an equal, and she made certain that she could carry her own weight- literally. When Lynn started at Union she would go in the bathroom and do pushups every day to make sure she could carry full kegs, and move the ladders and other equipment on her own; physically capable of doing everything the men could do. At Union she was treated as an employee, an equal, a member of the team, which was and always is the desired goal.

Drinking another winning cask creation.

At times being gay was easier for Lynn because she was looked upon as more of an equal since she wasn’t an option for men, and she wasn’t going to steal anyone’s girlfriend. It was almost easier to become good friends with coworkers. Outside of the brewery it was an entirely different story. Unfortunately sexism is still commonplace, but Lynn’s method of dealing with it has changed. When men would hit on her she used to attempt to diffuse the situation by telling them she was gay which often resulted in relentless badgering about her sexuality. She often received ignorant comments like,

 “You just haven’t met the right guy yet…”

All of this used to make her incredibly angry, but over time she learned to change the narrative with quick-witted, funny responses like,

“Perhaps YOU just haven’t me the right guy yet!”

There is nothing more powerful than turning the tables by demonstrating how much you don’t care what others think about you. For Lynn this was completely liberating. Sometimes, she still finds herself frustrated but that is when she takes to the forklift – an instant salve. Detaching from social media also provides respite- although social media has become the main driver for sales and marketing in this day and age. It is also a place where unkind thoughts are ubiquitous.  

This past year has been perhaps the most frustrating she has experienced. It has been a perfect storm of challenges- one after the other from the aluminum tariffs creating havoc with canning and in particular labelling when trying use alternative cans; the move from the old brewery to the new collective; the government shutdown which backlogged TTB approvals; the closure of a Crown Cork and Seal plant; and the high volume of sales in the taproom at a time when production was limited (due to the host of issues listed). There is a light at the end of this tunnel, but the road is long, and she is pacing herself. The old brewery is still operational at least for the next year, and the 20 bbl system is currently being used as the pilot system. An unusually large pilot system.

At the end of the day there are many things to take away. The first is that Lynn loves what she does- what she produces, and she loves the team that is Union. Her hope is that people take a moment before judging (beer or people for that matter) and think about the process, the various elements that needed to coalesce to make that beer- from the ingredients, to packaging to distribution. She wants people to really take the time to understand the beer. On this front headway is being made, and in part that is due to her ability to talk to people about beer, the style, and the inspiration for it.

The future is looking very bright for Lynn and for Union. In fact Lynn wants to see Union supplant Natty Boh as the beer synonymous with Baltimore- a town she will never leave. She also wants to surpass National Brewing Company’s peak production (yes we are headed for a brewery capable of producing millions of barrels of beer annually!)  

Lynn with Jazz Harrison-a friend who really understands the beer.

The next time you stop at Union for a pint or a growler take a moment to ask about the style, the process, the inspiration, as you might be pleasantly surprised. Oh and one last thing to remember- if Lynn isn’t smiling it doesn’t mean she is in a bad mood, she’s just plotting the next delightful creation, and one I can’t wait to try!

Sláinte

The Brewery Worker on Labor Day

September 3rd, 2018

Today is Labor Day, a day in which we honor the achievements of American workers. In 1884 Congress passed an act marking the first Monday in September Labor Day. Since then we have witnessed various incarnations of how exactly to celebrate this national holiday. Parades, once grand affairs for a multitude of eager spectators, have waned in recent decades while BBQs and beach trips seem to supplant large-scale organized festivities for most. It is the last hurrah of summer before children return to school and fall sets in.

The exact origins of Labor Day are a bit controversial, as two different labor organizers (both named McGuire- one a machinist, the other a carpenter) are named as founders. What is significant is that the origins of Labor Day, regardless of who is responsible arose from the 19th century unions organized to protect and defend workers from harsh conditions, little pay, and unfair practices. Breweries were also participants in the formation of unions, although it was a bit more complicated than it was with many other labor unions.

The National Union of Brewers was founded right here in Baltimore in 1886. The Brewery Worker was published for its members on a regular basis. The name was eventually changed to reflect all brewery laborers, not just the brewers. Despite this, not all of the members felt their interests were well served and they chose to split off and form their own separate unions. Coopers were one of the highest paid trades of the time, and they often felt at odds with the goals and practices of the brewery worker’s union. Where brewers invited new technologies- coopers often shunned such advances as compromising their tradecraft. This in large part was the impetus for the separation, and they were quickly joined by coopers from the distilling and wine industries all operating with a common goal.

What were conditions like for brewery workers when Labor Day became a national holiday? That answer truly depends on location, and ownership. Many of the breweries in the 19th century were owned by immigrants that came to America to flee persecution, compulsory military service, and famine. Many of these immigrants were German, some Irish, with a smattering of others in between. Many brewery owners paid for the passage of their workers from Bremen to Baltimore, and housed them in their homes with their families. They worked on average 12 hours a day (sometimes more) with Sunday hours extremely limited for worship, rest, and fun. Conditions were typical of the time- manual labor in often sweltering or frigid temperatures depending upon the season. The upside of this was a regular supply of beer and meals, and a roof over their heads. Beyond that the working environment was quite dependent upon the individual brewery owner.
There are many stories of Baltimore brewery owners engaged in equal opportunity employment practices long before there was an EEOC. There is also documentation of Maryland brewery owners paying for medical care for workers that were ill, or injured on the job. In some cases if workers could not be healed, owners offered a type of supplemental stipend for a period of time until that worker or his family could find other gainful employment. Make no mistake- not all brewery owners were this considerate of the best interests of their employees. There are many tales of vicious proprietors taking whips to their staff, or other such deviant practices to intimidate laborers into greater productivity, thus spawning the need for the rise of unions.

What has changed since the 19th century? There is no longer a Brewery Workers Union as it folded into the Teamsters Union in the 1960s. In fact those working in most of the local craft breweries we visit today are not affiliated with a union at all. In the modern world, conditions still vary by brewery and yes it is still sweltering in summer, and freezing in winter as is the nature of the industry. Fortunately we are seeing greater diversity in plants across the country with far better working conditions- despite the often extreme temperatures.

One thing has not changed however and that is the incredible effort that brewery workers put into making this luscious nectar of the Gods that we call beer. The pride, the craftsmanship, and the end result are a testament to those that Labor for us, for themselves, and all those that came before them in this historic industry.

Whatever you may be doing today take a moment and raise your glass to the American Brewery Worker past and present on this Labor Day.

Sláinte!

What lies beneath?

Uncover what resides beneath the streets of Maryland.

The floods that ravaged Ellicott City last year unearthed an unexpected mystery- underground caves. Research conducted by the Howard County Historical Society team led by Shawn Gladden revealed that the caverns below Main Street were multi-purpose. They served as a hideaway for booze during Prohibition, importantly as a stop on the Underground Railroad (as with many properties in Howard County) and cold storage for a saloon and beer garden in the 19th century. This was not at all unusual for Maryland.

Prior to refrigeration the coolest place to lager beer (age at cooler temperatures for about 2 months) and to store it was underground. Subterranean Baltimore was a cavernous network of lagering cellars excavated deep beneath the streets of Canton, Highlandtown, Federal Hill, and the northern Bel Aire/ Gay Street quadrant of the city, as the grounds were immensely suitable for such an undertaking. Frederick and Cumberland also witnessed vast lagering cellar excavations, fomenting growth of the industry in those well-travelled, populous locales. To produce and offer quality beer, and grow a brewery’s customer base, deep underground vaults became a necessity. Admittedly, a few brewers attempted the same feat by digging instead into a tall hillsides with somewhat dodgy results. Depth was key to reaching proper temperatures and good beer.

What began as good quality control measures for brewers eventually branched into another, most valorous mechanism for societal change. Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, many slaves sought freedom via the Underground Railroad. Success was dependent upon safe places to hide from slave catchers while traversing northward to (hopeful) freedom. Maryland was a critical state with several safe ‘stops’ for fugitive slaves. Although great risk was incurred by those that hid these travelers, many Marylanders stepped up, including brewers. After all, they possessed the perfect hiding place (or weigh station) that was oft overlooked. Once the Civil War broke out the cellars continued to provide hiding places, not just for slaves, but for other valuables- from jewelry to horses, and even a few AWOL soldiers. Many of the brewers paid other men to serve in their place during the war, so they could remain with their family (and businesses) as a measure of both physical and financial protection. Civil War era brewers shared numerous stories of soldiers from both sides taking beer, property, horses, food, and anything they could lay hands upon from the breweries and their homes. This was rampant, and many had to devise methods of protecting their property and securing their post war survival. The lagering cellars offered just such an opportunity. When soldiers did discover these hidden underground gems, they often took possession of the cellars as places to hide guns, ammunition, and lie in wait for the enemy.

After the Civil War, ‘Ice machines” became a standard feature of late 19th century breweries, obviating the need for the cellars for those that could afford this new mechanical refrigeration. Those deep cellars however were not forgotten and evolved into perfect contraband storage for bootleggers (and ‘in the know’ citizens hoarding booze) during Prohibition! It turned out to be ideal when federal dry agents decided to conduct raids (since Maryland never paid for or appointed local agents), as they knew nothing of the vast subterranean vaults just below their boots. After thirteen years, liquid gold flowed legally once again with those agents none the wiser.

Many of these cellars have since been filled in, a critical aspect to the vast infrastructure built atop. Some however, like those in Ellicott City are still concealed, waiting to be rediscovered, revealing secrets and deepening our understanding of Maryland’s rich history.
Sláinte!