Hawks Who Brew: KU Alumni in the Beer Industry

Hawks Who Brew: KU Alumni in the Beer Industry

Geoff Deman, Aaron Justus, Matt Williams, Victoria Gunderson, Sean Flynn, John Hampton

Something special is brewing. Spring is in the air, downtown streets are bustling with business, and wherever you look people are flocking to fill patios and pints at their favorite breweries. As if anyone needed more reason to be excited, Sunday, April 7 is National Beer Day, and all across the country, Jayhawk alumni are applying their KU degrees in the most delicious and refreshingly thirst-quenching ways, working in the beer industry for operations both big and small.

With degrees in Microbiology, Geography and Latin American Studies, Chemistry, Art History, and Atmospheric Science, these alumni are using their diverse talents to create and innovate in their spaces, combining yeast, hops, and water with enthusiasm and a healthy dose of Jayhawk pride. Meet Geoff Deman, head brewer and director of operations at Free State Brewing Company; Aaron Justus, brewer at Ballast Point; Matt Williams, president and co-founder of Lawrence Beer Company; Victoria Gunderson, brewer at 23rd Street Brewery; Sean Flynn, associate pilot brewer at MillerCoors, and John Hampton, co-founder, owner, operations officer and head brewer at Black Stag Brewery. Raise your glass for these alumni as they reflect on their KU memories, careers in beer, camaraderie, and community in the industry. Cheers, and Rock Chalk to our Hawks who brew!

Geoff Deman, Free State Brewing Company

Before the craft beer explosion, there was, well, craft beer. And with it, passionate communities of enthusiasts dedicated to craftsmanship, creativity, and small-scale brewing done right. In downtown Lawrence, Free State Brewing Company, the establishment credited with putting the city on the craft brewer’s map, has been serving up its brews to Kansans since 1989, when they became the first legal brewery in the state in over 100 years. And Geoff Deman, now the Head Brewer and Director of Brewing Operations, has been finding ways to get creative with Kansas’ signature craft beer since he started in 2002.

Free State team members at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival, where they received a Gold Medal.

As an Art History student at KU in the ‘90s, Geoff Deman first fell in love with brewing shortly after his 21st birthday while working a summer job on a “Dude Ranch” in Montana. “It was somewhat serendipitous that when I returned to Lawrence to finish up studies, Lawrence Homebrewers’ Supply had opened,” he recalls. “Not only did I return an avid homebrewer, but really kicked my studies into gear when I returned.” But Geoff soon found himself torn between two interests: art and brewing. Unsure of which road to take, he decided to take both, using brewing as an outlet for his creative inclinations. “Every good brewer that I know has other passions and pursuits to balance out their careers,” he says. “I think that studying Art History imbued me with a spark that I might not have had otherwise, allowing me to think creatively and critically.” 

Geoff relocated to Seattle, where his persistent door-knocking eventually landed him jobs at notable breweries across the city, like Fal Allen at Pike Brewing Company, and after eight years in the Emerald City, he found new opportunity in familiar territory in Lawrence, Kansas. There, he joined the team at Free State, then led by former Head Brewer and “industry giant” Steve Bradt. And ever since, Geoff has been finding new ways to blend his creativity and love for beer, with a hand in just about every process in the operation’s portfolio from research and development, to naming beers, developing recipes, and working alongside the design team on packaging. “The great thing about my job is that there is no typical day,” he notes. “Every day is new.”

Looking back on his experiences at KU, Geoff fondly remembers the “great memories and great people met along the way,” he says. “But the one that immediately comes to mind is walking down the Hill and high-fiving my father along the way.” Since graduating, his career hasn’t been without some bumps in the road, with lay-offs and consolidations occasionally throwing a wrench in carefully made plans. But in the face of challenges, Geoff has found opportunities to innovate and look forward. “Though I may not be getting rich off of my career, I am richer in all other ways for having chosen this profession,” he points out. “I work for and with great people making a product people love and get to have fun doing it. Is it stressful at times? Sure. But never that bad… ‘because without beer, things do not seem to go as well.’”

Aaron Justus, Ballast Point Brewing Company

In 2011, Aaron Justus packed up his bags and life in Richmond, Virginia to travel across the country to San Diego, California. It was the start of a journey that led him to his dream job. He was 35 at the time and had established himself as a broadcast meteorologist, having graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Atmospheric Science from the University of Kansas in 1999. Broadcasting jobs in Kansas City, Iowa and California had led him to Richmond. But after 12 years in television he wanted a career change and asked himself two questions: what do I love doing, and how can I use my knowledge of science to get it? Brewing beer ticked both boxes. “I decided to quit my job and start a career in brewing,” he says. “I was 35 at the time. I packed my bags and moved across the country to San Diego, where there were a lot of breweries and job opportunities.”

Making a career change is daunting. And that first year in California was tough for Aaron. He balanced his online studies at the American Brewers Guild with several jobs, including his first role in craft beer as a keg washer at Ballast Point Brewing Company. It was worth it, though. He quickly climbed through the ranks at Ballast Point, getting experience in various aspects of brewing before arriving at his current role as Director of Research and Development and Specialty Brewing. Along the way, he’s presented to the best brewers and beer scientists in the world, won prestigious awards for Ballast Point, and teaches brewing for the University of California San Diego Extension Program.

Though brewing is a very different career to weather broadcasting, there are several cross-overs. Most notably, the importance of math, physics and communication, all skills he developed here at the University of Kansas. Goes to show, that what you learn in college can be transferred to a whole range of industries once you’ve graduated.

Aaron’s advice to KU students: “Don’t stress out about not knowing what you want to do for a living. You have plenty of time to figure that out. If you stay focused, you can change your career path at any point in your life.”

Matt Williams, Lawrence Beer Company

Community, conversation, and craft beer. For Matt Williams, those are a few of life’s essential ingredients. Matt’s craft beer journey began in the same place that he calls home today, Lawrence, Kansas. As a KU student in Geography and Latin American Studies, gigs bartending and managing at local bars and restaurants set the foundation for job opportunities in sales, merchandise, design, and branding, working with high-end agencies and handling big-name breweries throughout the Midwest and the nation.

With more than 10 years of experience in craft beer, Matt has explored his fair share of large-scale operations across the country. But more often than not, the visits he looked forward to most were the ones that took him to establishments that felt unmistakably specific to the areas in which they were located. Places that invite community members in to catch their breath, crack open a cold one, and let the conversation and beer flow freely. “Places where you would sit on the patio in the sun drinking a beer and talking about wild potential ideas with the owners and watch the neighborhood roll in,” he says. “Walking, riding bikes, pushing strollers, people just descending upon the place and immediately giving hugs or warm conversation with the staff and other patrons.”

With the beer industry already established in Lawrence with Free State and, more recently, 23rd St. Brewery, Matt saw an opportunity to bring his own take on the neighborhood brewpub model to his community. In 2015 he created the business plan and filed for Lawrence Beer Company, LLC, with a specific building in the east side of town already in mind, and assembled his team of brewing and culinary experts. “And the rest was history.”

Like a good beer, Matt’s outlook on the industry he first fell in love with remains bright and fresh as ever. “The main thing I’ve always enjoyed most about the craft beer industry is the creativity and passion that is involved,” he says. “Most of the people who have started breweries are people who tried something more conventional and then went off on their own, throwing their hearts and souls into their own business not to be rich, but because it’s what they were passionate about. My advice is to find something that interests you rather than a job hoping to make a certain amount of money. If you are worried about money, then just put the work in to be one of the best at that career and the financials will follow. Just keep trying to learn all you can about whatever your interest is and eventually you’ll find something that sticks.” Cheers to that!

Victoria Gunderson, 23rd Street Brewery

When combined correctly, grain, hops, yeast and water make a huge variety of delicious beers. But what four ingredients are needed to brew an exciting, successful and fulfilling career? College alum and brewer Victoria Gunderson’s story is unique to her, but also serves as a great recipe for all KU students:

  1. Find your passion – Victoria fermented an interest in craft beer while at KU and during a study abroad trip to Brazil. “My best KU memory is when I studied abroad in Brazil,” she says. “I really learned to depend on myself, and I learned Portuguese, how to surf, and do capoeira, and I met some awesome people along the way.”
  2. Explore, be open and persevere – When Victoria graduated she applied to all sorts of jobs, struggled, and got frustrated. But that perseverance eventually led her to brewing at 23rd Street Brewery. “I applied to 23rd Street just as a host, and that’s when pieces started falling into place. Within months I became a brewer.”
  3. A KU degree – A KU Chemistry degree gave Victoria the science needed to succeed in brewing, but also invaluable problem-solving skills for working in a brewery. “My background in chemistry helps me with the science side of brewing,” she notes. “And my background helps a lot with problem solving around the brewery, which is very important.”
  4. Have fun – Finding a job you love is great, but Victoria keeps up other activities, like skateboarding, beer-tasting and napping – if Victoria hadn’t pursued her interest in beer while a college student, she would never have landed her current role.

Becoming a brewer was a journey for Victoria, but with the right mix of these four ingredients, and some serendipity, she is doing a job that she loves, even if it involves a lot of cleaning!

Sean Flynn, MillerCoors

A beer is nothing without quality, and a good brewer knows that a well-rounded beer demands high quality in every step of the brewing process, from ingredients to equipment used for mashing, fermenting, bottling, and kegging. At MillerCoors, Sean Flynn is on a quest to perfect the art of brewing down to the microscopic details as a brewer for the research and development department at their Pilot Brewery in Milwaukee. There, he and his team use a 10-gallon and a 10-barrel system for prototyping, material, and process testing to ensure quality in products that are distributed by the company worldwide.

Sean, who earned his B.S. in Microbiology from KU in 2010 (fun fact: he also used to DJ for KJHK!), first developed an interest in Coors when he learned about the opening of a temporary position. “I knew the second I showed up for my interview that I wanted to work there,” he says. “So, I spent the next few years studying, homebrewing, and learning everything I could to make sure I would end up with a permanent position.” The hard work payed off, and today Sean spends his days putting his problem-solving skills to the test as a full time employee. “The variety and the challenge are the best parts; I do something different every week and I am never bored.”

There’s an art to brewing, surely, but there’s also a science to it, something that Sean knows well. “There’s a lot of microbiology in brewing,” he notes. “I spent my first few years working in the quality department, using my familiarity with PCR, aseptic technique, identification, and chemistry to make suggestions and eventually improvements in our processes and capabilities. My time at KU also made me push myself and that drive to keep improving has served me well.”

And take note, aspiring brewers! Sean has a few words of advice: “Make sure you can make light beer. You can hide a lot of problems with your brewery and your techniques with hops or a heavy grain bill but if you can make a clean kolsch or pilsner, then you know you are doing something right.” That one’s on the house.

John Hampton, Black Stag Brewery

Updated, 7/18/2019

With the summer sunshine boosting temperatures across the Midwest, crowds of Lawrencians and visitors are making their way across town to beat the heat with good company and cold craft beverages. As locals are sure to have noticed, Lawrence is continuing to secure its place as a destination on the American craft beer map as the community welcomes a number of new establishments that have set up shop throughout its neighborhoods. And for John Hampton and his crew at the recently-opened Black Stag Brewery, a love for brewing and business runs in the family.

John, Black Stag’s co-founder, owner, operations officer and head brewer, earned his B.S. in cellular biology and biochemistry from KU in 1991. His background in the sciences led him to a successful 27-year career in the bio-pharmaceutical industry, developing drugs for cancer treatments at firms in Kansas, San Francisco, Boston, Scotland, Germany, and Italy. “It was in Boston where I learned fermentation science, working with fermentation vessels three stories tall that held 80,000 liters,” he says. “I was also introduced to brewers at Sam Adams and Boston Beer Works and was able to experience brewing at macro and micro levels.” It was these experiences that planted the seeds for what would become his “masterpiece” — Black Stag Brewery.

Since opening its doors to the public in 2018, Black Stag has carved out a unique space in Lawrence’s increasingly diverse beer scene with its German-inspired lineup, a nod to the classical styles and recipes John fell in love with during his time in Europe. “Lawrence is great,” John says. “I fell in love with it in 1985 when I moved here at age 17 to go to college. The vibrant laid-back community, people who care about each other.”

A homegrown family business through and through, Black Stag’s day-to-day operations are overseen by an entire family of Jayhawks. Co-owner Kathryn Myers, a Lawrence native, wife to John since 1989, and a Jayhawk thrice over, earned her B.A. in marketing in 1985, a law degree in 1991, and an M.B.A. in 2002 — all from KU — and serves as head legal counsel and HR director for the brewery. Her father Bill Myers, co-owner and financial manager, has resided in Lawrence since 1958 and graduated from KU in 1962 with a degree in chemistry. And Rebecca Hampton, John and Kathryn’s daughter, who serves as Black Stag’s host and designer, will begin her senior year at KU this fall, studying ancient antiquity and art history. (Rock Chalk, Rebecca!)

Left: John Hampton, Kathryn Myers, Bill Myers, and Beck Myers. Right: Kathryn Myers and Rebecca Myers.

For John, the value of a liberal arts and sciences education can hardly be overemphasized for those dreaming of careers in beer. “Brewing is cell biology and biochemistry at its core, so I was very prepared,” he notes. “One brewer told me that if he knew chemistry could lead him to a brewing career, he’d have paid more attention in class!” And drawing from his experiences as a chemist, brewer, traveler, and lifelong learner, he had a couple of nuggets of wisdom of his own to share: “Be adaptable, work harder, have more fun. Don’t let setbacks cloud your vision. Every setback is an opportunity… Travel. Visit the places where everything originated. Observe the minute details. The art and science is in the details.”

Be like these Jayhawks. Find a craft, and a community, that you’re passionate about. For more brewery info, check out Free State Brewing Company, Lawrence Beer Company, MillerCoors, Black Stag Brewery, 23rd Street Brewery, and Ballast Point. Also, visit the Department of Molecular Biosciences, the Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies, the Department of Chemistry, the Kress Foundation Department of Art History, the Department of Geography and Atmospheric Science, and the KU Alumni Association at the University of Kansas.