The Future of The Unknown Brewing Co. and Their New Head Brewer
Last month, The Unknown Brewing Co. announced Chris Wertman is stepping up and taking the helm from brewery owner Brad Shell as the brewery’s new head brewer. Wertman, a U.S. Navy veteran who served two tours in Iraq, is no stranger to leadership roles, demanding workloads and challenging jobs. Through sheer initiative, drive and discipline, Wertman has fast-tracked himself from keg washer to The Unknown Brewing Co.’s second head brewer in less than a year.
Having enjoyed many of The Unknown Brewing Co.’s year-round and specialty beers, I wanted to get to know the new guy in charge of brewing my beer. The brewery’s home of Charlotte, NC is very familiar with Shell, as is anyone living within their distributive footprint. Shell frequents radio shows, local news stations and written publications spreading “the Unknown’s culture,” as he puts it. He is known for being eccentric and unorthodox in many aspects, including his beer recipes – something his fans enjoy very much. Could Wertman follow such a tremendous personality?
I reached out to the brewery for a chance at an interview with Shell and Wertman and was happily obliged with an early morning phone call. Here is what I learned about Wertman and the future of The Unknown Brewing Co.
After serving eight years in the U.S. Navy, Wertman, like so many veterans in his position, decided to go back to school in pursuit of passion. Wertman spent much of his Navy career stationed below the Mason-Dixon Line. During this time, the Allentown, PA native fell in love with the Carolinas and southern culture. Wertman is now a graduate of Appalachian State University’s Bachelor of Science in Fermentation Science program. The degree program prepares college students for careers in a variety of professions, including brewing/wine/distillation production, biotechnology and environmental resources and sustainment industries.
Wertman and Shell both acknowledge the growing popularity of these programs and the importance that these programs can have in the brewing industry. However, when asked if the day of homebrewers just entering into the brewing world as transitioning professionals is coming to a pass, both were quick to say that the industry is not at that point. Wertman commented, “I’m not quite sure we are there, yet. Having this degree certainly gave me a leg up and having some homebrewing experience. Still, plenty of people work their way up without a degree and just get in and get hands on with stuff and learn that way. I just wanted to have a competitive edge.”
“We make really tasty rotten sugar water, now go enjoy your life!”
– Brad Shell, owner The Unknown Brewing Co.
Shell added that a college degree in a discipline pertaining to the industry does not trump OJT or experience, but it is a smart choice for any brewery, and it can help to speed along a career. “I came up through the OJT system, and I think when you do craftsmen stuff, there is always going to be a place for hands-on learning. It is always going to be an apprentice position,” Shell said of his own background. He continued, “As breweries are growing faster and faster and as quality is more and more of a factor like Chris says, it’s a competitive edge for him to get the job, but it is also a competitive edge for a brewery to hire somebody who has some of the basic knowledge. No matter who comes in, or from where they come.”
It was a professor and friend of Shell’s from the University Wertman was attending who tipped Shell off to this talented student that had set himself apart from the rest of his peers. Shell recalled the conversation saying, “One of Chris’ professors actually reached out to me and said ‘look, I don’t usually tell you who to pick, but this guy literally is at the top of my class. This is somebody that is not just fresh; he’s not a bright-ass youth with fresh twinkling eyes, this guy is a workhorse, he’s older, he’s a veteran, he understands his shit, he really wants it.’ And I said, well, that’s good enough to start cleaning kegs for me.”
Shell wasn’t kidding either; Wertman began his journey into The Unknown June of last year as a humble keg washer. Shell explained, “When I hire somebody, at least at my brewery, everybody starts at the bottom. Chris came in, broad shoulders with a college degree, and I still made him wash kegs.” This goes back to Shell’s firm stance on prizing experience and the OJT aspect of brewing along with the academic side. Not only is it invaluable for improving competency as a brewer, but growing as a leader. As Shell puts it, “[Chris] knows what it’s like to be that guy that is working at 11 o’clock at night pulling shitty yeasty kegs out and cleaning them. He knows what it’s like to tell someone to work a 14-hour shift on the bottling line when it’s 98°F outside and 110°F in the brewery. You know, it’s not just a theory at that point, you know, he’s been there. So, you definitely get the perspective as you do every job.”
From there, Wertman filled many positions as he continued to climb the brewery’s ladder – kegging, and then packaging, and then cleaning tanks, and then dry-hopping, and then cellaring – before reaching assistant brewer (second in rank to Shell, himself). It didn’t take long working directly under Shell before he saw a greater opportunity in Wertman. Though the climb to head brewer came quick for Wertman, don’t think it came lightly. Shell and the rest of the family at The Unknown Brewing Co. take brewing beer very seriously. “It is not a title that I give away lightly. This is my entire company. I’ve got a new baby boy and a family and 23 employees that count on us making quality beer…but, Chris has proven time and time again that he gets it, he is passionate about it, and so, I am putting that faith [in him].”
What makes Wertman a great fit is his commitment to this same quality and perfection in his brewing. The same determination and tenacity are what garnered Wertman the attention from his professors and Shell in the first place. Maintaining those qualities through grueling hours and extreme conditions is what defines Chris as a brewer. When asked how he feels about the new responsibility, Wertman exclaimed, emphatically, “I love it. I love being here… I get to run a 40bbl brewhouse… I’m just gonna do whatever I can to keep pushing the beer in a technical orientation, expanding our sour program, building a robust lab to really maximize consistency for our products. I have got a lot on my plate and just slowly trying to make it happen.”
Wertman expressed that he has no intention of turning the brewery on its head, for now. Still buzzed from the news, he plans on letting things set in and continuing the same heading as Shell. However, he is plotting various courses for the future. Among them, Wertman would like to expand the brewery’s sour program and barrel aging program. He also intends to call upon his education as a Fermentation Science major in the brewery’s labs while he experiments with various cultures and yeast strains for future brewing endeavors.
Shell will, finally, have the opportunity he needs to devote himself to the other side of the brewery and focus on growth. The brewery has grown over 50% every year since their first boil. The Unknown Brewing Co. has a solid product and growth is doing great because of this – the beer is not what is holding them back from that. According to Shell, “the hurdle for growth right now is the quick saturation of the market. There are so many great beers out there. Back in the day there were 10 taps, and 10 taps weren’t enough choice, and then they put in 100 taps in a lot of places, and 100 is too much choice, and a lot of beer went bad. So, everybody figures out 20-25 taps is the sweet spot, for most. 25 taps in a city that has 32 breweries with another 1,000 breweries that call on it at some point, it’s tough to be the one that constantly stays on tap, even if it’s great beer – because there’s a lot of great beers. Keeping your voice heard above the fray is probably the hardest part right now – in this sea of great beer, how do you have your waves higher than anybody else’s wave.” Shell hopes that this will be the turbo charge he is looking for with Wertman leading the back of the house and himself at the front lines. Being the only guy running the show, Shell has had to split his time and attention too much, leading to a sacrifice of potential growth. The two of them hope to create new beers and themes, open new markets, bring new profit centers out there and really advance the culture of The Unknown, of living without boundaries, more.
One thing Shell and Wertman made very clear is the brewery’s commitment to quality. As I mentioned, Shell and The Unknown Brewing Co. are known for their off-the-wall character and sensationalism when it comes to throwing a fantastic party. That is only one side of the brewery though. The other side of the brewhouse is where they keep their tenacity for quality and commitment to their customers. I was caught off guard by how serious Shell was when he stated “We’ve had this motto around here, ‘Beer We Take Serious, Everything Else We Don’t.’ We take our beer extremely serious around here – it’s palpable how serious it is in the back, as far as when it comes to beer production. You can run around butt-naked all night but when it’s game time and comes to beer making, it’s beer making time.” Shell attests that Wertman is another example of that seriousness and passion.