Chris Shilubane is deeply steeped in corporate speak as befits a new breed of brewers at South African Breweries (SAB). Young, black and erudite, he is passionate about the craft of beer brewing.
In an exclusive interview, Black Business Quarterly he wasted no time in ascertaining what a technical brewer actually does.
“My job entails managing the quality process from start to finish, by ensuring the quality of raw materials we use to make beer such as barley, hops and yeast (the agent used in the fermentation process) adhere to standards. That means ensuring colour target and various perimeters required to ensure a Black Label tastes like one, a Castle likewise and that this is consistent across all brands.”
Shilubane, who has been a technical brewer for 12 and half months out of the three and half years he has been at SAB, works across the various beer brands, besides Black Label.
A crucial part of his job is verifying the quality of materials used in the brewing process, which ingredients include barley, hops and yeast. He also ensures the quality of water is top grade.
So, how did he become a technical brewer? “I studied for a BSC in Biochemistry initially, a three-year degree and halfway through it, I actually decided I didn’t want to become a biochemist any longer; I opted to become a chemical engineer. So, I finished the Biochemistry degree, went back to the University of Cape Town to pursue chemical engineering for another four years,” Shilubane says.
As to what attracted him to this career, Black Business Quarterly was surprised to learn he stumbled upon the idea while having a few chilled beers. “I enjoyed a good party and drink during my varsity days; on one of these booze sorties, there I was reflecting on what I wanted to do with my life: Was I going to work in a mine, a refinery or what?
“I can’t quite remember what beer it was but you know what; I just thought to myself it would actually be awesome to work in a brewery, and so I applied for a job at SAB, went for an interview and was accepted. This was during my final year and just before I graduated.”
Doing what he does is, no doubt, a highlight in itself. But there have been notable moments.
“Developmental opportunities and just the progression and support the company renders are phenomenal. I have been exposed to a diverse array of people in the brewery environment.
“There are lots of engineers and scientists, at the same time there are different departments you work with, which all assist in the process. The brewers deal with one aspect, but you have engineering, quality assurance, and software teams at your disposal, and it’s been very fulfilling to learn from all these people from different spheres. I have also enjoyed the flexibility to some aspects of my job; it’s not always nine to five. Otherwise, there have been too many highlights. You don’t learn how to make beer at varsity but rather how to drink it. When I came here and actually learnt how the brewing process works, how complicated it was, wow, it was a huge eye-opener.
“It’s a process a lot of people find interesting to learn about, as such it’s very nice having a job you can always talk about no matter who you meet. It’s interesting to take people through the brewing experience. In a nutshell, I have enjoyed quite a lot of those aspects of my job. I have very little to complain about, it’s a tough job but there’s a lot more glory to the job than anything.”
Chris Shilubane started off in the industry as a brewing trainee, the first step on the way to becoming a brewer. His journey initially involved going through practical as well as theoretical aspects of brewing for a period of two years under the mentorship of an experienced brew master. A brew master is in charge of beer quality in a brewery and you work under his wings as a brewing trainee. You undergo some courses during this time, as well as practical introduction to brewing, in all its various aspects.
“It’s shift work, you get involved in projects and at the end of it all, you get a day-long examination, with three brew masters to assist you and eventually, they tell you whether you passed to become a brewer. If you don’t pass, you get the opportunity to do it one more time and if you are not able to pass after your third attempt, then they basically ask you to look into doing something else.
“You are not allowed to become a brewer if you haven’t passed your assessment. It’s pretty much like any varsity course; you only have a certain amount of time to pass, before they recommend you try something else,” Shilubane told BBQ.
The qualities inherent in a good brewer are the ability to be good with numbers, understanding the process, having good scientific and engineering backgrounds and lots of resilience. “You deal with lots of problems all the time. It is overwhelming in the beginning, but you need to be able to bounce back in challenging times and manage to solve problems.
“You need to be very good with people, as you work with a lot of them. Soon after finishing my apprenticeship, I was a team leader for about six months, overseeing 12 people who reported to me. As such, you need to understand how to deal with different individuals and motivate them, so you need that kind of strength behind you.”
Why are numbers so important for Technical brewers? “Because it’s a manufacturing environment, an operation that runs 24 hours, almost 365 days a year. You deal with a lot of issues that happen on the spur of the moment. When operators for instance ask for your support on the phone, you need to be able to understand whether the pump is designed to run at a certain flow rate needed to get the process to completion.
“You need to understand what the time delays are, do some calculations, assist in getting breakdowns sorted, and at times, even assist with different quality of ratios to make sure the product meets the neccesary specifications. As you can see there’s quite a fair amount of engineering and science involved. It’s a very technical field; hence, you have to be pretty hands-on with the fermentation equations, the fluid flow principles and the thermal dynamics to some degree for the correct temperature adjustments. To reiterate, there’s a lot of science and engineering behind it, which is why numbers are quite important.”
On a global front, what opportunities are there for Technical Brewers? “Well, look; brewing is an international business, so in terms of international opportunities, from a brewing perspective, they are quite wide and varied. I actually don’t think there’s a country in the world that doesn’t make beer.
“There are slight variations in techniques here and there, but what you learn at SAB prepares you for challenges elsewhere in the world. The diplomas we have are internationally recognised. As a trainee, for instance, I wrote exams with the Institute of Brewing in London in the UK, which supplies qualifications of this nature all over the globe. So opportunities are not limited to South Africa or Africa only, but there’s scope to work at other operations internationally,” he says.
Ten years from now, Chris Shilubane sees himself firmly entrenched in the beer brewing tradition, ideally at strategy level to enable him to get involved in global projects, related to beer production and development, preferably as a strategy consultant. Does he take pride in making people drunk?
After all, that is the layman’s perception of brewers. “Well, I have come across comments like that, but you would be surprised that many people I have spoken to, who aren’t familiar with brewing, actually think it’s one of the best jobs ever!”
“But look, our job as brewers is not to make beer with the highest alcoholic content to get people drunk. We make a product that is to be enjoyed responsibly and even when you look at the stats in terms of beer or alcohol production, beer has by far the lowest volume of content than any other alcoholic drink, it’s less potent than wine or spirits.
“But I am proud that, as a company, SAB promotes responsible drinking, so whenever we are out at an event where our products are to be enjoyed, there are drivers available to take us where we need to be. We are affiliated with a company called Good Fellas, which drives people around when they have had too much to drink. We also have Responsible Fridays, during which our company communicates the various interventions around responsible drinking. And, yes — I mean as an individual — I do enjoy beer quite often, but will never drink to the point where I am actually making a fool of myself and I try to share those values with friends and family. We are not here to make people drunk, we want people to enjoy it responsibly.”
Can a teetotaller work as a brewer? “Yes we have people who do this job but don’t drink, or have never drank before and for various reasons, would not drink the product. And in terms of applying for this job, what happens is that you get tested by way of a liver screening and asked to fill in an alcohol dependency questionnaire before assuming the role.
“There are various levels of brewing, mine is more quality-focused and more in a role where I would enjoy tasting the beer for various reasons related to quality control, but some of my colleagues are area managers, dealing more with costs and such matters. The latter is not a quality-related task, so they don’t actually have to taste the beer. Their role is to ensue production is carried out as inexpensively as possible.”
Shilubane owes most his prowess as a brewer to his brew master. “She’s fairly young, but a high achiever who brooks no nonsense. She is a task-focused lady and very, very hard in terms of her expectations, but what she has taught me in this role is the need to have belief in your people — 99% of the time they mean well and need to be empowered.
“She taught me many lessons like not to take work too seriously. In the beginning I would probably be here for a good 12-14 hours, trying to solve problems and she really inculcated in me the importance of work-life balance, which has helped in terms of my welfare and not being as stressed as I used to be when I started.”
Does he aspire to become the first black African CEO of SAB Miller in 20 years? “Well, in terms of career aspirations to become the first black CEO of SAB Miller, it has come up often, though it hasn’t really been a strong ambition of mine, but I think having been in this job for three and half years, it’s still a bit too early to say whether that is exactly what I want to do, but I have no problem.
“I would always apply myself for that end goal. I haven’t limited myself in terms of career aspirations in the company just quite yet. So the way I do my work ensures that possibility is always around and what I need to do in the next 20 years to become SAB Miller’s first black CEO; really remains consistent with my work ethic for instance. This is a company that recognises and rewards very high performance.”
Chris Shilubane was raised by a single mom, has four brothers and a sister. He matriculated in Johannesburg at King Edward School, before moving to Cape Town in 2001 to study at UCT, while his family joined him later in 2003.
“We were raised by a very strong mother with very high standards and once I got to SAB, I realised the level of expectation they had, as such it was very easy to fit in there. So, I really need to thank my old lady for that. She was the mother, the father, the bread winner.”