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Major in Beer

The School-Taproom Pipeline

by | Sep 5, 2022

Erin Page at Après. photo/Tom Major

The annual staffing hiccup in brewery tasting rooms has begun as schools reopen and educators return to their classrooms. Many of the busiest breweries hire teachers for the summer season, but peak tourism lasts until Indigenous Peoples Day, while schools call staff back before Labor Day.  

[Disclosure time: I’m beginning my 36th year as a high school teacher, and I have worked for the Maine Brews Cruise (formerly the Maine Brew Bus) for six years. I’m what you might call a “participant-observer” in this case.]

Mitch Waterman, the tasting room manager at Portland’s Goodfire Brewing, is a former beer-bus guide. He’s also a former educational technician, and he’s pretty candid about why he’s not in the classroom anymore. “I’m making more money than I did as an ed tech,” he said. “I’ve got health insurance and good benefits. And I don’t get punched, kicked, or bitten at work.” 

Waterman served a particularly demanding student population. The turnover rate in special education is high, especially among ed techs, who are paid far less than classroom teachers. But Waterman is not alone in leaving the classroom for the tasting room.  

Cole Mangano has a master’s degree in military psychology. He used to teach resiliency to combat veterans at Westchester Community College. His current job, managing the tap room at Mast Landing Brewing in Westbrook, might seem like a rung down the career ladder to some folks, but Mangano is clear about his reasons. “That was good work,” he said, “but now I have health insurance and I can wear a tank top on the job.” He thinks he might like to get back to the classroom someday, or to find another way to apply his degree, but for now the brewery is better meeting his needs.  

Several local brewery owners are former teachers, as well. From David Rowland (middle school social studies) at SoMe Brewing, down in York, to Kathryn Toppan (high school English) and Sean Lent (high school social studies), who own Bad Little Brewing Company, up in Machias, the state’s breweries have lots of former educators. The Maine Brews Cruise’s founder, Zach Poole, is a former elementary school phys-ed teacher.  

Heather Sanborn taught social studies for four years at Cape Elizabeth High  School before enrolling in law school and eventually opening Rising Tide Brewing in Portland with her husband, Nathan. “In the early days of craft beer, there was a lot of teaching involved, talking to bar managers, retailers, and customers,” Sanborn said. She recalled explaining ingredients, process, pricing, and products as “breaking that information apart and then reassembling it to be accessible.” 

That’s more or less making lesson plans to sell beer, a skill that also enhances the tasting room experience. And that helps explain why Rising Tide had four educators on staff this summer, as did Oxbow Brewing Co. up the street.  

Erin Page, who works in Après’ East Bayside tasting room, has taught kindergarten at Washburn Elementary School in Auburn for eight years. “I used to be a nanny in the summer, but I wanted a break from kids,” she said. “So I work with drunk adults now.”  

Page poured cider and seltzer at Après all summer, but will be cutting back her hours there now that school has begun. “I’ll still work weekends as much as possible,” she said, then sheepishly added that she’ll also come in on a weeknight “if they really need me.”  

Why work so hard?

“Money,” Page replied. “Yeah, money, and keeping busy.” 


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