The Catalyst That Altered This Brewery’s Work Schedule

Having an ever-revolving door of brewers working for him never has appealed to Matt McCowan.

“At the end of the day, we’re only going to keep the quality of the beer up, if I don’t have to have a new brewer come in every five months because they’re burned out, or they feel like they’re being shit on,” explained Alter Brewing’s Head Brewer. “That’s what I feel makes us different is that I really focus on the brewers feeling like they have a comfortable life.

“That’s like the most important because if you can go home and when you fall asleep, you’re not worried about coming into work the next day, everything works better.”

A veteran of the industry for more than a decade, McCowan joined Alter — based in the Chicagoland city of Downers Grove, Illinois — in 2018, a few years after it opened in 2015. He had worked in places as a shift brewer where he didn’t feel appreciated and when given the opportunity as the person in charge of a crew of brewers, he went to work to make that work/life balance more palatable.

“I’ve worked for a few breweries, and there are some really mean, nasty, breweries as far as how they operate. And it’s usually top down,” McCowan said. “You go in, and there’s always a new guy starting.

“Because I’ve had that experience of working at these breweries that weren’t doing the human aspect of working at any company — doesn’t matter if it’s a brewery, I don’t care for making paper clips — but just the human, empathetic approach.”

It wasn’t an overnight change, though. It was the pandemic that switched the idea of four-day work weeks, giving a weekday off along with the weekend.

“We all have to work,” he said. “We all have our lives outside of work. I just want to try and make it not seem so separated to where you’re like a different person at work.”

McCowan doesn’t really keep track of how much time his brewery team is at the brewery. Every day, there are tasks that need to get done. If they get done, work is done for the day.

“I don’t run a daycare, I run a brewery,” he said. “I don’t have anyone keeping track of hours necessarily, I’m keeping track of what’s getting done. And I’m just making sure that the team is working well together. And if those two things are happening on a day-to-day basis, I really don’t care.”

They do track vacation days, but for the most part, he said, no one has used up all their vacation in a year.

“Generally speaking, nobody really feels the need to use it all because day-to-day life is pretty balanced,” he said. “I have kids, too, so I get it. I truly don’t feel like anyone’s taking advantage of it. We all just take care of business inside and outside of work.”

Who wants to spend their weekend doing errands, he asked.

“For me, it gives you that one day where you can do the stuff that you were going to do on a Saturday or Sunday,” McCowan said. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, I try to think about what would I want to do? I want to be able to come to work, enjoy it, go home, and enjoy that too. And not feel it’s so lopsided.

“The basic idea here is the beer is good. What I think we’re better at is, we’re good people. And I wouldn’t be able to do that, and have this ethos and have this mentality without having known what it’s like to not have that. To have owners that allow me to have that autonomy to run the team the way that I want it [is great]. I haven’t lost a brewer to any sort of begrudging issue, since I started. There’s a saying here, if you’re here for a year, you’re gonna be here forever.”

McCowan pointed out that he by no means “saved” the brewery from itself. It’s just a new ethos he hopes to see be spread more, especially to the crews across the country that help make the beer that makes the craft beer industry.

“I’m in a position where I can, at the very least, make four other people happier with their lives. It’s not a lot,” he said. “But if I have the control to make it so that these guys feel respected, and that their work/life balance is appropriate. They don’t feel the need to have grievances with the company that they spend a good part of their day at? If I can make it so that that is something that they don’t worry about, then I’ve at least done something.

“The beer is definitely a big part of my job, but so is delivering some sort of good back to the world. Even if it’s just four people. But maybe those four people will eventually end up owning their own brewery someday and carry that same thought process, and then it spreads. Because I think that overall, generally, we all work too much. For me, I try to pull the levers that I have at my disposal, and the biggest one that I have is time. I lived a lot of life as an adult and I know what makes me happy. So I try to give that to everyone else because that’s the position that I’m in.”

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