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Q&A: Ross Nearburg MEM’12 on the Switch from Big Oil to Beer

By Anna Fiorentino
July 2015 • Thayer By Degrees: MEM

After graduation, Ross Nearburg MEM'12 returned to Texas to become a field engineer at an oilfield services company. It was the practical choice, but his heart was elsewhere—and even MEM program associate director Ross Gortner Th'03, MEM'04 knew it.

"I understood he would be great at the job since he had all the right skills, but I wasn’t convinced the oil industry would be his long term career," says Gortner. "So when Ross called me a year or so after finishing the MEM and told me he'd quit his job to follow his brewing passion, I wasn't surprised, and I could hear the excitement in his voice about a new adventure."

Ross Nearburg
Ross Nearburg MEM'12 at Real Ale Brewing Company

The corporate climb wasn't for him. Nearburg dropped the oil industry to earn minimum wage at Real Ale Brewing Company. Three years later, as planner/buyer for the brewery, he's learning everything he can about the industry to chase his dream of starting his own brewery with his twin brother. And from an original batch of stout that he and a few buddies from the MEM program brewed up at Dartmouth, he’s created a successful career and a story Gortner shares with MEM students regularly to assure them it's possible to make a hobby into a passion.

"It's really easy for any young student—MEM or otherwise—to be driven towards good money and a brand name company," says Gortner. "Dartmouth brings a lot of great recruiting opportunities to students and most of those opportunities are a great career fit. But when I talk with alumni, what I frequently hear is that passion for the industry is always critical for self satisfaction in your job."

Nearburg passed the beer torch to MEM student Michael Gadigian Th'14 last year, just before Gadigian broke into the brewing industry with a summer MEM internship at Bronx-based start-up Gun Hill Brewing Company.

"What really helped me to go for the brewery career is that when I asked Ross if he had to do it all over again, would he switch out of big oil and work at a brewery, he said, 'Absolutely, I am actually excited to go to work now and do something I am passionate about,'" says Gadigian, who is now working to make the brewery energy efficient. "I have been lucky to be able to combine my passions for energy and beer."

We sat down with Nearburg to find out more:

How did you turn your interest in beer into a career?

When I realized that my passion for brewing had outgrown my ambitions for financial gain, I roped my brother into home brewing and he had begun touring breweries across the nation as a hobby. Upon returning from a trip to Colorado where he toured Avery, Odell, Oscar Blues, and several notable brewpubs, he said, 'You know, all those brewers looked really happy. I think I want to do what they are doing.' For weeks we sent out at least five applications a day. We had resigned ourselves to the fact that we may not be hired together, if at all, and certainly not in Texas. At the end of our search, Real Ale Brewing Company in Blanco, Texas opened two positions for pack hall workers at less than $10 an hour. My brother and I, both with master degrees and careers that could have taken us into what most people would consider huge success, were now box-stackers making close to minimum wage. Our mother was worried to say the least.

How did you move up once you got your foot in the door?

We worked hard and both quickly climbed the ranks of the pack hall to filler operator and labeler operator. It was at that point that we had to decide who was going to learn brewing, and who would learn the business. My brother and I set out with the intention of eventually opening our own brewery—we consider our paths a unified effort towards that end—and we wanted to gain a perspective for both sides. Just after my first year with Real Ale I applied for and got the job as planner/buyer working closely with the CFO. I have excelled in the position, and it has coincided with giant growth in our distribution and branding as well as our packaging materials. Being fairly new to the industry, we set a goal to spend at least 10 years gaining experience as brewery employees. In just two years, we have earned high-level positions at important local breweries, and, at this point, we are just trying to remember that this is only the beginning. As we continue to grow, we will refine our business goals in order to ensure that, when we do open a brewery, it will be as close to our dream as possible. 

Why do you love brewing?

I'm interested in the biology in fermentation science, chemistry in water composition—which affects mash pH, yeast, nutrition, and hop flavor—engineering in process design and stream management, history in brewing traditions and style development, and business and advertising in the management of the brewery itself. But it's the community, skill, and indulgence of the craft that capture my soul. Between the two of us, my brother and I have made friends with other brewers, senators, musicians, and event planners. We also brew for collaborations and fun one-offs with local bars, brewpubs, and bottle shops. When I get to work, I will sometimes go to the production line and just watch the beer being packaged. It reminds me that I have chosen to bring my passion into reality, and make sure that every bottle we make gets out in the best condition possible. I am always looking at our tap wall, fermentation tanks, and brewhouse, trying not to get overwhelmed with having succeeded in finding something that both challenges me and makes me happy. When I worked for other companies, I felt that all I was doing was either providing a routine service or reaping financial gain without emotional reward. Now I make beer, and I love it. 

How did the MEM program help you with your career?

My role is to source, purchase, and implement packaging in the brewery. Although not as glamorous as brewing, several key elements of the MEM are utilized in my core responsibilities.  For example, I use skills from Technology Assessment to present the viability of packaging solutions to our CFO. I also use Project Management to create, manage, and execute packaging from concept to production. I also use Marketing, Accounting, Optimization, and Strategy in Turbulent Environments to bring value to my daily work. The MEM program provided contextualized learning scenarios rather than simple data analysis and rote memorization. I've been witness to Thayer School's ability to create individuals who are not limited by their coursework. I have an expanded ability to comprehend and implement solutions outside of standard engineering principles, and that ability has allowed me to grow.

What advice would you give MEM students about combining passion and career?

My advice is to look at your life and recognize how you can apply your strengths and interests to the things you are passionate about. For instance, I have strength in organization, optimization, and attention to detail. I also enjoy repetitive tasks and collecting rewards. In my current role at the brewery I build and manage projects and collect one-off special items that I see first because I am in charge of sourcing them. I believe there are many people who pursue a passion without realizing that it will require as much effort, if not more, than any other career path.

Tags: alumni, career, entrepreneurship, M.E.M.

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