Meet the woman who crafts our major beers

By Jenny Denton
Updated May 25 2022 - 11:28am, first published May 24 2022 - 5:00am
Sarah Laing ... "We test every single tank that's been filled overnight to assess it". Photo: Morgan Hancock
Sarah Laing ... "We test every single tank that's been filled overnight to assess it". Photo: Morgan Hancock

From making home brew as a university student, Sarah Laing now has oversight over one in five beers consumed in Australia in her job as head brewer at CUB's Abbotsford brewery. JENNY DENTON reports

Most mornings Sarah Laing and several colleagues line up at a bench in front of an imposing line of glasses to taste beer.

Many would relish this opportunity, but for Laing it is work.

The mission is to maintain the standard of the 20-odd beers that come out of Australia's biggest brewery - notably iconic brands Carlton Draught, VB and Carlton Dry - some of which are dispatched all over the country.

This year the Abbotsford facility will brew more than 300 million litres of beer, meaning around one in five beers drunk across Australia would have been made there.

As the Abbotsford head brewer - the first woman to hold the position - Laing has oversight of all of them.

The role involves responsibility for "all things brewing" and cider-making in the local 24-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week operation, including around 60 members of the 350-strong Abbotsford workforce that is engaged on machines and beer-making in the brewing area.

Laing describes the position as her "dream job".

Keen on chemistry from a young age, Laing first started brewing back in her student days when she was studying chemical engineering.

"While I was at uni, I developed a love of beer, as many young people do, but I sort of took it to the next level and started home brewing when I was about 20," she says.

"I was probably one of the few girls doing it."

While not without social appeal, it was the scientific side of brewing that really interested her.

"I found beer-making fascinating as a process," she says.

"There's really interesting chemistry and biochemistry and there's engineering elements in understanding any equipment involved in trying to bring this process to life in a controlled way."

Although keen to get into commercial brewing, Laing was offered a job straight out of university in the chemical industry, and over a few years, learnt a lot in it.

But in 2003, when she applied for a job as a brewing improvement engineer at CUB, the company instead offered her a managerial role in the packaging area.

"I think the first time you see a really big pack hall and the thousands of bottles of beer in there, you never quite get over it. It's just amazing," she says.

It was one of several non-technical brewing roles she would take on at CUB - including a stint managing technical team Draught Beer Services for Queensland - which has given her a multi-faceted understanding of the industry.

"I have a good understanding of business and what's important to our consumers, because, look, that's what we're here for - to make beer that they love and that they continue to love," she says.

For tasting, Laing and her colleagues use small wine glasses. "That style of glass is really good for tasting beer," she says.

A panel of at least four tasters allows for people's "different sensitivities to different flavours", ensuring any defects are picked up and there's a range of input into how the beer is tasting.

"We have all the bottles lined up, all the samples, so there'll be a 400 ml plastic bottle, and for all the people attending the panel we pour a bit out into each glass," Laing says.

"We test every single tank that's been filled overnight to assess it, so we're just testing the product over and over again."

Laing has to make sure that any problems are addressed, production schedules are met, with the beer ready for packaging lines, and the product is up to scratch.

"As an example, if we're talking about Carlton Draught, to make it taste the same every time we have to produce a liquid that meets a very narrow range of quality criteria," she says.

"So we're looking at things like colour, sugar profiles, free flavours, bitterness, alcohol."

While a range of these qualities are chemically tested, others, particularly flavour compounds, are more effectively picked up by "sensory evaluation" of the beer's appearance, aroma and taste.

"Tasting is a really fast method for detecting a wide range of flavours - malt and hop profiles, fruity flavours, mouthfeel and fullness, sulphurs and freshness," Laing says.

The primary variable at play is the raw materials, the biggest of which is malted barley.

"As an agricultural product, its properties can vary quite a bit.

"So I think the skill of the brewers is to take that material and be able to produce a really consistent beer from it each and every time."

With the large volumes involved, the head brewer does not usually swallow the samples.

"It's important that I can still do work for the remainder of my day," she says.

Another of the her morning tasks is to "go for a wander around the plant", chatting with technicians, checking out what's being produced and running an eye over the equipment.

With two brewhouses full of complicated vessel, tank, pipe and pump set-ups, there is a lot of mechanical and electrical equipment to look over, some of it "really interesting" from a historical perspective.

"It still works, it still makes great beer, but sometimes it needs a bit more nurturing to keep it working as it should," Laing says.

"Certainly our tradespeople are often kept quite busy."

There are sections of the huge 1904 brewery that have long been shut down, but even the operational areas could take a couple of hours to walk around.

Laing took a break from beer in the late 2000s while in Queensland but returned to brewing at CUB's big Yatala brewery on the Gold Coast, where she later became capital project manager.

In 2019, she moved to Melbourne to take up a job in quality assurance at Abbotsford.

The following year she "landed the dream job" - becoming the first woman head brewer at Abbotsford.

Laing seems somewhat nonplussed by the celebration of the achievement on account of her gender, perhaps because it could cloud the fact that she was the best candidate for the job.

"I think that, at the end of the day, we hire the best candidates [at CUB], and what we're seeing in Abbotsford in recent times is many of the best candidates are women."

Nevertheless she appreciates the symbolic importance of the milestone to others.

"When I was appointed, a lot of people in the business, many of whom I didn't know, reached out to offer congratulations and talk...about how they felt it was important that CUB and Abbotsford had appointed a female to a role such as this," she says.

"So yeah, I'm aware that it is a significant appointment that means something to quite a lot of people.

"And it does provide an example for, then, lots of other people to come through and do the same thing."

In fact, it seems, they already are, with Laing finding the male dominated environment she has spent most of her career working in, changing significantly.

"So much so that at Abbotsford we actually have a largely female leadership team, which is fantastic," she says.

"All of a sudden I'm seeing that there's really talented and capable women, certainly working in this business.

"I think some women are definitely seeing that they can have a really rewarding career in brewing but also in our business and in leadership roles in our business."

On the important question of her beer of choice, Laing's preference is clear.

"I love trying lots of different styles of beers and there's many fantastic beers around but when we're doing tasting I get just a little bit more excited when it's VB time.

"I love VB," she says.

When we're doing tasting, I get just a little bit more excited when it's VB time.

- Sarah Laing
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