Brett Robison Makes Beer (more) Fun
As Head Bartender and Beer Dude for the Tryst Coffeehouse Bar & Lounge in Washington, DC, Brett Robison has found his calling.
Living by his personal motto, “Life is long if you know how to live it,” Brett ditched a job in sales / support to pursue a career that would let him be successful in a job that he loves. When he isn’t at the bar, he drops his knowledge on Divine Brew, his personal website and a great resource for anyone who wants to learn more about the finer points of beer appreciation.
As a beer lover myself, I jumped at the chance to talk to Brett about who he is, what he does, and why he loves to do it.
You graduated from college with a degree in Business & Technology, and got a job as an algorithmic sales / trader in New York. There are a lot of people out there who would say that you had a great job, but you weren’t happy doing it. Could you talk a little bit about the job, and why it didn’t work for you?
I worked in a specialized sales/support team that acted as the conduit between developers and customers. I left because I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it for the rest of my life. The culture didn’t seem to fit with my personality because I’m an entrepreneur at my core. I hope to start my own restaurant group someday, which means it’s all about building the right kind of experience now. I want to be successful doing what I love. I also hate mandatory desk hours. I’m not allergic to sitting at a desk, but I think a lot of time gets wasted in typical office culture.
You decided to make a pretty significant shift in your career, and you’re now the head bartender and beer dude for the Tryst Coffeehouse Bar & Lounge in Washington, DC. What about that job was so appealing to you?
Working behind the bar can be a lot of fun. It’s very challenging, but my sole job is to ensure that people have a great time. It is sort of like being a chef and tour guide wrapped into one. You read people and then match them with the best beer/wine/cocktail. The best bartenders learn to create an experience for their customers, not just a drink. My business card title reads “Head Bartender & Beer Dude”. I think that’s pretty awesome as well.
You clearly have a passion for beer and enjoy sharing that passion with others. What are some of the ways that you are able to teach an appreciation for beer?
Hosting events can be a powerful tool in getting people excited about great beer. We did a great event with New Belgium for DC Beer Week and brought in some amazing sour beers. Most of the guests that purchased tickets hadn’t tasted anything like these beers before. Trying something new and different can be just the spark that leads to beer appreciation. For people that say, “I don’t like beer” I retort with, “You just haven’t found the beer that you like, yet.”
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Turning frowns upside down and widening smiles. Best validation in the world. Whenever somebody comes into my bar and they’ve had a really awful day, I put a muffin from our bakery in front of them. I pull out my ice mallet and have ‘em smash the muffin right on the bar. The mix of shock value and grief release turns our bar from just another bar into something magical. I want everyone to know they can come into Tryst and be weird; we’ll still love them because we’re all weird anyways. As a bartender I have to be part entertainer, psychiatrist, mixologist, security guard, babysitter and a whole host of other things. The variation within the job is really satisfying. Never a dull moment.
We’re in the middle of a pretty exciting time for US craft breweries. Have you seen an increased interest in beers that are a bit off the beaten path?
Certainly. The American beer palate continues to seek expansion into unexplored flavor territory. Barrel aged beers are all the rage these days. Sometimes these will be bourbon barrel aged stouts. Sometimes, barrel aged beers are made with the introduction of wild yeast and bacteria. Craft beer consumers continue to decide with their wallets in an increasing trend toward high-end beers, some of which use rare and expensive ingredients. I’ve done a lot of research in one specific field, coffee beer. I believe there a lot of interesting things happening in that very small sub-niche of beer. I wrote a four-part series on coffee beer which starts here.
Favorite US brewery?
Wow. I think that is nearly impossible for me to decide. I love a couple breweries for various reasons. Epic Brewing out of Utah brews some really impressive high-gravity beers. I’m especially fond of their Big Bad Baptist. It’s a coffee stout brewed with cocoa nibs and it’s delicious. I’m crushing on 21st amendment based out of San Francisco as well. Their Bitter American embodies the quintessential American session beer. Bitter American is my de facto football Sunday beer. I have to show some local love for the teams at DC Brau, Lost Rhino and Port City as well. All great breweries putting out great beers.
You’ve done a pretty remarkable job of turning your passion for beer into a job that you love. What advice would you give to someone else who was thinking about turning their passion into a career?
Start a blog. If you’re not a blogger type, find any way that you can get involved in your desired trade. Be prepared to do a lot of unpaid work as well. Just because you love it doesn’t mean people will be willing to pay you for it. Do it for free until you can leverage it into something more meaningful. Sometimes, this can take a very long time. Don’t quit. I can’t tell you how many countless hours I spent on DivineBrew.com before I leveraged it into my current job. Pretty sure nobody but my family read it in the beginning. Everyone has to start somewhere.
What is a typical day at the ‘office’ like for you?
It really depends on the day. Monday is mostly comprised of draft beer maintenance. I show up early in the morning, pull our draft beer system apart and clean all the components. I work behind the bar Tuesday, Thursday and Friday nights. On Wednesdays I keep office hours where I meet with various beer reps. Wednesdays usually involve tasting new beers that are hitting the market. On these days I plan bar events and/or work on training material for my staff as well. We rotate some of the beer selection on a regular basis, which requires a lot of training. Once all that is done, I try to find time to spend on DivineBrew (which means whenever I have a free waking moment).
What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?
“There’s room for creativity in this profession but Miles Davis didn’t go straight to free jazz and Picasso didn’t go straight to abstract art. They were rooted in classic traditions.” ~ David Fritzler (Chief Beverage Operations Manager for the Tryst family of restaurants).
In my profession, it’s pretty common for bartenders to get carried away and start mixing drinks without a damn idea of what they’re doing or why. It’s sort of like a chef trying to cook a roasted duck au poivre without knowing how to scramble an egg. Sage advice that I needed and was happy to have. I also picked up an interesting line somewhere, “I know enough to know that I don’t know anything”. Studying the world through a beer-centric lens is several lifetimes’ worth of work. In the beginning, I thought I knew a lot about beer. At some point, I learned enough to understand just how far the rabbit hole goes.
Thanks so much for your time!