Imagine being paid to drink beer? Well, that’s exactly what life is like for Diageo master brewer Steve Gilsenan.
We caught up with him to find out more about his amazing career to date and what it’s really like to work in St. James’s Gate.
*Spoiler alert* There’s a lot more to his job than meets the eye.
What did you want to be when you were younger?
I actually wanted to be a pilot when I was very young. My Dad worked in aviation for his entire career. I spent my early years meeting him off flights in Dublin Airport. They are some of my first memories. My Dad always knew the pilots in Aer Lingus and I spent many flights up in the cockpit. I still love airports and travel has been a huge part of my professional and personal life.
What did you study at college?
I studied Chemical Engineering at UCD.
Talk us through your career to date.
After graduating in 1999, I joined Diageo (Guinness Ireland Group as it was then) on their graduate training programme. For the first year, I worked as a maintenance engineer at St James’s Gate before discovering a love of brewing in the Smithwicks Brewery in Kilkenny.
I worked in Kilkenny until 2005 when I qualified as a Master Brewer. After a year back in Dublin as a Shift Manager, I decided that I wanted to travel. That started an eight-year stint travelling the world working with third-party brewers and our own breweries across Africa and Jamaica.
It has taken me to over 40 countries around the world. I lived in London, Singapore and Trinidad during that time. This culminated in a year in Ghana with my young family as head of operations for the Guinness brewery in Kumasi. It was then time to return home to Ireland as the beer industry there was transforming and growing.
I was given the unique opportunity to return to St James’s Gate as Diageo transitioned to a single brewery model and bring all the brewing departments together. That’s what I have been doing now for the past three years and is really the dream job for me.
Has working for Diageo been everything you hoped it would be?
My career to date has been everything I could have hoped for. As a master brewer, to be able to say that you have had the honour of managing brewing at St James’s Gate is something that most people can only dream of.
Like everyone, my career has had its ups and downs, great success and days of uncertainty and disappointment. It has taken me to breweries from Angola to New Zealand and allowed me to meet some amazing people and experience living in some diverse and interesting cultures.
What qualities does Diageo look for in new hires?
Diageo has a very clear and well-communicated leadership standard which forms the backbone of all our hiring processes. It looks at people’s ability to win through execution, inspire through purpose, shape the future and invest in talent. We are looking for people who want to challenge and improve on what we do each and every day. What makes Diageo a great place to work is the people you meet in every aspect of the job. It is the people that make St James’s Gate special.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about your job?
The most common misconception about my role is people imagine a master brewer sitting at his desk or in the tasting room, tasting the beer from each tank, and that’s all!
Tasting is a critical part of my day to day job but at the end of the day, St James’s Gate is a brewery producing over 40 different beers at a rate of 39 pints every second. I am responsible for the quality of all that beer but also the efficiency of the brewery. I need to ensure that all orders are met on time in one of the most complex breweries in the world. This makes my role extremely fast-paced and on the front line of production operations.
What is a typical day like?
I live in Kilkenny so my day starts early. Typically I get up at 5am and check in with the night shift in Dublin to see how things have gone. I can see the whole brewery operation from my laptop at home. I leave home at 6:15 and get the train to Dublin, arriving at the brewery at 8:15.
We have production reviews with the shifts teams in the brewhouse and fermentation departments first thing to review the previous 24 hours and plans for the next 24 hours. I usually have a number of actions to follow up from those meetings, followed by the daily tasting at 10am.
Tasting involves tasting all of the beer kegged the previous day, which is held until the 10am panel passes the beer as acceptable. I then review all the quality results for the previous 24 hours as well as reviewing all beer movements and the production plans to ensure that all beer is moving on time. This guarantees the consistency of the beer as well as meeting all of the production schedules.
I then have a number of projects I am working on that need attention. Currently, I am working closely with our malt suppliers as it is harvest time and I am already trying to predict how this years’ barley crop will compare to last years. This is so I know how to manage it when it comes into us from December onwards so that the pint remains as consistent as ever.
I am also working on the continuing success of brands like Hophouse 13 and Rockshore to ensure St James’s Gate will have the future capacity as these brands continue to grow at the fast rate we have seen to date. My day in the office finishes at 4:30 when I get the train back to Kilkenny. I remain on call and in contact with the shift teams for the evening and weekends, and the odd middle of the night call, before starting again at 5am the following morning.
How do you get a good work-life balance?
I have three kids under the age of 9 who ensure I find a great work-life balance. When I get in the door, I have a bowl that my phone goes in until bedtime. I am not allowed to take it out unless the shift manager calls me. I have a special ring set up on my phone. I have a great support structure at home. My wife understands the demands of my role but also how much I love it. She is always planning things for us to do to have some downtime both as a couple and a family. I also play a lot of tennis with a great group of people who help me unwind and get away from the pace of everyday life.
Who has been your biggest role model?
This sounds cheesy but my current boss, Martin Condren, has always been a role model for me. He was my boss when I was a trainee brewer in Kilkenny 18 years ago. He started me on my journey in beer. He gave me responsibility at a very young age in Kilkenny and showed me how to stand on my own two feet, figure out problems and manage the setbacks. While I was travelling, he has always been a career sounding board and it was wonderful to get the call from him to come back to work for him once again in St James’s Gate. He has also been a role model to me in terms of work-life balance. I watched him raise his four kids over the years and always find the time to be with his family at those key moments in life when nothing else matters.
What’s the biggest career lesson you have learned to date?
You are never finished learning and developing. There are always ways to improve yourself. Any setback in my career has not been met with regret but with an ability to bounce back and keep going. Find out what you have learned from that experience and keep going. Seek perfection and keep aiming at it.