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Matt Brynildson: Brewmaster of Firestone Walker

Innovators Series: The Lion, The Bear and The Merlin (Issue 19)
Firestone Walker's "Merlin" of brewing, Matt Brynildson
Firestone Walker's "Merlin" of brewing, Matt Brynildson

Most former homebrewers who “turn pro” learn the chemistry behind the carboy as they go, but award-winning Matt Brynildson came to his job with a sheepskin understanding of brewing science in his back pocket, having graduated from Michigan’s Kalamazoo College with a bachelor’s in chemistry in 1993.

Brynildson’s original plan was to become a doctor, and he was initially part of the college’s pre-med program. But during his undergrad years, a fellow student helped him get a part-time job at the Kalamazoo Spice Extraction Company, or Kalsec, and a gradual course correction ensued. It was there that Brynildson first dabbled in hop chemistry and where he first took up homebrewing.

Brynildson really liked working in the hop lab, and when graduation neared, he was feeling burned out from his four years as an undergrad and decided to take some time off from academics. He accepted a full-time position at Kalsec, and so his first job out of college was as a hop chemist. After a short time, he was sent to the Siebel Institute in Chicago for additional course work in organic chemistry. While there in 1995, Brynildson learned that Goose Island Beer Company was building its production facility on Fulton Street. When founder Greg Hall approached Matt’s class in search of prospective employees, the seed was planted that he could actually make a living brewing.

By the time he took the cellarman’s job at Goose Island, his plan to become Dr. Brynildson was receding in the rearview mirror. His decision to work at a brewery for nine dollars an hour left his family, which had been expecting a medical career, puzzled and wondering where it all went wrong for Matt.

But Matt put his chemistry background to good use. He got the lab at Goose Island up and running, and helped get its quality control in line. Within a year, he’d distinguished himself enough to become the head brewer. By 2000, after a number of years in Chicago, the Wild West came calling and a restless Brynildson decided the true big leagues of craft brewing were on the West Coast. A native of Litchfield, Minnesota with German and Norwegian ancestry, he left the Midwest behind.

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