Técnico I+D+i de Elaboración Nuevos Productos
After brewing his first batch of homebrew in 2014 with his brother-in-law, Jeff Rogers was enamored with the idea of a career in beer. Following the typical trajectory of countless amateurs-turned-pro before him, Rogers caught quick momentum in the local scene. Then his path deviated from the norm in an unconventional way. He said, “¡Adiós!” to a kush gig at Founders Brewing Company, and hasn’t been “home” to the United States since the summer of 2019.
It was evident that Rogers’ ambition was laser-focused on expediting himself from growing beyond a novice homebrewer into a proficient asset. After honing his skills at Harmony, he left to join Founders Brewing Company as their cellar operator in 2017. Unsurprisingly, Rogers had to adjust to the “major change,” he says of working for the state’s now-largest brewery. If he only knew what was on the horizon…
Founders had already made international news in 2014 after selling a 30% stake in their company to the 130-year-old, family-owned and independent Spanish beer company, Mahou San Miguel. And again in 2019 when they doubled-down on their investment in Founders, taking a controlling stake at 90%, leaving the remaining equity split evenly between co-founders Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers.
As the largest brewery in Spain, Mahou San Miguel owns over 50 brands, is on shelves in 70 countries, has eight production facilities, and produces 70% of the Spanish beer in the world. In 2018, their annual production volume was 15,594,673 barrels. To put that into perspective, in 2019, Founders produced 578,400 barrels.
Now, back to Rogers’ tenure at Founders. He was there for about a year and a half when they shared an internal job posting from Mahou for the position of New Product R&D Specialist at their headquarters in Madrid, Spain. Rogers applied, got the job, moved his family, and is now Mahou San Miguel’s Técnico I+D+i de Elaboración Nuevos Productos.
Drinkible: Layered question, but what were the deciding factors in taking the job and making the move?
Rogers: I was immediately interested in the posting, but the first thing I had to do was get the green light from my wife, Christa, whom I had been married to at that point for five years. I pitched it to her knowing that she minored in Spanish in college, studied abroad in Central America, and had always dreamed of living in a Spanish-speaking country. With her fluency, we also knew that she’d be the perfect model for immersing our then eight-month-old daughter, Everly, in a new language—the opportunity would be beneficial to our entire family.
Aside from accounting for Christa’s comfort with the decision, did you make that entire transition sight unseen?
Sort of. I interviewed virtually, was offered the job in June 2018, and then Christa and I flew over there to do a site visit at their headquarters and facilities and in-person meet-and-greets that September. We moved in January 2019. Fortunately, we vacationed in Barcelona back in 2016, so we had some idea of what a potential life might look like actually living there.
Still, I had to consider the fact that I didn’t know Spanish, and there was some concern about the cost of living over here.
When it ultimately came down to it, it checked all the boxes. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to progress my career in such a unique capacity and expand our family’s cultural awareness and experiences. Christa and I knew we could take on and conquer this adventure.
Describe your role. What’s a day in the life of your job like? How does it differ from what you were used to in the U.S.?
I’m involved in everything from sourcing raw materials to packaging in various formats, with a mix of office work and hands-on production. I’m on a team with six other technicians. We’re all essentially project managers who deal with the production of the liquid. I say, “liquid” because we’re not restricted to only beer—projects might include Mahou’s portfolio of water and soft drinks as well. My day-to-day always looks different as it varies depending on how many projects I’m in charge of.
Each project I’m a part of involves different tasks to complete. For example, one might be to create a new recipe to produce for marketing or for the brewpub that we opened up for one of our major brands. In that case, I create trials on the nano system first then scale up the pilot plant, or scale it to be produced on site at the brewpub.
I know you thought it was a jump going from Harmony to Founders, but how much more significant of a leap was it to working in a Mahou facility?
Huge. The size is staggering. I’m based out of our company’s largest brewery (out of eight total, including one in India), and the largest brewery in Spain. It’s in a town called Alovera, about 40 minutes east of Madrid. In 2019, we produced 6,432,609 hectoliters (5,481,663 bbls) in my facility alone!
Brewing on any one of our systems might include our nano brewhouse that’s 1 hL (1.2 bbls), on our pilot system that’s 20 hL (17 bbls), or one of our two large ones here on site that are 1,300 hL (1,100 bbls) each.
Okay, that is a major adjustment. Do you remember what your first few days were like, getting acclimated to that?
My first week on the job was a unique one. Of course, I had the standard lineup of training and admin housekeeping stuff, but it also conveniently coincided with the release of the Mahou Cinco Estrellas IPA. Funny enough, it’s a collaboration with Founders—a project spearheaded by one of my teammates. Jeremy Kosmicki (Founders’ Brewmaster) was in Madrid for the release, doing promotions at the brewpub and at Mahou’s headquarters. Getting to see and hang with a friendly face while he was here was a great way for me to feel more comfortable in my new surroundings.
The sheer size difference between both breweries was—and still is—astonishing to me. Pictures just don’t do it justice. Yet, to know that Mahou is still a family-owned brewery, dating back to 1890, makes where I now get to come to work everyday pretty unbelievable.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve experienced? Any culture shock? Any embarrassing cultural faux pas?
The obvious one, for me, has been the language barrier, but it’s a welcomed challenge. It was a little crazy at first because every meeting I’m in is in Spanish. I’ve learned to be patient and give myself some grace—to not be afraid to attempt to form sentences rather than remain silent or speak in English. Just trying has been the best way for me to learn.
Outside of work, our biggest challenges as a family have included coordinating the logistics of sending a shipping container of our belongings here, getting our residency cards, finding a flat [Rogers is fancy now—he means “apartment”], purchasing a car, and obtaining our Spanish driver’s license—which took six months itself. We’ve learned that things generally move a bit slower in this country.
How much has language been a barrier? That seems like it’d be a pretty intimidating aspect?
I only took four years of Spanish in high school, but Christa minored in it in college. The team I’m on is very diverse, and includes a Colombian-born/Canadian-raised man who’s bilingual and speaks English really well. My supervisor lived and studied in the States for six years. Three other Spanish co-workers also speak very good English. That being said, I continue to learn and understand Spanish little by little every day. I’m taking online courses, but my colleagues have been the biggest help—they’ve been so supportive, and are always willing to answer any of my questions. They’ve gone so far as to help my family move into our flat, and we’ve had countless invites to their homes for dinner, as their guests to local beer fests, and we’ve even spent time at a few of their beach houses. I recognize how fortunate I am to be surrounded by such a good team.
How does your flat in Spain compare to the living situation you left in Michigan?
In Grand Rapids, we owned a three-bedroom, 1.5 bath, 1,495 sq. ft., two-story house, with a basement, garage, and a decent-sized yard. We thought it had everything we “needed.” We knew we’d most likely be transitioning into a much smaller space, which helped prep us for adopting a more minimalistic perspective.
When we first arrived here, we lived in Airbnbs for the first 2 months because finding an apartment here is similar to bidding on a house in the U.S. The decision is ultimately up to the landlord in who they want to occupy their unit. Since we’re foreigners, it put us at a disadvantage. We ended up using a realtor, and are happy with the location and size of our three-bedroom, 1-bath 800 sq. ft. flat. We are in Alcalá de Henares—a smaller city, about the size of Grand Rapids, about 25 miles east of Madrid. It’s about 20 minutes from my office at the brewery and 45 minutes (with traffic) from Mahou’s headquarters in Madrid.
How has Covid-19 affected life in Spain?
According to the country’s mandates and Mahou honoring them, I started working from home beginning March 11. We did start returning to the office mid/late May, in rotational weekly teams at 30% capacity with sanitation guidelines. Then, in June, we increased to 50% capacity in the office. Fortunately, my position allows me to work virtually because many of the foundational tasks can be performed remotely. For example, I create protocols (recipes), specifications, complete all the legal necessities, and coordinate with all the other departments needed for each project. Then, if needed, I was able to go into the office to check on trial recipes and whatever else might’ve needed my attention in person. Overall though, I’ve been blessed to have not been laid off or had to supplement my income. Mahou’s been good to us.
Man, I’m so glad to hear you’ve been lucky enough to stay on your feet. How are Christa and Everly coping?
Well, the family got to have dad around the house much more. But, with the obvious restrictions of being able to only leave our flat for groceries or medicine, we’ve certainly missed our outdoor adventures and visits to the park. It was tough to keep a three-year-old occupied and entertained, but we’ve found some peace and camaraderie bonding with our community from our balcony during Spain’s nightly applause for those working on the frontlines. There’s a great sense of support and hope for Spanish people here.
What do you miss about home?
Family and friends the most, but I’m able to see them virtually—and entice them to visit. I miss the beer—both from Michigan and all the other great brands that saw distro to us. It’s a challenge to get my hands on fresh U.S. beer after it makes the journey across the pond. Fortunately, Mahou’s been releasing a few IPAs and others that I’m lucky enough to enjoy as fresh as possible!
Advice, cautions for someone considering a similar opportunity to relocate abroad?
At least consider it. Whether you’re single or making the move as a family, you can make it. The biggest thing for us personally, I would say, is missing family and friends. As parents, navigating a pediatrician for Everly. And, from a professional standpoint, it’s such a blessing when your employer pays you a fair wage with decent benefits. You’re probably going to want to make a trip or two home, so you should be able to afford it and have the time to do it without having to go in debt to pull it off.
I’d be lying if I said this has been the easiest thing for my family to do, but it’s all definitely been worth it. All three of us have benefited in different ways, and as a family—this entire journey has made us stronger. Christa has been an amazing stay-at-home parent. While Everly could’ve started school as early as this past fall, we’ve decided to hold off due to Covid. In the meantime, we just announced the birth of our second child, Quinn!
Whoa, congrats! So, since it sounds like you’re acclimating well enough to invite a new little one into the world, how long do you expect to remain in Spain?
Well, I’m currently not under any sort of contractual obligation with a predetermined end date. So, as of right now—indefinitely—I’m here as long as I want. Christa and I renewed our resident visas in October, so at least for another 16 months! Plus, with Quinn’s birth, I’m on paternity leave for three months—yet another reason I love working for Mahou.
Good for you, man! Okay, if you return to the U.S., what might be next for Jeff Rogers?
If/when we move back, I plan to stay in the brewing industry. The experience I’m gaining with Mahou is so valuable, and positions me well to continue expanding my skill set. I think it’d be particularly interesting to find a way to blend my experience as a brewer with some sort of intentional, unique cultural aspect. I’m not quite sure what that could look like, so maybe I’ll just create it. I imagine the potential for some sort of international, cross-cultural collaborations. What I’ve seen created with Mahou’s Cinco Estellas IPA collab with Founders has been pretty inspirational. It’s been a blast to be a part of Spain’s craft beer boom similar to what we’ve all felt in the U.S.
If you had to do it all over again, would you still take the job with Mahou and make the move?
Definitely. I’m very happy with my decision and thankful for the opportunity to continue to grow within my craft. Not to mention, being able to learn a new language in a new country alongside my family has been priceless.
What would you tell someone who might be up against a similar life-move opportunity?
Don’t be afraid to expand your knowledge and better yourself—whether it’s learning a new language, moving abroad, or simply doing something out of your comfort zone. You will come out on the other side wiser with more experience, resilience, and self-confidence for having just taken the chance. Cheers!
Where can people find you if they’d like to follow your journey?
I don’t post often, but you can check out a glimpse of my family’s travels and general celebrations of life on Instagram @brewerjefe.
For those who haven’t met Rogers, he’s the type of person for whom you want to root. He’s a solid dude, with head and heart in the right place, chasing his best life for himself and his family. Here’s to hoping that what or wherever his next move is, fresh beer always finds its way to him.