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Monday, May 16, 2022

The Beer Engineer

Luis Cayo has brewed beer all over the world, but he’s not the counter-culture guy you might imagine. Forget the tats or earrings; after all, he got a degree in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech. Cayo, 50, works for Anheuser-Busch InBev and started in the business in 1986, about a year after he finished college. In his nearly 30 years with the beer maker, he has risen from brewing supervisor in Tampa, Fla. all the way to running the massive Van Nuys plant on Roscoe Boulevard. Along the way, Cayo had stops in Ireland, Brazil and Spain. In 2003, he came out west to be the senior assistant brew master, taking over the top spot in 2010. Cayo walked the Business Journal around the 95-acre compound and talked about his peripatetic career, the company’s global transition and how drinking on the job is no longer allowed in the United States but is still common elsewhere. Question: So you’ve been with Budweiser for almost 30 years. How different is the business? Answer: At the end of the day, tasting is really the most important thing we do. There has to be some changes. Well, a lot of the operation was more manual. With technology, we’ve been able to automate. Technology has helped. Brewing is part art and science. The art is always there, but the technology has helped us be more precise. There is a lot of data we can get around the process. We’ve all heard stories about guys drinking on the job. How much truth is there to that? I believe it changed in the early to mid ’80s. But that had been the tradition. When I worked in Spain, they still did that. In Germany, they still do that. I remember going to a German manufacturer at a yeast plant and he had a pretzel and a big beer at his desk. It has certainly changed. When did you sort of realize crafts couldn’t be ignored anymore? Some of them have gotten pretty big. It started when I began with the company. I went to Siebel, a brewing school in Chicago, and a lot of people in the class were up-and-coming craft brewers, so I learned about it early. They had fast growth, but then a big decline in the ’90s, so you knew about it, but you didn’t pay that much attention to it. When did you really start paying attention then? Well in the beginning, very few had the right quality. Some were good at it, but that was the issue. It really started to come out more in the early 2000s. But the way I look at it, if it’s positive for the beer industry, it’s positive for us. We make craft-style brews too. So what is your favorite beer? I’m traditional. I drink Budweiser. If I’m golfing or fishing, it might be Bud Light, but I drink Budweiser. What were you doing before you joined Anheuser-Busch? My first job out of Georgia Tech was at Pratt & Whitney aircraft in Palm Beach and we did military engines, which was kind of neat. I graduated at 21 and West Palm Beach wasn’t a bad place to live, so I moved there and made engines. What brought you into beer? Well, my brother was working there. About six months into my tenure at Pratt & Whitney I got a call about an opening. I actually told them I wanted to give Pratt & Whitney a year to make sure if it’s what I wanted to do. I told them that if they still had the opening in six months to call me back. You have an engineering degree and were making engines. How did that qualify you to make beer? Pretty much all of our brew masters have technical degrees of some sort. Brewing is a blend of science and art. You need to understand all the machines and technical processes. I assume they called you? Yup, sure enough they called and I figured what the hell. I thought I knew something about beer, but the truth is, I didn’t know anything. So I actually went to the Tampa brewery and supervised employees making the beer. I really learned the complexity of beer. I used to think it was just a button press and then beer was made. Was there any advanced technology then? Oh yeah, it’s just different. There were still pumps and automatic valves, but you had to go turn them on. Now we have a program that has steps and tells the machines when to do what. With all that automation, how many employees do you actually need here? We don’t go into it. I will say we’re probably one of the biggest employers in the San Fernando Valley. We have three shifts and Thanksgiving and Christmas are just about the only days this place isn’t going. If you see steam, we’re running. I understand you have had a lot of roles. I was lucky enough to move around a lot. I started back in Tampa, Florida. Very soon I learned the whole process since it was a smaller brewery. Then I went to Newark for five years. Then St. Louis for a year. When did the international opportunities come up? I was 31 years old and I got the call and was asked to be brew master in Ireland. We brewed with our partner Guinness there. I actually moved to Ireland for three years and was in charge of all Budweiser brewing in Ireland. Then sure enough, just like it always does, I got a call when I was with the Guinness guys drinking a pint at the pub, and was asked if I wanted to brew in Brazil. Ireland is great, but it’s cold. I moved to Rio de Janeiro, brewing Budweiser for two years. I was in charge of the whole thing, from packaging to brewing. It was a great experience. What came next? I heard the brew master in Barcelona, Spain was going back so I told my boss I wouldn’t mind living there for awhile. I moved to Barcelona and lived three years there in charge of all Budweiser production. It opened me up to the whole aspect of our business. How did your wife handle all this moving? You’ve got to be able to compartmentalize. When I was younger it was harder because when people would come to dinner, all I would do is talk about work. So you learn. I might be thinking about it, but you’ve got to get the signals when the wife is giving you the cues. The good part of it was that the opportunities were for her as well, to live in these places and experience these cultures. What’s a typical day like? I look at data, and we have meetings with various departments to see if we’re meeting all the measures. I also think interaction with employees is huge. In any business, that’s the pulse. You want know what they’re thinking and if they’re aware of what we’re trying to do. At the end of the day, they’re the majority of the people that do all the work. As a manager, is a 40-hour week possible? I have a passion for the beer and the company. Like with anyone else, the job becomes part of my life. I think about it when I’m at home and I stay in touch at all times, but it’s because I want to. Some days are smooth, where you work a reasonable work day. Some days are longer. Aside from the growth of craft beers, what have been the biggest changes in the industry? The biggest change is the globalization and consolidation. In the past, 98 percent of our sales were in the U.S. Now we’re a global company, and that’s great. It has tremendous advantages. Also, there’s been a big change in the consumer as well. They’re looking for different flavors and different experiences. Efficiency is something talked about a lot in relation to InBev. There has been a lot of talk about cost-cutting and all that. I don’t like to call it cost-cutting, it’s cost management. We’ve become much smarter in how we do business. You manage your costs, because just like in your home, you wouldn’t spend any more money than you need to for the result you want. We have a saying here that’s cost, connect, win. What about working conditions for the average employee? They’re more involved in the process now. We have a management system where they have access to more data, so they have more tools and knowledge to manage the process. It gives them more ownership. It’s really elevated the knowledge of the employee. So what’s the next stop? Where can you get promoted from here? The one thing about our company is we really encourage people to be open to anything. It might not even be in a brewery. It could be a procurement position, a logistics position or even a commercial position. Or it could be director, where I would oversee a group of breweries. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

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