Uncommon Vision: UC Davis Master Brewers Graduate Builds a Brewery with a Mission
Beer has long been ubiquitous in human civilization, spanning cultures and regions for thousands of years. Its rich history of uses includes drink, cooking and currency. As co-owner/founder and CEO of Common Language Brewing Company in Spokane, Washington, Sean Owens is taking beer one step further by using his brewery as an agent for change. A recent graduate of UC Davis Continuing and Professional Education’s Master Brewers Certificate Program, Owens is using the knowledge he gained in the program to open a brewery that will do more than just make great beer. Slated to open by the end of 2021, Common Language Brewing Company will promote diversity and inclusion in the brewing profession and be a vehicle for charitable giving. Read on to see how he plans to make an impact.
How did you get your start in brewing?
I served as a professor and associate dean at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine for 15 years prior to retiring, and all that time I had been home brewing because I liked the science of it. My wife and I both love craft beer, so I’d put on goggles, an apron and gloves and brew in the kitchen. We were geeking out on the science of it, and our beer turned out really well.
How did you go from being a homebrewer to starting your own brewery?
I was playing golf with my best friend from vet school and the conversation turned to the fact that we have been extremely fortunate in our lives, and we were thinking of ways to give back. We were both raised by single moms. We watched our mothers struggle and saw how single moms and other women were treated in society. I think we were probably at the 19th hole drinking a beer and my friend said, “Let’s open a brewery.”
In what ways will your brewery enable you to give back?
We want to bring attention not only to some of the social injustices in the world, but also the injustice that exists within the profession. Everyone always says someone ought to do something, but there is no “someone.” There's us.
Working with The Michael Jackson Foundation for Brewing and Distilling, our brewery will be an intern training site for people of color who want to enter the industry. We're creating a pipeline of educational resources for students of color and women, so there's a pathway for them. We want to figure out how to get more students through and diversify the profession. Because if kids can't see themselves in role models, they're not going to pursue those pathways.
We also want to give a significant portion of our profits back to organizations that promote clean water and support women, children and people of color. When people come in and have a beer, a percentage of those profits goes back to their community to support their neighbors.
How did the Master Brewers Certificate Program help you achieve your dream?
The Master Brewers Program was immensely helpful. It not only gave me a repertoire of skills, but it gave me foundational knowledge and the ability to problem solve. It has significantly helped me launch my career.
What challenges have you faced during this this endeavor?
The hardest part of starting a brewery is finding the right location. Brewing uses an incredible amount of water, electricity and gas, and getting all those into a place, and a landlord who’s amenable, was the hardest part. Naming a brewery is also hard—that could be the second hardest thing. Now, our biggest challenge is the supply chain and waiting on the equipment we need.
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What is behind the name Common Language Brewing Company?
Common Language resonated with us because we want everyone to feel welcome here. You may not like our beer, and I can live with that, but I don’t want someone to walk away saying they didn’t feel welcome.
You’ve already had one successful career. How does this new journey compare?
Teaching is an honor, and as much as I loved that job, I’m loving this even more. I’m more actively engaged in giving back. It’s the intersection of philanthropic endeavor—doing something to improve the profession by creating more diversity—and also getting to geek out on science. I’m building a brewery to do good stuff and engage in the community. What more could I ask for?
Where do you hope to see your brewery in 10 years?
I want one of our more junior partners to have taken over the reins. I want us to have given back to the community, made award-winning beer and moved toward being a zero-waste company. And when people think of the name Common Language Brewing, they think of a company that cares. I would love it for a business school to look at us and say, this is a model that works for communities. That would be our legacy.