It’s pretty unusual for a 22-year-old man to be making beer. Considering that just 12 months ago, he wasn’t even allowed to drink it legally.
And yet, that’s exactly what Duncan Starostka does. He’s assistant brewer at the world-class, 10-barrel Beardslee Public House in Bothell, WA.
“It’s not often that people start a career in commercial brewery at my age,” agrees Duncan. “I guess I happened to be at the right place at the right time, and my excitement to learn everything about beer production must have convinced proprietor John Howie and head brewer Drew Cluley to take a sporting chance on me.”
It may even be the case that Duncan’s youth and inexperience tipped the balance in his favor. Head brewer Drew Cluley could train this young protégée in his own, unique, `Beardslee’ style without any previous experience getting in the way.
“I was working as a busser at Beardslee Public House just 9 months ago, eating a sandwich during my lunch break when Drew popped the question,” recalls Duncan. “He said he had a brewing position open, and would like to mentor me as his understudy if I was interested. It seemed nothing short of a miracle. An offer to learn micro-brewing from such an expert in the craft!”
Duncan was just starting out in food & beverage at the time, but he already had an insider’s perspective on the industry. After all, he had grown up in it. “Both my parents have made their careers in the restaurant business,” he says. “They met while working at a brewery in Kirkland. My dad was a chef and my mom was front-of-the-house. In fact, she works as server/bartender right here in Beardslee now. I get to see her at work every day.”
Another influence that shaped Duncan’s interest in beer in particular was his cousin who is the head brewer at Scuttlebutt Brewing in Everett. “He was my window to the world of micro brewing while I was growing up,” says Duncan. “I was quite fascinated by his job and I knew I’d follow in my family’s footsteps and also work in some capacity within F&B one day.”
But before all of that came music.
Duncan started learning music in the 4th grade and played in both the Seattle All City Marching Band and the UW Husky Marching Band. “I have been engrossed in music for as long as I can remember,” he says. “I was always good at turning notations into music. I could look at a two-dimensional piece of paper with a bunch of markings on it, and be able to translate that into sound.”
But however satisfying his musical expressions must have been, a man has to grown up some day and take his place in the world. Once he had finished his education, Duncan put away his music, said goodbye to his marching band buddies and donned a busser’s apron.
His initial period of struggle proved to be incredibly short though. In the few months that he worked as a busser at Beardslee, he had made enough of an impact for Drew Cluley to notice him, and offer him the coveted assistant brewer’s post.
The rest, of course, is history.
“The job of assistant brewer was a steep learning curve for sure,” says Duncan. “I knew a few basic things about brewing, like you start out with a mash and you boil that in a kettle etc, but I had no knowledge of the technical details involved in the process. I jumped in blind, but I’m learning more every day, and I’m loving it. Sometimes, I find myself alone in the brewery, making beer, and I cannot believe I have already come this far.”
Hiccups along the way?
“Oh, so many,” recalls Duncan with a rueful smile. “I’ve made my share of rookie mistakes, which seem quite amusing in hindsight.”
For example, the time when he accidently left the hot water tank plugged in at the end of the workday. Next morning, when Michelle (Beardslee’s accountant) came in early to work, there was steam pouring out of the brewery, like it was a giant sauna room.
“There was another incident that caused a major stir in the brewery when I was just starting my training,” says Duncan “When we mill the grain, you see, we send it up through an auger into a tank hanging from the ceiling. I forgot to close that tank, and pounds and pounds of grain started spilling out. It was literally raining grains in there. We had to stop the mill immediately and clean up all that mess. Thankfully, we are so secluded from the restaurant, people usually don’t get to hear the high jinx we get up to at the brewery.”
The journey so far into beer-making has mostly been fun. And something Duncan can see himself doing 20 years from now. “I still have a long way to go, but I know this is the career I was meant to have. It is my incredible fortune that I get to work at a John Howie establishment under the tutelage of an award-winning head brewer like Drew Cluley with 20 years of craft brewing experience. I love working with my hands and making something I can present for others to enjoy. I like making `good’ times feel `great’, and how better to do it than with some fantastic, hand-crafted beer?”
It seems Duncan Starostka, youngest assistant brewer at Beardslee Public House, has truly found his calling.