Taking the Leap: Changing Careers Was 100% Right Move for Brewer, Distiller

Mallory Zakeosian and Andrew Smith had both already earned bachelor’s degrees in different fields, when they decided to return to college to major in Craft Beer Brewing and Craft Spirit Distillation.

Mallory Zakeosian adding mash salts to the mash tun at Victory Brewing Company’s Downington, Penn., facility for Lady Laga, the new beer she helped develop the recipe for as part of Pink Boots Collaboration Brew Day. (March, 2023)
Mallory Zakeosian at Hop Harvest in Yakima, Wash., (September 2023)

Mallory Zakeosian describes herself as “not a sit-behind-a-desk kind of person.” She likes to keep moving. In her role as Brewer II at Victory Brewing Company’s Parkesburg, Penn., 200-barrel brewery, she does just that as the sole female in Victory’s production plant where she is cross-trained in the cellar and the brewhouse, monitoring and tracking yeast, training new brewers, and brewing volume for Victory, Sixpoint Brewery, and Southern Tier Brewing Company. A 2019 graduate of SUNY Schenectady’s Craft Beer Brewing Certificate program, Mallory had already earned had a bachelor’s degree in Voice and Opera from the New England Conservatory of Music, but after she stopped performing in 2016, she decided that she wanted to see where her growing interest in craft brewing would take her.

So, what was your journey from pursuing a career in opera/classical voice performance to a career in craft beer brewing?

I was still performing, but for the most part I bartended to pay the bills. I’m an avid craft beer drinker and as I started working at bars that were more craft beer centric and I had to know about different types of beers, I just got more interested and curious. I wanted to learn more about the brewing process and then I eventually found a passion for brewing.

How did you make the shift from bartending to working in craft beer brewing?

I moved to the Capital Region with my now husband because he was working for a law firm in Albany. I heard about the program at SUNY Schenectady so while I was working as the taproom manager at Commons Roots Brewing Company in South Glens Falls, I started in the Craft Beer Brewing Certificate program at SUNY Schenectady. At Commons Roots, I was able to shadow the brewers.

What did you like about the program at SUNY Schenectady?

My favorite thing about the program was (faculty member) Rich Michaels for sure. His Craft Beer Brewing Production course was fantastic. I still refer people to the textbook that he wrote for our class when I get new trainees in the brewery here. It prepared me well for working in a large-scale, 24/7 production facility. It helped too that I was working at a brewery at the same time I was going to SUNY Schenectady. I was able to learn things in school and then see it in real-time at work, so that was helpful. 

What do you love about your job as a Brewer II at Victory Brewing Company?

I’m multitasking. I find it very rewarding. It’s a good feeling when you walk by a shelf full of beer in your local grocery store and you can say, “I made that!” Also, for the past couple years I have co-chaired the Annual Pink Boots Brew for Pink Boots Collaboration Brew Day® (an international celebration of women and non-binary individuals in the fermented/alcoholic beverage industry). The Pink Boots Society partners with Yakima Chief Hops to create a hop blend and then women in breweries throughout the country develop their own recipes around that hop blend. Last year, myself and our then head of quality assurance developed a recipe for an unfiltered lager and it was later sold in our tap room. It was called Lady Laga (my husband came up with the name actually).

What would you say to other women interested in entering the brewing industry?

I would just tell women to go for it. We do have a lot of women here in our lab and our VP of Operations is a woman. It’s refreshing that I’m seeing a lot more diversity here. There have definitely been times where there has been gender bias. I would tell people not to be discouraged. We’re seeing more women in the brewing industry and I hope to see a lot more women and more diversity in the brewing industry overall. I did have to prove myself a little bit harder in the beginning, but I got where I want to be and I’m happy. My quality of work speaks for itself.

Andrew Smith transfers the mash to a fermenter in the Mash Tun at Tuthillltown Spirits Distillery in Gardener, N.Y.
Andrew Smith graduated from SUNY Schenectady with degrees in Craft Beer Brewing and Craft Spirit Distillation. He’s now a Mashing and Fermentation Team Member at Tuthillltown Spirits Distillery in Gardener, N.Y.
Andrew Smith proudly wearing a Schenectady Distilling Company T-shirt while studying for his master’s degree in Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Andrew Smith didn’t want to always wonder what might have been. So not long after he graduated from SUNY Schenectady in 2021 with his degrees in Craft Beer Brewing and Craft Spirit Distillation, he packed up and moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, to pursue his master’s degree in Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University. He already had a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and soon realized that his engineering background was a real advantage during rigorous labs and dissertation writing sessions. He’s now at Tuthillltown Spirits Distillery in Gardener, N.Y., and is thankful that he made both decisions: to return to college at SUNY Schenectady and then to make the leap to Scotland to learn more about his craft. 

So, tell us about how you arrived at the decision to travel to the UK for your master’s degree after completing the degree programs at SUNY Schenectady.

“When I was in my last semester at SUNY Schenectady, I wanted a job, but I also wanted to learn more of the aspect of distilling. While I was searching for a job, my dad actually found the program at Heriot-Watt on the Internet. I applied and was accepted, and I was given the option of doing the program remotely or going over there to attend. I knew I wasn’t going to last doing a master’s program remotely. I needed to be there doing lab work. While I wanted to start working right away after graduating Schenectady, I realized that if I didn’t do this, I’d regret it for the rest of my life. The program was rigorous and it was all science, which I loved.”

That’s terrific. Tell us what you’re doing now.

“Well, when I was in the UK, I received a job offer to work as a Cider Maker with Stormalong Cider in Leominster, Mass., so I moved back to the U.S., worked there for a few months, and then moved to Tuthillltown Spirits Distillery in May 2023 where I am a Mashing and Fermentation Team Member. We’re a small place and are owned by William Grant & Sons, the company behind Glenfiddich Scotch and Hendrick’s Gin. I cook grain, I add the yeast, and then I monitor the fermentation. We make bourbon and rye whiskey; those are our two main products. Occasionally we make gin, vodka, and liqueurs.”

What do you love about the distillation process?

I’ve always liked spirits. There’s almost a mad-scientist aspect to distillation that appeals to me. We’re doing chemistry as we run it through the still. It just appeals to me.”

It’s a lot different from your original career of electrical engineering. Why did you decide to re-career and start attending SUNY Schenectady after you had already earned your bachelor’s degree?

I didn’t like what I was doing and I ended up in food service. I was happy. I was looking into the Culinary Arts program, but I chose to double major in Craft Beer Brewing and Craft Spirit Distillation instead. I had home brewed before and I like learning about beer and spirits.

What did you like about the degree program at SUNY Schenectady? Did you do an internship?

The programs at SUNY Schenectady were structured to build students up so that they can jump right into the workplace and I appreciated that. Yes, I did an internship at The Schenectady Distilling Co. It’s a small place, so I really learned everything involved with the operation there. Ken Gibbons, the owner, was one of my professors at SUNY Schenectady so he knew how to make it apply to class.

Alumni of SUNY Schenectady’s Craft Beer Brewing and Craft Spirit Distillation degree, certificate, and apprenticeship training programs are sharing their love for the industry, brewing skills, and knowledge in breweries across the country. If you are interested in learning more about SUNY Schenectady’s Craft Beer Brewing program or Craft Spirit Distillation program, please contact Admissions at 518-381-1366 or [email protected]. Note: Most courses in the Craft Beer Brewing degree and certificate programs are available in the evening. Spring 2024 classes start on Tuesday, January 16!

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