Learning to Brew
The summer after graduating, Ken Thoburn ’09 hung out at backyard BBQs, sipping on home brews he and his friends had made.
Everyone kept saying, “Guys, you should start a brewery,” Thoburn recalled.
That’s when the Chinese Studies major and some friends, who also had recently graduated from local colleges—and also had not planned on selling beer—took their backyard beverages to brand-new heights.
Wingman Brewers, on Puyallup Avenue in Tacoma, was born in April 2011 — and has continued to grow ever since. “The reviews are good,” Thoburn said. “I can’t ask for anything better, but I’m my own worst critic.”
Thoburn’s days at the brewery are filled with crafting the next beer and making sure there’s enough of it to supply local restaurants and stores. It can take as few as eight hours or as many as 16 to finish a batch.
As the main Wingman brewer, Thoburn is constantly learning what works and what doesn’t—and he’s found beer-making requires a lot of math and science. So many variables come into play to create a consistent product: hundreds of compounds, beer-storage options, water types, brew times.
“It’s a lot of little adjustments, and learning plays a big part in it,” Thoburn said.
Turns out there are always things to learn in a craft that has spanned millennia.
“Every beer we make is a little better than the last one,” Thoburn said. “Sometimes you think you know, but you have no idea what you’ve done. There’s a big learning curve to business ownership. There should be a checklist.”
Even though his Chinese Studies major didn’t provide such a checklist, Thoburn said his experiences at PLU helped shape what he’d need to succeed.
“PLU really taught me integrity and leadership,” Thoburn said; “skills that have helped me in owning a business.”
Being a part of the Tacoma a community is an important part of business ownership for the people at Wingman. A part every sale at Wingman Brewers benefits different Tacoma charities.
Initially, college was supposed to be just something for Thoburn to do between tours with his band.
“I didn’t plan on going to college all that much, but I got a good education at PLU,” he said.
Having grown up in Tacoma—he went to the School of the Arts—Thoburn wanted to stay in the area after college, so his buddies’ brewery suggestion struck just the right note.
“If you stop doing things for fun, you might as well be dead,” Thoburn said.