Heritage, engineering combine to brew a unique career
Kuhn (BSChE '76) grew up in Managua, Nicaragua; his father of German descent, his mother of Spanish heritage. While beer and beer making may be distinctly tied to German culture, that is not entirely what led Kuhn to the brewery. His father was a mechanical engineer. A high school teacher instilled in young Otto a love of chemistry. The two came together when he enrolled at Purdue to study chemical engineering. The road from Managua to West Lafayette, seemingly a long one, had been made short by a line of cousins and brothers who had studied pharmacy and engineering in West Lafayette.
In 1976, with a freshly minted diploma, Kuhn returned to Nicaragua and faced the decision of either working for a pharmaceutical laboratory owned by his uncle or making beer. "My father advised me, as a good German would, to make beer," he says. He went to work for Industrial Cervecera S.A., managed, coincidentally, by a graduate of Purdue's Krannert School of Management.
Kuhn supplemented his on-the-job learning with a certificate in brewing from Siebel's Institute of Technology in Chicago. It was there, in 1977, that he encountered his first taste of Budweiser, a meeting now permanently etched in his sensory memory. It is a taste he strives over and over again to create in his current job as an Anheuser-Busch brewmaster.
In 1981, after the Sandinistas took control of the Nicaraguan government, Kuhn left his homeland. He signed on with the Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., brewing a wide variety of beverages from lagers to natural soft drinks. In 1989, he joined Anheuser Busch and began traveling the world in the name of beer as the company expanded its global reach. He worked with Labatts in Canada; collaborated with a start-up in Spain; spent time in England, Italy and the Philippines; and has been onsite in Argentina. For the last 11 years, he has been based at the company's brewery in Merrimack, N.H.
His job, he says, is not so different from that of other chemical engineers. His chemical is beer; others may work with petroleum. His job, like that of other chemical engineers, is to make sure processes run smoothly. At Anheuser-Busch he is responsible for ensuring a consistent "flavor profile" for the 3 million barrels of Budweiser produced by the New Hampshire plant annually.
"Chemical engineering is married into brewing," he says. "Brewing used to be more of an art, an obscure art. I have seen the business grow to computer-controlled systems with 100 heat exchangers. We heat and cool and boil and sterilize and ferment with living organisms. These are all things I learned in chemical engineering. Our job is to maintain consistency with the materials that we have."
One of the biggest differences between Kuhn and his peers may be that other chemical engineers don't taste their products. For Kuhn, it's a required part of the job. He does a lot of beer tasting — ever-seeking to match the first savory gulp he had years ago. If it meets his approval, the beer then travels from New Hampshire to tasters at headquarters in St. Louis, where a corporate panel gives it the official sign-off to be released for sale.
"I have dedicated my whole career to the pursuit of quality and excellence in making one thing — beer. I love what I do. I have never felt like I worked a day in my life. There are so many things you can do with your life," Kuhn says. "Mine? I was lucky enough to start with a brewery."