Most recent college graduates wouldn’t have turned down a job in 2010, on the heels of the Great Recession. Especially not when that job was in the graduate’s field of study. And definitely not when that field of study was music performance and teaching.
But that’s precisely what Ilan Klages-Mundt did after graduating from Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wisconsin, after four years of studying cello and a year of student teaching. Armed with his new degree and a few thousand dollars, Ilan turned down a teaching gig and boarded a plane, his sights set on a new dream: to travel the world and learn about the art of brewing beer.
The idea didn’t come completely out of nowhere. It dated back to 2007, when Ilan was visiting relatives in Denmark. It was there that he “accidentally tried the best beer in the world,” he says: Westvleteren 12, a Trappist quadruple that was ranked No.1 on RateBeer and Beer Advocate’s 2006 lists of world beers. “I didn’t know much about craft beer then. That was an epiphany moment for me. That’s what started all this.”
As soon as he got back to the States, Ilan wanted to learn everything he could about craft beer. He started homebrewing, reading textbooks, talking to other brewers—anything he could do to immerse himself in this new world. One of Ilan’s professors saw his passion and encouraged him to apply for IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a one-year grant for “purposeful, independent study outside the United States.” Or, as Ilan explains it: “They pay for you to take a year post-grad to travel around the world and study whatever you’re passionate about. Usually it’s cultural studies. I wanted to do beer culture and beer brewing.”
At first, Ilan’s family thought his brewing was just a hobby. The Winona, Minnesota, native is the son of a music teacher and the third of six children—all of whom play musical instruments. It made sense that Ilan would pursue a career with his cello: he’d been playing since he was six years old and had chosen Lawrence University specifically for its music conservatory. But once the Watson Fellowship came into play, his family knew beer was more than just a side project for Ilan. “They couldn’t have been more supportive,” he says of his decision to pursue brewing full-time. “They were very happy for me.”
After spending a year-and-a-half applying for the fellowship, contacting breweries around the world—in Denmark, England, Japan—Ilan became a finalist, but ultimately didn’t win. That would have been the end of the dream for most people. But not Ilan. “When I didn’t win, I contacted [the breweries] again and said, hey, I don’t have any money, but can I work harder for a place to stay and a meal,” he says. “Luckily, they said yes.”
Instead of $25,000 in grant money, Ilan had $3,400 of his own savings to finance his round-the-world journey. He also had very little international travel experience aside from that 2007 Denmark trip—“I think I’d been to Denmark* when I was still potty training and a little bit of Canada,” he recalls—but that didn’t faze him either. “It’s what I wanted: I wanted to learn about the world of beer,” he says. “You can’t learn about it until you go out. Before I left, I thought I knew a pretty decent amount about it because I’d read books. But then I went there and realized, oh, that’s what English beer is. That’s what Belgian beer is. I didn’t know until I got there what it really was.”
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