Q&A: Engineering alum turned brewer says background comes in handy for beer biz

Justin Cox (Courtesy Atlas Brew Works)

Justin Cox (BE’04) faced a conundrum four years ago – keep working at a steady, prestigious job with the federal government or turn his home brewing passion into a business.

The Vanderbilt University School of Engineering alumnus decided he wanted no regrets as an old man and chose the latter. Today, he is founder and CEO of Atlas Brew Works in northeast Washington, D.C., a job where he frequently uses his engineering background.

Cox recently announced that Atlas Brew Works would support sustainability by converting to solar power, and it already uses aluminum cans because they are recyclable.

Every day is filled from the moment Cox wakes up, but earlier this year, he agreed to man the @DoresAtWork Twitter account for a day, answering questions about his time at Vanderbilt as a dual engineering science and economics major and the business he’s running now. He took a few more minutes this week for a brief interview.

Q: You mentioned in your Dores at Work stint that your engineering background helped you design a piece of brewery equipment. What is it, and how did you make it?

A: We needed a glycol system – a cooling system to control the temperature of the fermentation tanks. It’s a piece of specialized equipment in the brewing industry, so we weren’t sure what contractor to call and eventually reached out to some refrigeration guys who had done a few of them before. It’s so specialized, they wanted a ridiculous amount of money, so we decided we could do this ourselves. We did the calculations with the help of some of our manufacturers, built it, turned the switch on and it worked.

Q: Are there other ways that an engineering background helps in the brewery business?

A: A brewery is basically a big factory, so we’re constantly fixing things and installing equipment. Having an engineering background helps me solve problems on the mechanical side. You’re taught an analytical mindset – diagnose the problem, isolate the variables, find the solution.

Q: You worked for the federal government before starting your own business. How did you decide to make that leap? That takes a lot of bravery.

A: Bravery or foolhardiness? I earned my law degree from George Mason University in 2009 and was doing a Presidential Management Fellowship, ending up in the General Services Administration’s real estate portfolio division. But I have always had an entrepreneurial vein in me, and working for the federal government is the exact opposite of entrepreneurial. I was getting frustrated because I spent more time asking who I should ask for permission to do something rather than doing things.

At the same time, I was home brewing. I wanted to try and see if I could turn that into my own business, and I was afraid I’d regret it as an old man if I didn’t try. We started getting a business plan together and looking for investors in December 2011 and opened in 2013.

Q: Has it been everything you thought?

A: Yes and no. It has worked well, and people are very receptive to the beer, which is great, but running a business is way more complicated than I expected. No two days are the same.

Q: Why did you choose Vanderbilt for your undergraduate degree?

A: I grew up in Kingsport, Tenn. I knew Vanderbilt was a wonderful school with competitive admission where I’d get a great education, but I really decided when I was doing college tours. As soon as I walked on the campus, I knew this was where I wanted to be.

Q: What are your fondest memories here?

A: It was a great introduction to beer, of course. I had a wonderful time at Vanderbilt – I probably concentrated more on having a good time and not enough on studying. One of my fondest memories was taking a welding class, which is something a lot of people wouldn’t think is offered at a university, and I was just welding some stuff the other day.

Q: Do you ever get back to Nashville for a beer?

A: I do. I get back there at least once or twice a year. Those guys over at Tennessee Brew Works have been great. I had an introduction to them through another brewer in D.C., and they have been very hospitable. I like visiting Jackalope as well, and that’s a brewery founded by my fellow Vanderbilt alums.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering