when Darrah Bryans brewed her first beer, she used a home-brew kit her husband gave her as a gift. And although she hadn’t even heard of women brewing beer professionally, she decided after several years of enthusiastic home brewing that she wanted to make beer for a living.
Alcatraz Brewing Co.’s Orange, CA, unit is run by Susan Sears, one of a growing number of women in charge of brewpubs.
She got a job as an apprentice at a brewpub in Washington, DC and later went to Germany for two years to the highly regarded brewing school Doemens Fachakademie in Munich, earning the title “Master Brewer,” and today is a head brewer for brewpub chain Brew Moon.
Barbara Groom knew she wanted to open a brewpub the first time she ever went to one, back in 1984. “Every night for years, the only things I read were books about brewing beer,” she said. Groom even built her company’s first bottler, a hand-operated device that filled six bottles at a time. While Groom, one of the founders as well as co-owner and brewmaster of Lost Coast Brewpub, Eureka, CA, at first tackled every job in the pub, she, too, gravitated toward the brewing side of the business.
Bryans and Groom are only two of a growing group of women at the helm—or the mash tun—of the country’s still growing brewpub industry. Although the Association of Brewers doesn’t keep track of the gender of brewers, director David Edgar guesses that about 5% of them are female. But Dave Radzanowski, president of the Siebel Institute of Technology, another highly regarded brewing school located in Chicago, says that about 10 to 15% of his school’s students are women, and both men report that these numbers are growing.
“For me, it was love at first working moment,” says Bryans. “I’m surprised there are not more women doing it.”
While many women working in brewpubs say it is no big deal to be a female in the industry, Teri Fahrendorf, corporate brewmaster for Steelhead Brewery & Cafe, a chain of brewpubs headquartered in Eugene, OR, can remember when it was hard to convince people that a woman could do the job. “I didn’t even try to get a job as a brewer until I went to brewing school first,” she remembers. Even then, she faced the same presumption that women police and firefighters have; a woman couldn’t handle the physical aspects of brewing beer. “I was hired at my first job only because the owners didn’t know that brewing beer was a physical job,” she says. “I was able to prove myself.”
Indeed, Fahrendorf was first inspired to be a professional brewer when she witnessed another woman win an award at the Great American Beer Festival in 1988. “She looked to be about my size,” says the small and slender Fahrendorf, “and I thought, ‘If she can do the job, then I can too.'”
The physical tasks of brewing beer professionally vary, depending on the equipment the brewer has to work with. Have a grain elevator? Then you don’t have to hoist the 50-lb. sacks of grain up into the mash tun. Does that mash tun have rakes? Then you don’t have to stir the hundreds of pounds of grain into the water by hand. Still, even without these labor-saving devices, the work is nothing that women can’t handle, says Groom.
Alcatraz’s Orange operation is the latest for the Corte Madera, CA, based company.
What’s it like being a brewpub brewer? According to the Association of Brewers, salaries for head brewers at brewpubs in the United States range from $13,000 to $56,000 a year, with their assistant brewer salary ranging from $11,000 to $27,000. And the brewers’ training and professional experiences range all over the map.
“Some have no training whatsoever, some have training but no practical experience, some have practical experience but no training, some have both,” says Siebel’s Radzanowski. “And that’s the same for the women and the men.”
Brewing beer at a brewpub is generally a full-time job, though only a fraction of that time is actually spent brewing beer. “It’s 95% cleaning, 5% designing and tasting beers,” says Fahrendorf. Brew Moon’s Bryans agrees. “The typical day is cleaning. You spend most of every day, even brewing days, cleaning and sanitizing. Sounds pretty unglamorous, doesn’t it?”
And it is definitely a job where you dirty your hands, and often more. “It’s like making mud pies,” says Fahrendorf. “You’re lifting things that are wet, sometimes yeast sprays all over you, and bruises are a constant.” Indeed, at least part of the appeal of the job is that it is a series of hands-on challenges. “Some days, you are running the brew, and some days, the brew is running you,” says Fahrendorf, pointing out that a brew day might consist of 1,000 different procedures, monitoring and fixing problems as they occur.
Of course, there are plenty of other jobs to be done in a brewpub, and women are making inroads in them as well.
Susan Sears is now the general manager for Alcatraz Brewing Company, California. Sears, who has had ten years of prior restaurant-management experience, relishes the challenge of managing a brewpub operation. “It is more responsibility,” she says. “You have a factory running inside the restaurant. You work with a scientist. It’s very time-oriented. It’s a whole different business.”
Sears, like many of the female brewpub pioneers, is a firm believer in treating the brewpub segment, and the restaurant industry in general, as a meritocracy—and ignoring anyone who doesn’t. “Running a restaurant is about your skills,” she says. “If there are organizations that would treat you differently because you are a woman, you don’t have to work for them.”
Bryans has found that approach has worked for her as well. “People take you the way you take yourself,” she says. “Sometimes it makes me nuts when men offer to lift things for me. Some days, I say, ‘Hey! I can do that.’ Other days, I think, ‘Go ahead, carry it, then.'”
Groom also refused to hear a discouraging word. “If there were men who tried to discourage me, I just never heard them,” she says. More importantly, women visibly succeeding in the beer industry encourage more women to enter the field. Although Fahrendorf never met the woman who won that brewing award over a decade ago, she remembers her name. And what goes around, comes around; recently, Fahrendorf heard about a Florida woman who says she decided to try brewing after seeing her at work at Steelhead.
In turn, the presence of women owners, managers and brewers in brewpubs could help these restaurants attract more female customers. According to a national survey last fall, craft beers attract far fewer female consumers than does beer in general. Although 43 percent of women describe themselves as beer drinkers, only 13 percent have tried a microbrew, compared to the 37 percent of men. Though most brewpubs currently attract more male than female customers, most are striving to expand their female business. Alcatraz, for example, emphasizes the quality of its food, offers a kids menu and carries a full complement of wines and spirits, in order to attract the widest possible audience.
“When I did tastings on the weekend, one of the things I heard most often was women saying that they didn’t like beer,” says Lost Coast’s Groom. “But if I could get them to try one of ours like our Downtown Brown, they would really like it.” Indeed, most brewpubs offer beers designed to appeal to all customers who are unfamiliar with the wide range of today’s beer flavors. Lost Coast also has a raspberry version of Downtown Brown (which Groom says tastes like a raspberry chocolate truffle) as well as an apricot wheat and a wheat beer called Great White flavored with the citrusy note of coriander.
Meanwhile, Brew Moon has offered a honey-lemon lager and a purple-plum wheat beer. “I’ve been told that men and women taste things differently,” says Groom. “And I think it’s true: I think that bitterness is much more irritating to women. If there’s a difference between male and female brewers, it’s that women brewers may make more well-balanced beers, ones with less bitterness.”
More balanced, less bitter: the presence of women in the brewpub business and beer industry in general is already having a positive effect.