Breaking beer boundaries: Women thriving in craft beer

Home|Destination Featured Story, Destination Sheridan, Special Features|Breaking beer boundaries: Women thriving in craft beer

When Wyoming gave women the right to vote, triumphant suffragettes were probably not thinking about craft beer. But today, 150 years later, the Equality State’s nickname is reflected in the growing group of women at the heart of the craft beer industry.

Craft beer is growing increasingly popular in Wyoming. According to the Brewers Association, the state is ranked eighth in the nation for breweries per capita. Sheridan is even denser: Three breweries sit within a half mile, with a fourth in Buffalo only 33 miles away.

These local establishments all feature strong women in key roles — from owner to brewer to taproom manager — but people still profess surprise at the women’s passion for brewing, drinking and selling craft beer.

“There is still this perception that beer is a man’s drink,” observed Michelle Forster, executive director of the Wyoming Craft Brewers Guild, a nonprofit that represents the collective voice of craft breweries throughout the state.

“If I tell people I brew beer, they’re like, ‘Really?’” laughed Emily Nielsen, the head brewer at MISHAP! Brewing Company in Buffalo, who also raises eyebrows with her side gig in construction. “Part of it is I’m small — but mostly it’s the female aspect of it. I’ve had lots of people say I’m going to have to get a beard.”

However, there is nothing new in their profession. Women were brewing, drinking and selling beer in prehistoric times, according to Tara Nurin, the official historian of the Pink Boots Society, an organization created to assist, inspire and encourage women beer professionals. The vast majority of ancient beers were brewed by women; even in the early colonies in the U.S., women were the primary “brewsters” for their families and neighbors. Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha, was famous for her wheat beer.

But as beer became commercialized with the advent of refrigeration and rail delivery in the 1800s, more and more men poured into the money-making industry. By the time Prohibition ended, men dominated the beer workforce and customer base.

Over the past few decades, women have been gradually returning to craft beer. The road has not been easy: Like women across the workforce, they have faced discrimination, harassment and doubt of their skill and ability.

“When I first started in the industry (23 years ago), there were a few older gentlemen who were very prejudiced against women,” said Ruth Martin, the quality assurance director and safety coordinator at Black Tooth Brewing Company.

Despite the resistance early on, Martin’s love for the science behind beer — and the fact that she could “wear jeans and T-shirts if I want” — kept her in brewing. She separated herself from the naysayers, surrounded herself with positive coworkers who didn’t care about her gender and joined the Pink Boots Society. Martin had a successful career at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. before joining the team at Black Tooth in 2015.

While the progress is notable, there is still room for growth. Today, women account for about 29 percent of brewery workers in the U.S., according to a study by Auburn University, and about 32 percent of craft beer drinkers, according to surveys conducted by the Brewers Association.

The local women in the industry are ready to raise those figures.

The first step: Demonstrate that women like craft beer — and all styles, from the light and sweet to the bold and bitter.

“I find that mentality a lot, where people look at women and think they just want sessionable drinks or just drink blondes,” said Tiffany McCormick, co-owner of Smith Alley Brewing Co. “When, in fact, if you did cater to women more, I think you’d find we have a much more diverse palate. Some of us prefer those heavier, maltier, hoppier beers. We’re not afraid of a higher alcohol content.”

In fact, women may have a better ability to taste beer. According to a study conducted by the University of Florida Center for Smell and Taste, supertasting abilities are more common in women than in men — and it shows in the beer world, too.

Cicerones (think: highly trained beer “sommeliers”) often anecdotally refer to women’s ability to pick up on more subtleties in beer than their male counterparts, according to Forster, who is the only Level 2 Cicerone in Wyoming.

“A Master Cicerone told me that when a man and a woman who have been trained to the same level do the same tasting exercise, 90 percent of the time, the woman can pick up more than the man,” she relayed.

Step two: Encourage more women to give craft beer a chance. The local breweries have made a point to be more inclusive and educational in their outreach efforts for employees and customers.

“When I first started at Black Tooth Brewery, the impression that I got was that the majority of our clientele was a white male between 24 and 40 years old,” Martin said, adding that she has noticed a big shift even in the past couple years.

“We provide training for our taproom staff on beer styles and the flavors that come from the beers,” she explained. “When women come in the taproom and say that they don’t like beer, we ask them if they like chocolate, and we can give them a sample of the brown ale. Or we ask if they like coffee and offer them a sample of the Coffee Porter. This usually helps change the stigma that is associated with traditional domestic beer.”

As taproom manager at Luminous Brewhouse, Kathryn Law also encourages bartenders to educate by engaging with customers.

“I’m so passionate about breaking down the barriers for craft beer newbies,” she said. “It’s like when I first learned how to fly fish: I would walk into a fly shop, and it was a little intimidating…but then when I was actually taught about what I needed and where to go, it was so fun.

“For us, it’s about talking to women about what they like, having a conversation.”

These women’s love for craft beer is contagious.

“I think just putting a really strong woman presence in front of beer, especially craft beer, is helpful,” McCormick said. “Kathryn posts a lot of herself, and I post a lot of myself. When women can start to associate craft beer with these other women who are in the trenches with it, it’s just a positive, exponential effect.”

This spring, the beer professionals united for International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day on March 8. Martin invited Forster, Law, Nielsen, McCormick and the front-of-house staff to brew a special beer at Black Tooth, the Whoa Nellie Session IPA. The beer was then released in April to all the breweries, and proceeds were donated to the Pink Boots Society.

“The day was educational and fun,” Martin said. “I thought that it was great to share our facility with the other women and get them excited about beer. There were quite a few that had never stepped foot in a brewhouse or tasted the malt that is used in the brewing process.”

“It was a great event to raise awareness and provide a community for women in the industry,” Forster agreed.

As a brewer, Nielsen hopes the event encouraged more women to join her behind the scenes. While the job is physically demanding, it’s feasible for a woman — even a petite one like Nielsen.

“I think women should take a second to talk yourself into taking a big stand in craft beer, and then don’t back down,” she said. “The challenge is fun, the guys with beards are good people and the beer is great!”

As an advocate for Wyoming breweries, Forster hopes that the state’s craft beer industry will continue toward equality.

“We want to remind everyone that there are women in this industry,” she said. “And we’re powerful, and we love what we do, and we’re passionate about it, and we want to share that with you. We can all do this together. It’s not just a man’s drink.”

Forster points to Portland, Oregon, where women craft beer drinkers now surpass men, according to the Brewers Association.

“We’re not saying, ‘We want women to take over everything,’” Forster laughed. “We’re just saying we want this to be an equal opportunity pleasure for everyone.

File photo | The Sheridan Press

By |May. 24, 2019|

About the Author:

Caitlin Addlesperger started writing for The Sheridan Press as a 15-year-old youth reporter and continued her career as a college intern and then staff reporter. After nearly a decade spent in the writing, editing and marketing worlds in Italy and New York, she is back at The Press as the director of special projects, a role in which she aims to connect the newspaper with the community. Email Caitlin at caitlin.addlesperger@thesheridanpress.com.

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