The Brew Crew

Image:   Reflections magazine    Originally published   i n  Reflections , 2013

Image: Reflections magazine
Originally published in Reflections, 2013

It’s a male-dominated profession. For now.

Beer is part of Seattle’s culture, as vital as coffee, technology and rain gear. But the face of beer, and brewing, is changing. Women are storming the business, sometimes as the silent support behind the scenes, sometimes as the brewing masters, sometimes as the bottling/canning/kegging muscle and sometimes, as the creator, the mastermind behind a new craft brewery. Like their male counterparts, they all have a passion for the culture and the product, and it’s a lifestyle they live and drink.

Meet the Ladies Behind the Drink

The Nerd Turned Brewer

Name: Robyn Schumacher

Age: 40

The Brewery: Stoup Brewing; projected to open this month.

Role: Assistant brewer and Cicerone (comparable to a sommelier)

Favorite Brew: IPAs, porters, German pilsners and sour beers 

A high school biology teacher for 13 years, Robyn left books for beer two years ago in pursuit of her dream to own a brewery. 

True to her educational roots, she read books and attended conferences to get a grip on the industry. She interned at Big Al Brewing for four months before taking her knowledge to another level and studying for the Cicerone exam—the beer equivalent of a sommelier, or, a beer expert. 

It took another four months to prepare, but she passed the test in April 2012 and became the first female Cicerone in Washington.

Most recently, though, she and her friends Brad Benson and Laura Zahaba have been working to get Stoup Brewing (in Ballard) up and pouring. “Craft brewers and the people who work in this industry are some of the nicest, most-welcoming people I’ve ever met,” Robyn says. “I have never felt excluded because I was new to the industry, or made to feel naïve because of my crazy dream of owning my own brewery.”

Beyond the taste, she loves the community and the opportunity to be truly creative. It’s an area that’s constantly promoting local support—eat, drink, shop locally. “This mentality is part of the reason so many of our breweries stay local and choose not to distribute outside of the Seattle area. There’s a great market right here at home.”

A market currently being infiltrated by women who seriously know what they’re doing. 

Robyn credits aggressive beer advertising (toward men) for the misconception that it’s a man’s drink. “The craft beer industry is rapidly changing that. Beer is becoming the drink of choice for younger, adult women,” which in turn brings more women into the industry.

“The ironic thing is,” Robyn says, “I’ve never been made to feel less capable by any man who actually works in the industry. I’ve only felt encouragement and support.”

The Fan Turned Bottler

Name: Tiffany Herrington

Age: 32

The Brewery: Pike Brewing Company

Role: Bottling line

Favorite Brew: Pike’s XXXXX Stout

This paralegal-turned-home-brewer borrowed yeast from Pike Brewing Co. after becoming interested in how beer was actually made. She had backpacked through Europe after quitting her paralegal job of eight years, and came back home with an “intense appreciation” of beer and its many styles. “I decided there was no other industry I wanted to be a part of,” Tiffany says.

She’s been working at Pike for almost three years. 

“I love everything about beer—its ancient history, the diversity of styles, the fact that women were the first brewers thousands of years ago, how creative you can get with beer recipes; there really is nothing you can’t try with creating beer,” she says. “It’s a fascinating, scientific process with delicious results.” 

Working in the brewery is what she’d hoped for, with a crew that shares one passion and knows how to have a good time. “There is a spirit of camaraderie in this industry like nowhere else.”

Tiffany works for a brewery that has multiple women on staff, but says that fewer females in the business is usually for two reasons: lack of interest, or being intimidated by the industrial side of the process. “It is very hard, sweaty, sometimes dangerous, work,” she says. “It’s a labor of love; if you’re not a hard-core beer enthusiast, this is probably not the place for you.”

As for the muscle, “I have definitely been turned away from other brewing-related positions I have sought in the past because I am more physically limited than your average male.” She’s 5 feet 6 inches and 125 pounds. A full keg weighs more than she does. “Some smaller breweries have less-sophisticated, more-manual equipment that requires a good deal of manpower (no pun intended) to operate.” 

With her crew, despite her size, Tiffany has made it work. “We all help each other, and enjoy what we do.”

The Foodie Turned Master

Name: Sara Luchi

Age: 26

The Brewery: Rock Bottom in Bellevue

Role: Brew Master

Favorite Brew: A good Pilsner

“My experience as a female brewer has been nothing but rewarding. Maybe some women don’t feel they’re strong enough, or maybe they just don’t know how awesome of a job this really is. Maybe they’ve never really understood craft beer, or never had the chance to be fully educated.”

Sara’s education started with culinary arts at the Art Institute of Seattle, and she pulled double-duty at Silver City—a restaurant and brewery. Her interest quickly shifted from food to beer, and after volunteering at festivals and working as a keg cleaner and tank scrubber, she was promoted to head brewer and eventually moved to Rock Bottom.

“Every day I get to make something I enjoy. Not only make it, but drink it and taste it and watch the process of it grow and change,” she says. The recipe-building reflects that of her culinary background, as does the constantly changing environment. 

An environment that’s becoming much more gender neutral. “The female brewers and the ladies I have met who are in the industry have all been amazing,” Sara says. “It’s like a group of Rosie the Riveters all here to show the men out there that ‘we can do it’ too!

“Anytime I see a woman working in the man’s world it’s an amazing sight. We’re strong creatures, and we should be showing people that.” 

Recently, Sara experimented with a new brew and served it at Rock Bottom. After great feedback, she turned it in for the Washington Beer Awards and won silver. “When you work as hard as we do in the brewing industry, it’s an amazing feeling when you see your work pay off like that.”

Sara adds that this devotion is exactly the reason why the area has a thriving beer culture—consumers respect the work that goes into creating craft beers. As for who makes it, well, it doesn’t really matter.

“To me, craft beer isn’t about whether it’s a man’s world or a woman’s; it’s about a quality product that you want to share with others.”

The Dues Payer Turned First Lady

Name: Jan Balcom

Age: 38

The Brewery: Pike Brewing Company

Role: Brewer and Cellar Person

Favorite Brew: IPAs

Jan has worked hard to become a brewer. Really hard. First, she was a cook at Elliott Bay Brewing, and then moved on to cook at Hale’s Ales. At Big Time Brewing, she was an assistant kitchen manager, and at Pacific Rim Brewing (Big Al’s Brewing now uses the old space) she was a keg washer and filler. 

Eventually, she assisted with the brewing process and juggled a part-time job at Hale’s Ales on the bottling line. Pacific Rim went out of business in 2008, and Jan worked on Pike Brewing’s bottling line for two years, was promoted to cellar work, and after a year there (and many more of dedication and persistence throughout her career) she was promoted again: to brewer. 

“Washington beer is some of the best in the world,” Jan says of why she loves her job. As for those who make it, “we work hard and have fun, too. The craft beer community supports each other.”

Jan was the First Lady (and only) to brew at Pacific Rim, and was also the first woman who worked in Hale’s Ales’ Fremont brewery. “It’s becoming less of a rarity for females to be in this business, especially as more breweries open and expand,” Jan says.

Though she adds, “regardless of your gender, it is difficult to get a job in this business without experience, education or knowing someone.”

But there are whole groups dedicated to helping women grow in the industry, such as the Pink Boots Society (based in Portland), created in 2007, Jan says. It currently has more than 900 members, and seriously promotes career advancement through education.

Jan has been living (and drinking) that notion since the early nineties. Now marking five years at Pike, she credits the atmosphere as being one of the top perks of the job. And agreeing with the overwhelming majority, she adds, “I adore my coworkers and am proud of the beer we produce.”

The Seller Turned Believer

Name: Meg Bragg

Age: 38

The Brewery: Pike Brewing Company

Role: Cellar Person and Packaging

Favorite Brew: Right now, Stone Brewing Company’s Sublimely Self-Righteous and Southern Tier’s Chocolate Stout

“It’s hard to have a bad day when you make beer.”

Meg was introduced to the beer industry through a sales gig: keg sales, merchandise, and as a server, beertender and host, at Hale’s Ales. “I learned early on that it’s not just about the product,” she says of the trade. “This industry is supported by a culture and includes an amazing variety of very creative people. It remains interesting because it’s always changing.”

She’s been at Pike Brewing for three years and started on the bottling line, saying she had “absolutely no experience” with it. But she kept the line running—a mechanically demanding responsibility. But her friend Jan Balcom, whom she’d met at Hale’s Ales, was also there, and made the transition easier. “I’m surrounded by people who want to share their skills and knowledge. Given any spare time, I have the opportunity to learn,” Meg says.

The beer culture in Washington is continually growing, and Meg says it’s because the options are infinite. “Not only that, but when you have access to the freshest ingredients, you take advantage of them.  It only makes sense that this region brews amazing beer,” referencing the local hops and barley.

As for the women who do just this, Meg says the only reason women were once such a rarity in the business was because they weren’t expected to work. That, of course, has changed. 

“Of course women were interested in it. It’s incredibly social and creative. We appreciate complex flavors and love variety.” 

Like any other job, there are skills to be learned, and Meg says as long as you’re not afraid to ask questions and get your hands a little dirty, gender simply doesn’t matter. 

“As long as this industry continues to grow, the percentage of women involved in it will continue to increase as well.”

The Brew Dispute

Bottles verse cans; maybe not necessarily worthy of a debate, but for those in the business, it’s definitely a discussion.

Which preserves taste better?

Larry Rock is a sales representative with Click Wholesale Distributors (which delivers throughout Washington state and northern Idaho) and has been in the beer business for 25 years—beginning at Hale’s Ales as a brewer and sales rep.

So Larry’s tasted, and lugged, his fair share of bottled and canned brews. 

“When initially filled, there is no difference between the flavor profiles between bottles and cans,” he says. “As time elapses, cans will preserve hop character a little better than bottles because of light, and dissolved oxygen levels in bottles are a little higher because of head space. 

“Over time,” Larry says, “cans seem to hold up better.”

For craft brewers especially, Larry says cans are becoming the popular choice because craft beers “tend to be filtered less stringently, or not at all.” 

Heat and light are the two biggest influences on beer’s taste, and whether in a bottle or a can, storing at room or warm temperature will leech flavor.

They both also require proper rotation and proper attention to shelf-life. But cans take up less storage space and are easier to ship because of their lighter weight.

Currently, there’s a trend in breweries’ bottling practices. Larry says that most progress from draft to 22-ounce bombers (bottles) and then to six-packs of 12-ounce cans. Because of the singular label around bottles, and because there are only 12 bottles in a case, it’s a smaller investment to take this route, which is what makes it popular among first-timers, according to Larry.

Mobile bottling lines have also helped small breweries begin their packaging process. “Now,” Larry says, “we are also seeing mobile canning lines crop up, which is making it easier for breweries to can their beers.”

It’s more than which direction a brewery decides to take its product to market, though. For Larry, the interest is a sign of a growing industry. “A large number of new breweries have popped up over the last couple of years with more coming every month, it seems. 

“What I like is the fact that these folks are getting into the industry because of their genuine love of beer, not as a get-rich-quick mentality.”