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Brewing is a man's world, right? Not so fast ...

Fri, 08/09/2013 - 10:00am

They're friends now, but Alison Schrader remembers years ago when she and a visiting brewer got off on the wrong foot.

"We were chatting in the brewhouse," says Alison, Dogfish Head's one-woman distilling team, "and as we were wrapping things up, he says, 'Alright, sweetie.' I raised my eyebrows and shot him this look that said, 'Did you really just call me that?' His demeanor changed pretty quickly."

Run-ins like that are rare these days, Alison says, and although men still outnumber women on the production side of most breweries, more and more women are staking a claim in brewhouses, distilleries and laboratories.

Women in brewingRebecca Newman leads Dogfish Head's growing quality team.

"The gender bias from the '70s and '80s doesn't exist anymore," says Dogfish Head Quality Control Manager Rebecca Newman. "There are more women in brewing school than previous years, and women are coming from other fields like biotech and manufacturing and bringing some really incredible favors to the party."

The scientists

When Rebecca was recruited by Anheuser-Busch right out of college in the mid-'80s, brewing was very much a man's world. But to her, armed with a degree in food science and technology, a career in beer made perfect sense. Quality control was – and still is – a scientific field, and Rebecca's gifted palette and ability to articulate flavors set her off on a rich and rewarding career path. She went on to develop sensory and yeast management programs for a sake producer, Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada, and she's now leading the growing quality team at Dogfish Head and relishing her role as a mentor.

"That was one of the most exciting things about coming to Dogfish," Rebecca says. "I take every opportunity to work with newer staff and share my 30 years of experience. There's a whole lot of stuff that won't help anyone if I just keep it to myself."

Two of Rebecca's recent hires are women – Katie McLaughlin from the pharmaceutical industry and Anna Sauls from wine – and she couldn't be happier with their open minds and passion for participation.

"We scoured the planet for candidates," says Rebecca, "and we hit a home run with Anna and Katie."

For Katie, beer wasn't such an obvious career choice. Just a few months ago, she was toiling away in the pharmaceutical industry as an HPLC chemist. For the non-science crowd, that intimidating bit of alphabet soup stands for "high-performance liquid chromatography," and it means separating, identifying and measuring the components of a mixture. It's kind of like breaking purple down into red and blue.

"It was really dry," she says. "I could've gone and made a bunch of money, but I would have been miserable, and my parents taught me that loving your job is one of the most important things. You spend the majority of your life at work, so you want to enjoy it."

Katie women in brewing "You spend the majority of your life at work," says Katie McLaughlin, "so you want to enjoy it." 

Lightning struck when she saw a photo of Dogfish Head's lab team on the cover of a local newspaper. "That would be awesome," she thought. "I want to do that."

When she got around to checking Dogfish Head's career page, she was floored to find an ad for – you guessed it – an HPLC chemist.

"Never in a million years did I think HPLC and brewing could come together," Katie says. "Even though I don't have conventional brewing experience, my science background helps me bring new ideas to the table."

Katie's colleague Anna is also bringing a fresh perspective to the quality team. After graduating from North Carolina State with a degree in horticulture and plant biology, she went to work for Robert Mondavi in California's Napa Valley. She tracked each step of the winemaking process, from grape to glass, analyzing the sugar content, alcohol, turbidity and acids.

At Dogfish Head, Anna's day starts around 7 a.m. She checks to see which beers were filtered the night before, then she makes the rounds, grabbing growlers to analyze and run through Dogfish Head's sensory panel.

"I usually pick up five beers for sensory," Anna says. "We run analytics on all of those: alcohol, sugars, pH. It's pretty similar to what I did with wine, but we're more focused on fine-tuning the fermentation process."

The brewers

Liz Stairs has brewing in her genes. Her dad, Dana, is a homebrewer, and when Liz was growing up, he'd let her cap the bottles. Later, in high school and college, she gravitated toward science, and when she found out she could brew as a career, the deal was sealed. While still in college, she started applying to brewing schools and landed a spot in UC Davis's Master Brewers Program.

At Davis, Liz learned the fundamentals of brewing, the "why things happen the way they do," she says. After graduation, she landed a five-week internship at Dogfish Head, then became Dogfish's first full-time female brewer.

Liz Women in brewingLiz Stairs used to help cap her dad's homebrews.

"Before I discovered brewing, I had always assumed I would get a job in a lab and that's what I would do for the rest of my life," she says. "But that's not how it worked out. This is a lot more interesting."

Liz wasn't Dogfish's only woman brewer for long. A few months later, she was joined by Kristen Ewer. Kristen's path to brewing was a little more indirect.

She was working as a chemist after college but was bored and unsatisfied. She kept rolling the same question over and over in her mind, you know the one: "What am I going to do with my life?"

A friend in Scotland invited Kristen to move overseas for an opportunity to reboot her career. Why not? She looked at geology programs, culinary schools and pastry programs, but nothing got her all that excited. Then, her friend e-mailed a link to Heriot-Watt's International Centre for Brewing and Distilling in Edinburgh.

"In 5 minutes I was like, 'This is what I want to do.' Within a week, I had applied. And in another week, I was accepted. Once I figured it out, things happened really fast."

These days, she can't imagine being behind a desk.

"I wanted something that was physical and made me tired at the end of the day," Kristen says. "My first month in the cellars, I was more tired than I've ever been in my life. I love that aspect of it."

Her advice to women considering a career in craft beer?

"Just be yourself. If you feel awkward around a bunch of guys or are afraid of getting dirty, I guess it could be a little intimidating. But if you really love it, it will fall into place. It will all work out."