I am familiar with mansplaining. I am a woman and haven’t spent thirty-something years living under a rock. But I have never experienced the phenomenon with such frequency until I started working in the craft brew industry. I’ve bought homes, spent a decade in academia, and a summer working landscaping gigs on construction sites, and still nothing tops the condescending note of a bearded, owl-eyed dude quizzing me on hop profiles or attenuation, or the slimy feeling of being told that I’m good at my job because I’m good-looking.
So when I got an email proposing a “Lady Brew Crew” road trip made up of ladies from Fair State Brewing Cooperative, NorthGate Brewing, and OMNI Brewing to Superior, Wisconsin, to learn all things beer, I didn’t hesitate. In fact, I’ve never been more pleased to spend two nights sharing one bathroom with nine other women.
I wasn’t a beer expert when I started working for a brewery nine months ago, but I was no novice either. I don’t homebrew, I haven’t taken classes, and I don’t have a dog-eared copy of “Tasting Beer” on my bedside table. But I spent most of my 20s managing restaurants and tending bar to support my nonprofit career. I’m no stranger to discussing the difference between an ale and a lager, or what IBU means.
Why drive to Superior, Wisconsin? We all work for breweries—why not just tag along with our own head brewers and learn on the job? Because sometimes it’s nice to set aside the elephant in the room—that you are the only set of mammaries in the building—and get down to business. I like the men I work with, and I think the other Lady Brew Crew members would say the same. But it is nice to be able to learn more about our industry in an environment that allows you to let go of the nagging voice in the back of your mind that re-examines everything you say to be sure you aren’t perpetuating a stereotype. You know the stereotypes: that women don’t drink beer, don’t like beer, or if they like it they only want something they can see through; and they certainly don’t know anything about how it went from grain, yeast, and water to the liquor store cooler.
When you have to constantly prove yourself, you put on the best performance you can. You work hard to have all your facts straight, to be able to rattle off ingredients and percentages like a boss. When you don’t know the answer to some obscure question, you worry that this mistake becomes a hash mark on some universal tally sheet. While I understand that not knowing every answer to some beer nerd’s questions doesn’t make me bad at my job, it’s hard not to see larger repercussions of a misstep: that you just proved the stereotype right.
When Allyson Rolph, head brewer at Thirsty Pagan Brewing, invited us to brew with her, that anxiety was removed. The all female brew crew was intentional. For a couple of days we could shed the “women in beer” straightjacket and just relax and brew.
Rolph spent two days with our crew. Aside from being an accomplished brewer, she was a steady, confident guide. On day one with humor, patience, and a dash of badassery, she steered us through brewing North Coast Amber Ale, one of the Pagan’s house brews. We sniffed hops. We nibbled on malt. Each step paved the way for us to design our own recipe.
Day two. After plenty of coffee, we set to measuring and grinding grain, choosing hops, and getting our hands dirty and feet wet. Rolph stood shoulder to shoulder with us, reconnecting what we were currently doing to what we’d observed the day before.
Let me be clear (and I’m going to use an -ism here, so take a deep breath).
The problem of sexism in the brewing industry is not going to be resolved by taking all female road trips and segregating ourselves. The issue of sexism in brewing—like sexism or any other -ism in any industry—is going to require a much larger change of heart and attitude by the general public. But for now, for these nine ladies, it was a refreshing change of pace that undoubtedly made us better at our jobs.
Our crew decided on brewing an amber lager with Bonlander Munich, Crystal Dark, and Crystal Extra Dark malts and noble hops, affectionately named the Pantsuit Amber Lager. While we didn’t manage to work out a full world takeover strategy, we brewed a pretty great beer. The Pantsuit Amber Lager will be released, not entirely coincidentally, on January 20 at Thirsty Pagan Brewing. It clocks in at 5.8% ABV and 20 IBU. Enjoy it while it lasts.