The girls are back in town. And by town, we mean brewery. At breweries across Cincinnati — and the country — women are becoming ever more present on the production floor, in the taproom and even in the classroom, teaching each other about the ancient craft.
To be honest, it’s not so revolutionary that women are stepping to the forefront of the beer industry, but rather that society is finally beginning to recognize it as a normal occurrence.
“There are tons of female brewers or tons of women in production,” says Natalie Blair, a brewer at Rhinegeist. “I mean, beer started with women. Alewives were the first women who brewed beer.”
In ancient Mesopotamia, brewing was a job performed by women, or “alewives” — a trend that continued into the Middle Ages. Their hymns to honor the Sumerian beer goddess, Ninkasi, doubled as beer recipes, which were passed down from woman to woman. The Pink Boots Society, an international organization that assists, inspires and encourages women in the beer industry, also educates on the not-so-secret tradition and legacy of female brewers.
“Women in beer are growing all the time,” says Carla Gesell-Streeter, operator of the blog Hoperatives and leader of the local chapter of The Pink Boots Society.
A professor, Gesell-Streeter also instituted the Brewing Science program at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, which offers students a two-year Associate of Science degree in the field. Inspired by the popularity of the craft beer movement, coupled with Cincinnati’s own rich brewing history, she took a sabbatical from Cincinnati State to research putting together the school’s brewing program.
She visited the Niagara College Teaching Brewery in Ontario, Canada, which offers what she says is one of the best two-year programs in the world, along with a few others, before firing off emails and meeting with as many local breweries and distributors in Greater Cincinnati as possible to get curriculum input, suggestions and perspective.
“We started in fall of 2015,” Gesell-Streeter says. “We offered our first Intro to Craft Beer class — two of them, there was such popularity — and then the next year we offered the sales and marketing certificate. And then this past year was the two-year degree.”
Currently, the program has a female enrollment of 20 to 30 percent, with students studying for the two-year degree and the brewing certificate. There’s also a brewing sales and marketing certificate.
Rhinegeist’s Blair took a slightly different path to brewing.
“I started out third shift, working on our cask canning line, which was in the taproom where the second bar is now,” she says. “I worked overnight and felt like an animal in a zoo, but it was an incredible experience. I’d been teaching at the school of architecture at Miami University before that and, just, I was kind of over it. And found my way into beer. It’s great.”
Now, two-and-a-half years in, Blair works first shift at Rhinegeist (4 a.m. to noon), which employs brewers around the clock. She’s up at 3:15 a.m. and at the brewery by 4. She and three other members of the first-shift brew team (including a brewing assistant) get the low-down from third-shift brewers. They find out where the brews are in their production stages, what tanks need to be cleaned, what beer needs to be moved to finishing tanks, if a beer needs to be run through the centrifuge (which removes the particles from the brewing process) and if a beer needs to be carbonated so it can be ready for the packaging team, who arrive at 7 a.m.
“Then we get to work,” she says. “The three brewers, we rotate stations on the brew deck, and then the other two will be in the cellar, so that means we’re cleaning tanks, we are moving beer through, moving yeast into tanks so we can get ready to brew into them, cleaning parts, expanding cider.”
Blair is passionate and fervent and describes her work with a reverence that is palpable. She’s a self-declared tomboy, and acknowledges a certain measure of a “boys’ club” perception about brewing, albeit, more on the external front.
“The guys I work with are phenomenal,” she says. “Guys outside of the beer industry, talking to me about beer, I receive a shit-ton of sexism — pardon my language.”
Fellow Rhinegeist brewer Stacey Roth, a 16-year veteran of the industry and recent Michigan transplant (where she worked for breweries including Grizzly Peak, Arbor Brewing, and Arcadia Brewing Company), agrees that any sexism inside what’s perceived to be an historically male-dominated workplace is less prevalent than one might think.
“Working at Rhinegeist — there isn’t any difference between any of us,” she says. “Every once in a while, I won’t be able to open a door or do this. A lot of times, they won’t be able to fit their hands into something or squeeze through something, but I can. Just like in any other situation, you figure it out. You want to do the job, you figure out how to do it, regardless of whether you’re female or male.”
The lingering societal perception of beer as a traditionally male beverage versus female-friendly drink is rapidly being dispelled. Roth says she’s seen a “huge evolution” of that perception, and both she and Blair note the recent influx of sour beers on the craft market as a good introduction point. Roth helps run Fermenta, a group of brewers (similar to Pink Boots) in Michigan, aimed at helping build camaraderie for women in the industry.
“In starting to do these seminars and meet-and-greets with Fermenta, I just had women either wanting to get into the industry or just wanting to learn more about alcoholic beers in general, say that they were glad they had a space to go to where they felt comfortable,” she says. “There’s more and more women that are buying craft, learning about craft and drinking it. I think it’s more of a women’s thing than a guys thing nowadays.”
Cheers to that.
To learn more about the local chapter of The Pink Boots Society, visit facebook.com/pbs.cincinnati.