The Hops Ceiling

Women in craft brewing are challenging the stereotype of the brawny brewmaster.

Julia Herz of the Brewers Association
Julia Herz, program director of the Brewers Association, is one of a growing number of women involved in the beer industry

Photo © Brewers Association.

Ask someone to imagine a brewmaster and the image that may come to mind is a barrel-chested fellow in overalls, maybe even lederhosen. Brewing is currently seen as a male field, but it wasn’t always this way. What’s believed to be the world’s oldest written recipe is for beer, and it celebrates a female brewmaster. Four-thousand-year-old Mesopotamian clay tablets describe the brewing process in a hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of beer. From ancient Sumeria through medieval Europe, women ruled the kettles. Beer can be described as liquid bread, so there was nothing unusual about women using their baking ingredients to brew in home kitchens. It wasn’t until entrepreneurial women began to sell their beer that men really moved in, restricting the creation and sale of beer to powerful male-only guilds.

The consequences of that takeover flow all the way to the pale, tasteless corporate beer of post-prohibition America. The watery beer was brewed by men and sold to them with help from decades of sexist advertising employing tired gender stereotypes and armies of bikini models. But corporate brewers’ best days are behind them, with sales are in decline. The growth is in the craft-beer sector, the smaller, independent brewers who make up only 7 percent of the American market but are growing at a rate of around 10 percent every year. And many brewmasters driving craft beer’s emergence are women. They’re taking a pass on the rigid corporate structures of the large brewers and finding, or creating, opportunities in the freewheeling world of craft beer, where they don’t have to work for companies that spend billons on demeaning ads.

Carol Stoudt
Carol Stoudt, founder of Stoudt’s Brewing Company

Photo courtesy Stoudt’s Brewing Co.

One of them is Carol Stoudt, who founded the family-owned brewery that bears her name. Launched in 1987 in Pennsylvania, its success marks Stoudt not only as a pioneering female brewer, but also as a craft-beer pioneer in general. At the time small brewers struggled to get retailers and bars even to carry their products. It was doubly hard for Stoudt, who says potential clients figured she was just shilling for her husband, because she was a woman.

“People thought ‘why is Ed’s wife out peddling his beer?’ ” she remembers.

But in fact it was Carol Stoudt who was doing the brewing, filling the kegs, filing the paperwork, and pounding the pavement to turn bars and restaurants onto her beer. It was slow going at first. She says some of her best early clients were restaurants owned and operated by women. But eventually, driven by awards and strong reviews, more clients came, the brewery grew, and she didn’t have to do all the work by herself. It’s now a family business that includes a restaurant run by her and her husband. Two daughters and a son have followed them into the beer business, both at Stoudt’s and elsewhere.

Many women in the beer industry point to Carol Stoudt as an inspiration. Another veteran brewer, Teri Fahrendorf, wants more women in the beer industry. She is the founder of the Pink Boots Society (the name references brewmasters’ galoshes), which aims to empower women as brewmasters and in other beer-industry jobs. She started it after a beer-soaked road trip where she visited breweries across America. Most women she visited along the way had never met another female brewer. Pink Boots began with 22 women in 2008 and now has nearly 700 members.

Fahrendorf says many of the barriers challenging would-be female brewmasters are similar to those in other male-dominated professions: outdated attitudes, and the belief that women will focus more on family than career. One special challenge they face in brewing is that it’s an undeniably physical and sometimes messy job, requiring the management of powerful equipment, cumbersome kegs, and bulky sacks of barley and hops.

Fahrendorf points out that women who don’t measure up in muscle find smart ways to work around brute force. She recalls a prospective employer saying he would hire only workers who could hoist 50-pound sacks over their heads and dump them into tall brewing tanks. The men and women who worked with Fahrendorf never had to pass this atavistic physical challenge. They used ladders. Simple teamwork and ingenuity meant their employers didn’t pay out budget-crushing injury claims to workers with wrecked backs.

Some beer companies may still be reluctant to hire women because of the perception that women don’t like beer. True, recent Gallup polling shows women prefer wine to beer. But that may be the self-fulfilling prophecy of decades of male-targeted advertising. And Gallup merely asked about beer in general, and in the United States, most people think first of the large breweries’ watery, pale products. Carol Stoudt often meets women reluctantly dragged to beer tastings by their husbands or boyfriends. She believes when they say they dislike beer, that they’re talking about typical thinly flavored American light beer. It’s a misperception craft brewers face with male and female drinkers alike, but the growth of the craft sector shows their full-flavored brews are converting skeptics.

Outreach to female drinkers and craft beer were both hot topics at the National Beer Wholesalers Association convention earlier this month in Las Vegas. Between sessions, I spoke with Julia Herz, there in her role as program director for the Brewers Association, which represents American craft brewers and holds the World Beer Cup. In 2008, Tonya Cornett of Oregon’s Bend Brewing became the first woman to win a champion brewer award.

I asked Herz how many of the winning beers in the dozens of subcategories were brewed by women. She didn’t know, saying she prefers letting the beers stand on their own merits. She looks forward to a time where the modern heirs to Ninkasi will be recognized solely as great brewers, not for their gender. The return of women to brewing is bringing fresh ideas and perspectives, which can only mean more new and exciting beers. And that’s something women and men alike should toast.