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Women, The 'First Brewers,' Lean Into Craft Beer-Making

Oct 12, 2013
Originally published on October 12, 2013 10:09 am

Thousands of beer aficionados are in Denver this weekend for the Great American Beer Festival. Some 600 breweries from around the country are represented at the marquee event for the craft-brewing industry.

And while this annual competition has long been male-dominated, that's starting to change.

Take, for example, Meg Gill, a 28-year-old Yale grad and the president and co-founder of Golden Road Brewing in Los Angeles. LA sets many trends, but it was a bit late to the game in the country's booming craft beer scene. But Gill is helping LA to make its mark.

When Gill opened Golden Road in 2011, not only was it the first craft brewery in this vast city to package and distribute; she also turned heads by becoming one of the first female CEOs of any brewery in this region. Just two years on, her beer is among the favorites to medal at the festival.

Early in her career, she says, most people assumed she was one of those promo girls who hand out free shots at a bar. "I have pretty unruly blond hair, and I look a little bit like a Barbie doll sometimes; they just figured I was a Bud Light girl giving out stickers," Gill says. But she says those stereotypes began eroding when her sales started to go through the roof.

Men who also dominate the distribution and packaging side of beer started to take her seriously, and she says the "Bud Light girl" stereotype began to work to her advantage. "Once I learned how to deal with that, it turned into a pretty good thing, because I walked into a distributor's conference room or a major chain account, and they expected less than what I delivered on."

Today, under Gill's leadership, Golden Road has 10 women in top-level management positions. And looking around the pub inside the brewery, there are just as many women quaffing happy hour ales as men. In fact, that's part of a trend: Beer is no longer just for dudes.

"All those 'taste great, less filling' jocks that we see on TV, those don't really relate to me and I don't relate to them," says Teri Fahrendorf, who was a brew master for 20 years. Now she runs the Pink Boots Society, a group that helps women launch careers in craft brewing.

As she says, "Women were the original beer drinkers. In fact, the first brewers were mothers if you really want to get specific, because beer was brewed in the home, just like bread was baked in the home."

Fahrendorf isn't surprised that more women are entering the industry. She thinks women have sharper palates than men and that the craft beer sector may be more progressive than its macro counterparts. The Pink Boots Society had 60 female brewers when it was founded in 2007. Now it has almost 250.

The Brewers Association, the organization that puts on the festival in Denver, doesn't have any hard numbers about how many more women there are in this industry. But if you take a walk along the rows of breweries represented at the Great American Beer Festival, it's clear there are definitely more women attending than there would have been even a few years ago.

Kim Jordan started New Belgium Brewery, maker of Fat Tire and other beers, in 1991, and it's now the third-largest craft brewery in the U.S. Jordan is the person many women in brewing point to as their mentor. She's the CEO, and women hold several top leadership positions in the company.

Jordan says more women are being drawn to beer because of all the experimentation that's going on right now. Experimental beers, including sour beers that women in particular seem to have a taste for, are almost more appealing to wine drinkers than to your traditional beer drinker. "I think it probably feels more welcoming to them," Jordan says. "And there's a breadth of styles that's unparalleled anywhere in the world."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Great American Beer Festival is being held in Denver this weekend. Some 600 breweries from around the country are represented at the annual competition, which amounts to a kind of Olympics for craft brewers - but with more hurling. Beer has often been considered something guys drink with other guys, you know, and they gripe about work or watch football. Come on, you've seen the ads. But NPR's Kirk Siegler reports that the crowds at the Great American Beer Festival this weekend might signal a change.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Our journey to Denver starts in Los Angeles, which was a bit late to the game in the country's booming craft beer scene. But that's going to change, if a 28 year old Yale grad has anything to say about it.

MEG GILL: I'm Meg Gill, the president and co-founder of Golden Road Brewing. We are at the pub at Golden Road, here in Atwater Village, Los Angeles, California.

SIEGLER: When Gill opened Golden Road in 2011, not only did hers become the first craft brewery in this vast city to package and distribute, she also turned heads by becoming one of the first female CEOs of any brewery in this region. Just two years on, her beer is among the favorites to medal at this week's Great American Beer Festival. Early in her career, she says, most people assumed she was one of those promo girls who hands out free shots at a bar.

GILL: I have pretty, like, unruly blonde hair, that, you know, looks a little bit like a Barbie doll sometimes. They just figured that I was, like, a Bud Light girl giving out stickers.

SIEGLER: But Gill says those stereotypes started to erode when her sales started to go through the roof. Men, who also dominate the distribution and packaging side of beer, started to take her seriously.

GILL: Once I learned how to deal with that, it turned into, like, a pretty good thing, because I walked into, you know, a distributor's conference room or, you know, a major chain account, and they expected less than what I delivered on.

SIEGLER: Today, under Gill's leadership, Golden Road has 10 women in top-level management positions. And looking around the pub, there are just as many women quaffing happy hour ales as men. In fact, that's part of a trend.

TERI FAHRENDORF: All those taste great, less filling jocks that we see on TV, those don't really relate to me and I don't really relate to them.

SIEGLER: Teri Fahrendorf was a brew master for twenty years. Now, she runs the Pink Boots Society, a group that helps women launch careers in craft brewing.

FAHRENDORF: Women were the original beer drinkers, in fact, the first brewers were mothers, if you really want to get specific, because beer was brewed in the home, just like bread was baked in the home.

SIEGLER: By women. And Fahrendorf isn't surprised that more women are entering the industry. She thinks women have sharper palates than men and the craft beer sector may be more progressive than its macro counterparts. The Pink Boots Society had 60 women brewers when it was founded in 2007. Now, it has almost 250.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: What would you like to try?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I don't know. (unintelligible)...

SIEGLER: The Brewers Association, that puts on this week's Great American Beer Festival here in Denver doesn't have any hard numbers about how many more women there are in this industry. But anecdotally, the group tells me it's tracking a sharp rise. Now, you take a walk along the rows and rows of breweries represented here, it's clear, you know, there are definitely more women out here than there would have been, say, five six years ago.

KIM JORDAN: And it's not been out of you know by some crazy design. It's really, you know, you look at who's the best person for the job and, of course, women are, you know, every bit as capable as men are.

SIEGLER: Kim Jordan is the person many women in brewing point to as their mentor. She started New Belgium Brewery in 1991. It's now the third-largest craft brewery in the U.S. She's the CEO, and women hold several top leadership positions in the company. Jordan says more women are being drawn to beer due to all the experimentation that's going on. And it pairs well with the artisan food movement that's sweeping the country.

JORDAN: I think it probably feels more welcoming to them. And there is a breadth of styles that's unparalleled anywhere in the world.

SIEGLER: Jordan says it can't hurt the cause that America is brewing the best beer in the world right now either. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.