Step Away, Guys! How Women Brewers are Becoming More Than Just a Trend

Women Brewers Growing in Craft Beers

Beth Borges, co-owner of House Bear Brewing, is something of a rarity in a field still largely dominated by men. As a woman brewers begin to enter the field, she understands change comes with sacrifices – and a lot of rewards.

We talked to Beth about the place of women brewers and where she sees things going.

Q: Why do you think brewing is still such a male-dominated industry? Is that slowly changing?

BB: Well, it became a male dominated industry when public houses opened up [centuries ago]. Before that, brewing was a woman’s craft and considered a nutritional activity. But once public houses opened up, a woman could only have a tavern if she had it in her husband’s name –unless she was widowed. Also, brewing is hard work and requires strength, so even when opportunities started to open up to women, people were reluctant to hire women as apprentices, thinking that women wouldn’t be able to handle the work load. I think that it is changing, but it tends to move like dance steps. Fast, slow, fast, fast, slow.

Q: Do you feel being a woman has made your work harder or easier?

BB: Both, I suppose. It is harder because there are still some people that hold the idea that women might not have the physical strength to handle the work required. I have gotten the feeling sometimes in the past that I wasn’t being taken seriously, but I’m tenacious and I figured everyone has to pay dues and prove themselves, sometimes for different reasons. I found that if I had someone try my mead, that they realized that I was serious — I had skills and I earned respect.

Then again, I’ve always ‘played in a boy’s arena’ — even before I knew there was one. When I was in grade school, I used what my older brother taught me and played poker with the boys at recess. In Junior High, they’d come over to my house to play Atari games with me. It wasn’t until that point, when my older brother pointed out that it might not be fair and I might not like it, but some boys might not keep playing with me if I kept beating them.
I don’t think he was trying to stop me so much as make me aware of things that might not have occurred to me.

When I was in college, I landscaped and was sometimes treated as a novelty by other landscapers. Later, when I was building a different kind of sifter for my own garden and was looking for non-standard parts so I could roll it over a wheel barrow, a male Home Depot associate tried to explain to me what a sifter looked like and how it was built rather than help me find the parts I wanted.

Clearly I was doing it wrong.

So when I started brewing, I wasn’t surprised or daunted. I didn’t let it slow me down. Things change. I would find a way. I knew one day that women landscapers and brewers wouldn’t be a surprise, a novelty but would just be part of the norm. The important thing is not to give up. If you are willing to be daunted or give up, then maybe you are a novelty or aren’t taking yourself seriously. Take yourself seriously enough to keep going and others will take you seriously too. But don’t take yourself so seriously that you don’t have fun. This should be fun. It should be what stirs your passions.

Q: How did you get started in brewing and how did that lead to the creation of House Beer Brewing?

BB: I started brewing in college. My friends (and yes, they were guys) and I wanted to start brewing. But I also wanted to find a way to make it my own, not do what all my friends were doing. I had another friend who was in a medieval reenactment group (SCA or Dagahir) and they introduced me to mead and brewers’ guilds. I was delighted.
We all started brewing together. After a couple of years they stopped. And while I have sometimes had some small breaks, I never really stopped brewing. I had noted my entire life that there were no good commercial meads available and wondered why. One year, on my birthday, I went into the Sunset Grill and they had mead (this was AGES ago) and it was $5 for a 2 oz beaker. It was terrible. So bad. And I said, I can do better than this. I think that’s when the seed planted itself in my head, but I didn’t do anything about it until I was getting my MBA.

I was incredibly depressed from my mother’s death. She was a strong female role model. In Brasil she was a beauty queen AND she flew small planes. Losing her was really, really hard. I asked myself what I wanted to do with myself when I graduated. I looked around my apartment and saw eight carboys sitting there fermenting and said, “THAT is what I want to do with myself. How do I make that happen?”

This was back in 2009. I started to look at numbers and realized meaderies were growing and was probably 3-7 years away from a craft mead explosion like the craft beer explosion of the 90s.  I talked to my best friend about considering partnering with me and we started working on how to get this going.

Q: Can you tell our readers a bit about the meads you produce?

BB: We think there is a mead out there for everyone. Mead is so versatile. It can be flat, petillant, carbonated. It can be dry, semi-sweet, sweet. You can add almost anything to it. BUT people tend to have the perception that mead has to be cloyingly sweet. Partly because it’s honey.  We thought there was room for more. We try to find a balance between the extremes with meads that are crisp but still lightly sweet. We also look for unusual flavor profiles. People are always shocked to hear about our strawberry basil mead, — called Nursery Crimes — but it’s a very popular mead.

People sometimes ask us if the honey you choose is important. YES! I don’t know if we would have gotten our gold medal if we didn’t pair the honey we chose with the yeast that plays so nicely with it and then baby it and try to coax that balance out that we wanted to achieve. And we keep a honey library. Whenever we run into a honey we have never heard of we buy it, taste it, keep it to compare against others. We want and need to widen our palettes every day with new honies, few flavors, new combinations. We have honey from Hawaii and Acacia honey. We even have carrot honey and cotton honey!

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Diana Bocco is a writer and author who writes for Yahoo!, the Discovery Channel website, Marie Claire, Poplar Mechanics, and more. You can find more about her work on her website dianabocco.com.

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