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The Rise of the Woman Brewmaster
“My parents definitely were not happy about that choice.”
By Michael Jarema, contributing writer
In 2013, Karen Belfry had a recently-acquired Bachelor of Science degree from Brock University in Ontario, Canada and was enrolled in a paramedic program at Niagara College. Her plan was to work from an ambulance, saving lives. She had the summer off from classes, so she took a job selling craft beer from Niagara's teaching brewery to help pay the bills.
It was a decision that led to a dramatic change in her career plans.
Interviewed last year for an article in Ontario’s Vaughan Citizen1, Belfry expressed that prior to that summer, she was a self-described "vodka cranberry or coolers kind of girl." But then she met a brewer.
He would make me try everything he tried, mostly because I made a hilarious face that was really disgusted...Eventually, I started getting more into the fruit beers, the sours, the wheat beers. Then (I) started getting more into some of the more complex styles and actually started enjoying some of the beer he was making me drink.
Belfry developed a taste for craft beer, and more so, an interest in making it – to such an extent she dropped out of Niagara's paramedic program and enrolled in the college's well-regarded Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program. And from there, she said, "As soon as I started making the beer, I was kind of hooked.”
Her parents, though, weren’t so enthusiastic about her decision. Belfry described their reaction as “not happy.”
My mom had always imagined me going more into health care. She wanted me to be a doctor and was happy when I made the decision to go to school to be a paramedic like my dad…[They were] concerned that there wouldn't be a lot of job opportunities or that I wouldn't make very much money.
Belfry graduated from Niagra’s brewing program in 2016. From there, she landed a job as the head brewer at William Street Beer Company in Cobourg, Ontario. Seven months later, she became the brewmaster at Lake Wilcox Brewery, about 80 miles east in Vaughn. She has an obvious passion for her work.
She told the Vaughan Citizen article, “if you put me in front of a group of people and ask me to talk about beer, I probably won't shut up for a few hours.” As for her parents, it seems they didn’t need to worry. As Belfry explained, “They’re supportive now.”
From medieval alewives...
“A burly man with a long beard and a flannel shirt.”
This is a stereotypical image of a contemporary craft beer brewer described in an October 2018 press release from the University of North Carolina-Greensborro2. But UNC Greensboro Archivist Erin Lawrimore argued in the release that it's an inaccurate image – “one that discounts the work of women.”
Many beer aficionados are unaware of the historic and present-day roles of women in brewing...From medieval alewives to 19th-century home brewers to today's brewery owners, women have always had their hand in beer making. Until the brewing industry was industrialized after Prohibition, women brewers were plentiful. Brewing was considered 'women's work'.
Jennifer R. Mastel Adams provided further detail in her University of Phoenix dissertation, “Priestess to Witch: Quality of Work Life and Psychological Empowerment among Brewery Employees”3. Adams traced the history of brewing, noting “Women once dominated as brewers around the world. Over time, the development of technology and increases in profitability led to men taking over the industry.”
For thousands of years, women dominated the craft of brewing beer...Over time, the status, power, and image of women in the brewing industry underwent a negative transformation. The Industrial Revolution and advancement of scientific practices led to beer becoming a profitable commodity...Women began losing power and control as men took over brewing beer when it turned to a moneymaking industry...Despite the fact that women almost exclusively did the brewing of beer for millennia, social and industrial change negatively affected their quality of work life and psychological empowerment...The shift also removed the opportunity for females to work in the commercial breweries.
In the latter half of the 1700s – the early years of the Industrial Revolution – brewing moved from being a household/domestic chore which, like cooking and cleaning was traditionally performed by the wife/mother, to commerce. And it was then taken over by men, who traditionally had leadership roles in business.
Women and beermaking today
In the Vaughn Citizen article, Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB) Chairman, Jeff Dornan, admitted that the association doesn't have any firm stats on the number of women working in the industry, but he observed:
Every brewery you visit you definitely see more and more female faces around and it's not just in the bottle shop, the front-facing (roles). There's (women) in the labs...in all different facets of the business.
But in June 2019, the Executive Director of the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild told Cathalena E. Burch of Arizona Daily Star4 that a 2014 Auburn University study “showed that women made up 29% of the workforce in brewing, hinting that women were going beyond their role as consumers of craft beer to becoming driving forces on the production side.”
Burch opened her article with a description of what has, over the last two years, become a tradition at Tucson's Crooked Tooth Brewing – the monthly meeting, held under a full moon, of the Tucson chapter of the Pink Boots Society, a worldwide advocacy group for female brewing professionals. From their website:
We get the beer brewed and fermented with the highest possible quality. We also own breweries, package the beer, design beers, serve beers, write about beer, and cover just about any aspect of beer, and we are all women.
Burch described how the approximately ten women at the Pink Boots meeting brewed beer over an open fire. When it’s ready, Crooked Tooth owner, Julie Vernon, served the “full moon brew” at her bar.
It’s one of their most popular offerings.
Also in attendance at the gathering were Cassidy Johnson and Savanna Saldate of Borderland’s Brewing, who, along with head brewer, Ayla Kapahi, make up the staff at Borderland’s – the only brewery in Arizona with an all-female brew crew. Although Borderland’s owner, Mike Mallozzi said that in itself wasn’t intentional, he did want to “seek out underrepresented folks in the industry.” It’s an issue that, with Borderlands, he’s championing:
“As far as I can see, women, especially on the production side, have a dogged work ethic as they are compelled to ‘prove’ themselves in this old boys’ club industry.”
Vernon of Crook Tooth added:
We obviously really, really love beer and we love all different styles of beer and we love crafting it. One of my favorite things about beer is that it brings people together. You get to laugh and connect. It’s kind of like a bridge. You sit down with a beer and there’s a lot of connections that happen.
The “Queen of Beer”
The influx of women in beermaking is not just limited to North America. Na’ama Ashkenazi is one of perhaps only four women brewing and selling craft beer commercially in Israel. Largely self-taught, initially through a home-brewing course she came across in 2010 and then through lectures and tastings, the self-styled “Queen of Beer” now conducts brewing seminars, workshops, and tastings of her own. And she contract-brews her own brand at the Sheeta Brewery in Arad.
Interviewed earlier this year with Doug Greener for the Jerusalem Post5, Ashkenazi had this to say:
I think it’s pretty cool being a woman in a masculine business. What I can’t do so easily is move around heavy stuff – like the cases of bottles, the sacks of malted grain and the brew kettles. Okay, so I get help with this.
But, she added, “Men brewers have never treated me any differently because I am a woman.”
Professionally brewing since 2012, Ashkenazi told Greener how she came up with the name for her brand, Klara. “It’s a strong name,” she said, “and the name of my grandmother, who was a strong woman.” Klara has since been named “the best small brewery in Israel.”
Of her profession, Ashkenazi said:
Brewing opened up a whole new world for me. I loved the first ale we made and I wanted to find out more...I love to speak in front of people, to share my love of beer...I try to bring other Israeli craft beers into the tastings, not only mine, and also foreign beers...I go into the different styles, the ingredients, the brewing process and even some background about the breweries themselves.
It sounds a lot like what Belfry and Vernon had to say about their unexpected profession – they too had that obvious passion, that need to share, to talk about their craft, about the offerings of other brewers, and about what they themselves were able to create.
- Anonymous. (2018, Mar 29). Meet Lake Wilcox Brewing's Brewmaster Karen Belfry. Vaughan Citizen. Available from ProQuest One Academic.
- Anonymous. (2018, Oct 17). UNCG Archivist Explores Role of Women in Brewing. Targeted News Service. Available from ProQuest One Academic.
- Mastel Adams, Jennifer R. (2018). Priestess to Witch: Quality of Work Life and Psychological Empowerment among Brewery Employees. University of Phoenix, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Available from ProQuest One Academic.
- Burch, Cathalena E. (2019, Jun 23). Women Are Behind Kegs of Full Moon Craft Beer. Arizona Daily Star. Available from ProQuest One Academic.
- Greener, D. (2019. Jan 11). The Israeli Queen of Beer. Jerusalem Post. Available from ProQuest One Academic.
Michael Jarema is an Ypsilanti, Michigan-based writer, filmmaker, sometime-foodie, and full-time craft beer enthusiast. He regularly incorporates the latter when working on his current pet writing project – a graphic novel titled, I Kill Nazis with Dinosaurs.