Fermenta galvanizes women in Michigan's craft beverage industry

As a writer and a woman, I tend to feel a bit uneasy about writing about women in various industries in a way that is pointedly exclusive of men. "Listicles" proclaiming "Top 10 Female Brewers" irk me endlessly – why can't it just be "Top 10 Brewers" with a mix of men and women? The separate designation is akin to saying that women aren't really good enough to hold their own against men, thus necessitating their own special "lady list."  

So when my friend Annette May told me about Fermenta: Michigan Women's Craft Collective, a new nonprofit organization created by and for Michigan women in the craft beverage industry, I forced myself to muster up some false enthusiasm and hide the hollow undertone in my voice when I said, "Oh, cool!" 

Having written about women in male-dominated industries in the past in a very "grrrrl power" sort of way, I have more recently been of the mindset that maybe real equality comes in the form of NOT separating the men from the women, NOT trying to validate the existence of women in a given industry by making the claim "anything you can do we can do better." After all, is it really a matter of having something to prove? And, ultimately, to who? 

My thinking went, if we create organizations that are gender-exclusive, admitting only women, aren't we then no better than the men's-only organizations that women collectively have spent over a century railing against? Also, by designating a separate women-only organization in an industry in which women tend to be far fewer in number, aren't we really just further underscoring the divide between the sexes? It's problematic at best, and at worst, outright sexist – against ourselves. 

So when I started interviewing women on the Executive Board of Fermenta for this story, I didn't shy away from the question: Do you feel that forming an organization specifically for women is potentially problematic?  

Pauline Knighton, Events Administrator at Short's Brewery and President of Fermenta, echoed many of the same misgivings.  

"It always made me uneasy in the past thinking about having a specific women's group because I believed it would have this further divide," Knighton says. "Part of me is worried about that, so I think that's a good thing because now we're trying to make sure that’s not how this group comes off." 

She says that there's really no great mystery to it: women and men are different. They communicate differently, they understand things differently, they adapt differently. 

"Sometimes it's nice to be around people who are similar to you," Knighton explains, "who share the same characteristics as you, and who you can relate to." 

Angie Williams, licensed lawyer and Vice President of Fermenta who also works the cellar and packaging at Griffin Claw Brewing Co., agrees. "One of the things that I find, in various professions, is that men and women communicate differently in many ways." She rattles off examples from soccer fields to the factory-like settings of production breweries, underscoring those differences and how difficulties can arise from them. 

"To me [Fermenta] is a resource. There just aren't as many women working in this industry as there are men – well, what are we going to do about that? How do we talk to each other? To our bosses? It's not a good thing or a bad thing, it's just a different thing. This is all about networking and camaraderie."

She also notes, "Having been a lawyer, I know that networking is so important in any position. The Barr Association has all sorts of different groups to network, build camaraderie, and share resources. We don't really have that in Michigan for women [in beer], so we said, 'Let's start one.'"

As a nascent organization, Fermenta is just starting to organize events. The goal is to host educational events and meetings on a regular basis all over the state. Educational events might include workshops on cider-making or understanding the fermentation of yeast. Their public debut as an organization was at the 2014 Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival in Ypsilanti, where 11 Fermenta collaboration beers brewed by member women at 11 participating breweries across the state were on tap for the public to enjoy, and they plan on doing more cross-state collaborations in the future. 

Fermenta is not designed to be an exclusive or exclusionary group, and they are working hard to ensure that this is not the perception. 

"Without conversation between the sexes you're not going to go further," Knighton says. "It's really important for us to have events open to the public. Men these last few months have been so receptive; male owners of breweries have emailed us with female employees who might be interested in joining; there were a ton of men going around trying the Fermenta beers [at the Summer Beer Festival] and saying this is needed in our industry." 

To be clear, Fermenta doesn't exist solely as a way to prop up women in an industry that's populated predominantly by men. Unlike the highly-competitive kitchen environment, the craft beer industry is just…different. The "boys' club" mentality really doesn't exist at the industry level (the problem really tends to be more at the consumer level), and the women interviewed for this piece by and large said they really don't feel like they are treated differently because of their gender at all. 

"I haven't had the idea of this being a boys' club, but I have been to events where I'm the only female," Knighton says. "I don't feel like I always get the same respect [from men] that 'you know as much as I do.' It's nice to have a group of female mentors that I know I can go to. Giving women a group of mentors and that camaraderie is what's really important." 

Erin Cottongim, co-owner of Witch's Hat Brewing Co., says, "Every once in a great while someone will come looking for 'the owner' and will not accept the idea that I am an owner. I have also had a few moments of surprise when I have gone to tell a customer about a beer – surprised by my knowledge. I get a kick out of it." 

But this, she says, has never been a problem among her industry peers. "I really have never felt out of place within the brewing industry professionals that I have been surrounded by. Actually, everyone I have been fortunate enough to come across in the industry has been nothing short of amazing: encouraging, supportive, and helpful. I think [Fermenta is] a bit about assigning credit where it is due, empowering those women that do so much for the industry, and giving them more of a voice." 

Fermenta also isn't just about craft beer. When a core group of women including Knighton and Williams began the initial talks about Fermenta in early 2014 – what it was going to be and who it was going to include – they decided to not make it specific to beer but to instead include all of Michigan's craft alcoholic beverages – cider, mead, wine, and spirits. 

"Michigan has so many awesome alcoholic beverages and we all want to learn more about them," Knighton says. 

Because they wanted to include all different kinds of craft beverages, they chose to form their own nonprofit – currently pursuing official 501(c)(3) status with the help of Williams' legal expertise – instead of starting a Michigan chapter of the Pink Boots Society, an international organization of women beer professionals that is well-respected and does some great work, but with a name that is enough to make one choke on its own internalized gender stereotyping. 

Additionally, Fermenta is inclusive to all women, not just those actively working in the craft beverage industry but those who are interested in it as well. Membership structure is two-tiered, one for active professionals who earn a living in the industry – doing anything from selling to making to marketing these products – and another for associate members for woman of all backgrounds who want to learn more about the industry and get involved in some way.   

"Part of the craft beer culture is we're so supportive of each other," says Williams. "It’s so different than any other industry. Breweries need all kinds of help with people of all kinds of skillsets – human resources, lawyers, marketers – not just brewers." 

Liz "E.T." Crowe, aka the A2 Beer Wench, was previously the Marketing Director of Wolverine State Brewing until she was unceremoniously relieved of her position, ironically on the day of Fermenta collaboration brew at the brewery. And it was the women of Fermenta who helped her get through that very difficult time.  

"At the end of the day [Fermenta is] about making sure that the many women who are involved in this business know we're out here we're supporting each other. When the shit went down for me, I really saw that. I felt that," she says. "It's a group of people who rally around you when you need their help because they believe in you and what you do." 

Eventually, the group plans to start fundraising through tap takeovers and other events that will allow them to put together a college scholarship for women who want to enroll in specialized programs that relate to the industry (such as fermentation programs at culinary schools or chemistry programs geared specifically at brewing). 

Cottongim says Fermenta is not just about those in or interested in the industry, but thinking in a broader sense about the relationship between women and craft beverages as a whole. "This group is a place where we can reinforce the importance of addressing the female consumer as well," she states. "If we can find ways appeal to and attract more women consumers, the industry as a whole benefits. In my eyes, Fermenta encourages women to get into the craft scene and might even open the door for women to take the plunge and get into the industry as a profession."

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer extraordinaire. She is primarily known for her former blog, Eat It Detroit. 
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