Beer's Better Half

Since the very beginning of beer, brewing has been a woman's domain. Until the Industrial Revolution, it was women who made beer as part of their family-nurturing duties of cooking and baking - not to mention making dodgy water safe to drink, since no known pathogen can live in beer.

Fast-forward a few millennia, and beer, or at least the yellow foamy substance put out by the big multinational companies, is seen as possibly the quintessential "Guy Thing". There's no sporting event televised without an avalanche of ads featuring buxom women hawking one brew or another, and what little beer marketing there is aimed at women tends to be for ultra-low calorie swill. It's enough to put any woman off barley and hops for life.

But more and more women are kicking open the door to the boy's-club taprooms and staking their own claims in the world of good beer.

Many of them call Metro Detroit their home. This is their story.

The Expert

In 2009, Annette May was the first woman to earn the title of Certified Cicerone, and remains one of only about half a dozen women able to lay claim to the title (which equates to a sommelier for beer).

May is the resident beer expert at Merchant's Fine Wine in Dearborn, and even a few minutes with her makes it abundantly clear how much she loves her job ...and how good she is at it. Customers can come in with only the vaguest idea of what they want, "nothing bitter," say, or "kind of Irish" and she can match them with a beer that might just change their whole concept of what this ancient beverage is about.

But she wasn't always this enthusiastic about beer. May began her career as a nurse in Chicago, and then, as an Aussie, lost her immigration status so she needed a cash job. That led to her bartending at a place that had a wide beer selection, so she started educating herself about the product. It was an education that eventually led to her meeting her husband, moving to the Detroit area, and earning the Cicerone title.

Often, women don't think beer is their kind of thing because what most of us first encounter as beer -- most likely served up in a red plastic cup out of a cheap keg at a party that eventually got broken up by the cops -- doesn't taste very good, May explains. In fact, a carefully crafted brew from a small producer has about as much in common with a foamy American mega-brand lager as Epoisses does with Easy Cheese.

May asks her customers what they like to drink in order to find the perfect recommendation. A woman may say she hates beer, but will drink coffee or cocktails, so she'll point them to a beer with similar flavor notes like a roasty stout or a fruity lambic.

"I tell them to clear their mind of what they expect it to taste like, and focus on what they are actually tasting," she says.

The Judge

Gail Milburn of Dearborn isn't just an accomplished homebrewer, she is a certified national homebrew judge. That means that at competitions, she can taste a beer and evaluate how well it hews to the particular style the brewer was trying to achieve, and how they can fix what isn't working.

"I took a class offered by Rex Halfpenny (a well known Michigan craft beer promoter and beer judge), and found that I could identify many or most of the off-flavors and aromas, as well as the various aspects of good beer," Milburn says. After a grueling four-hour exam, she scored well enough to earn national judging status immediately and began judging that same day.

Milburn started out homebrewing ten years ago after buying a kit to make her own stout. Today, about 7 percent of homebrewers are women. Small as that figure is, the number is steadily growing and the American Homebrewers Association is trying to get more women involved.

"I see women homebrewing as a way of returning to our historical creative roots," Milburn says. "From a more feminist viewpoint, it is also a way of reclaiming our ability to create something unique and personal without having to rely on male-dominated mega brewery products."

Women should visit Michigan breweries and try their wares, she says. "It is amazing how these establishments are women-friendly pubs in which you can sit at the bar and strike up a good conversation with someone nearby about good beer...and not get hit on. Without exception, every woman I've ever had try a good craft beer or a good homebrew has become a convert to the good beer movement."

The Boss

As many strides as women are making in the beer world, not a lot of women are in leadership roles at craft breweries. One who is making her mark is Kristy Smith, part owner of MillKing It! Productions in Royal Oak.

MillKing It is the brainchild of Smith and Scott King, former owner of the much-missed King Brewing Co. in Pontiac. She worked in the taproom there, and got interested in discovering the nuances of beer and brewing as a result. She became great friends with King and his family, so when King Bros. closed, she and King set up MillKing It in an industrial space in Royal Oak, which opened May 1 of last year.

There's a sign on the wall at MillKing It (that once was on a lauter tun at the Stroh Brewery Co.) proclaiming its 6,000-barrel capacity. "That was what they did in a week," Smith says. "It's more than we do in a year."

Despite her decade of experience, people still sometimes mistake her for a sidekick or assistant to King. In fact, she handles every aspect of the business end of the brewery. "It still happens quite often, but after ten years I think I've earned my place," she states.

She's confident, friendly and unafraid to give back as good as she gets if faced with questionable behavior, which helps her command respect from others in the industry. Despite the occasional bad apple, Smith says she really enjoys being part of the Michigan brewing scene.

"It doesn't feel like you're always chasing the dollar," she says. "And it's a cool community -- mostly, we're always on the phone helping each other out with supplies or advice."

The Brewer

Sarah Sidelko, head brewer at Motor City Brewing Works, also has overcome some resistance to be taken seriously as a woman in her field, particularly because she's only 28 years old.

Sarah came to brewing via an unusual path -- as an avid gardener. She loved preserving her home-grown bounty through fermenting processes, producing sauerkraut, kimchi, and the like. She decided to give homebrew beer a try -- it is another fermenting process after all -- and started asking the owners at Motor City for help. That led to a brewing apprenticeship, where she did everything from cleaning kegs to working in the kitchen. Sarah became head brewer about two and a half years ago.

One of the reasons you don't see a lot of women brewers is because of the physical demands. Sidelko says she lifts 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of grain in a week, which is hard to believe given her slight build. But with a background in gymnastics, she's a lot stronger than she looks, she says, and can even out-lift some of the guys she works with. On the side, Sidelko knows how to weld and build bikes, which has proved handy for understanding and fixing the brewing equipment.

Even with her strength and skills she sometimes finds sexist attitudes at brewer's conferences. "I've been assumed to be my boss's wife," she says. "I'd like to make brewing a more comfortable space for women."

The staff at Motor City help with that, she says -- it's a supportive environment and her bosses trust her to maintain their beer's good reputation.

For her, beer is equated with the pleasure of consuming something that's been well- crafted. "I view beer as this sensual, lovely, artful experience. It's delicious," she says. "It's very interesting experimenting with beer."

Amy Kuras is a Metro Detroit freelancer whose first encounter with the world of beer was as a two-year-old dancing on the bar at the Stroh Brewing Company's Strohaus, where her father was a tour guide -- a feat she managed not to repeat in researching this story. She writes about schools, parenting and a host of other topics besides beer. Her previous article was "The Chinese Are Coming (To Learn)".

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All photos by David Lewinski Photography

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