Women changing the 'boys club' nature of craft brew businesses

Not only do women like to drink craft beer, they also like to make it, and make places to make it. Jeremy Martin talks with some of those women.
Over the past decade the craft beer industry has brought jobs to Southwest Michigan,  brought friends together, and been a rallying point for those looking to share in the creative spirit of the area.

Craft beer has become an integral part of our social and economic community but the industry as a whole has always been somewhat of a "boys club" -- a perception that several women from the region would like to see change.

Nationwide, as imbibers are becoming more aware of the craft beer world, shifting their focus away from domestic beer and spirits, women are finding themselves on the vanguard of the revolution.

Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, a Colorado based trade association dedicated to small and independent craft brewers says that women "represent some of the most interesting consumers in the world."

And not just "interesting" but interested as well. Craftbeer.com reports women drink 25 percent of all beer by volume in the United States, but sip 37 percent of all craft beer consumed. The craft beer industry is alluring to women in a way that the mainstream domestic industry is not.

Perhaps it has something to do with the growing opportunities to get involved on a nearly grassroots level.

"There are more and more women making it their career to work in the industry," says Meagan Pruim, marketing coordinator for Saugatuck Brewing Company. "There are different ways you can get involved in the craft beer industry no matter what your specialty is."

Some, like Pruim, get involved on the customer relations and marketing side. Some women find their niche planting and harvesting hops, and some, like Cindee Tibbs own their own brewery.

Tibbs, who, along with her husband Kevin, opened the aptly named Tibbs Brewing Company this past winter, oversees the business and financial end of the operation while Kevin functions as the company’s brewmaster.

Even though her name is on the sign, Cindee says she at times still needs to educate doubters regarding her status as a brewery owner.

"Everybody assumed that since Kevin was the brewer that he was the owner, too," Cindee says. "There’s the automatic assumption that since he’s the guy, and he’s the brewer, that he must be the owner. But actually it’s solely owned by me as a corporation and Kevin is technically the employee."

A fact she said she jokingly reminds Kevin of from time to time.

Another misconception Cindee says she has seen within the world of craft beer is that women tend to prefer lighter or fruiter ales and shy away from darker beers.

"We get just as many women that come in and like a porter or a stout as fruitier beers," she says.

This Saturday Cindee will be one of five female speakers taking part in a West Michigan Beer tour designed to showcase the contributions that women have made to the area’s craft beer industry.

Visiting Tibbs Brewing Company, Boatyard Brewing Company, Hop Head Farms in Hickory Corners, and dropping in on the nearly completed Arcadia Brewing Company’s Kalamazoo facility, the tour will be a first of its kind event in Southwest Michigan.

"What we’ve noticed on our tours is that about half the people that come on our tours are women," says John Liberty, co-founder of West Michigan Beer tours. "Yet almost every time we go into a brewery we end up talking to men, which is fine, they do a great job. But there is a number of women who are passionate about craft beer too."

One woman who certainly is passionate about her job is Amy Waugaman, a brewer with Boatyard Brewing Company.

During the tour Waugaman will talk about general brewing practices and how she enjoys working with Boatyard, plus she will discuss the role women play within the craft beer industry, and speak on her experiences as a female brewer.

The tour will then get a chance to sample some of the beers she has recently worked on. "Amy is going to sample out three of her beers that she brewed at boatyard; it’s a sort of Amy tap takeover," Liberty says.

The tour doesn’t just feature women brewers, but highlights all aspects of the "field to glass" journey, which is one reason the tour will make a stop at Hop Head Farms to speak with co-owner Bonnie Steinman.

Besides discussing her experience on the pre-production and agricultural side of beer making, Steinman will also be sampling locally made beer crafted using the hops grown on her farm.

"The Hop Head thing is going to be a blast," Liberty says. "There are going to be five beers (courtesy of Steinman) and Amanda Gieger (Hudsonville Pike 51 Brewing Co.) is going to come down from Grand Rapids."

Geiger is the Grand Rapids-area’s only master brewer, though other breweries such as Founders have women as associate brewers.

Geiger was also a featured speaker at last year’s Women in Brewing event hosted by Saugatuck Brewing Company, an outing the brewery plans to host again later this spring.

"We bring in women who are professionals in the area, we have some brewers who come in and they brew up front and we put the beer in 22 oz. bottles and sell it in the pub. All the proceeds from the sales go to Sylvia’s Place, a local shelter for abused women and children," Pruim says.

Saugatuck Brewing Company also offers brew-on-site classes, which Pruim says regularly attract women looking to get more involved in craft beer.

"It’s becoming more and more prevalent. Even stay-at-home moms who want a new hobby have been picking up home brewing," she says.

Though, as Cindee Tibbs and Bonnie Steinman have shown, brewing is only one aspect of craft beer where women have the opportunity to excel, Arcadia Ales’ nearly completed Kalamazoo brewing facility and tap room will soon testify to that as well.

Mardy Surprise of Portage is overseeing the building of the $6.2 million facility, which will be home to a 50-barrel brew house, bottling and canning lines, a restaurant and ample office and conference space.

"It’s a growing business in craft beer, and I hope more women are in there. Because it’s always better with more women," Suprise said in a recent interview with the Battle Creek Enquirer. Surprise went on to say that the industry needs more women both as consumers and as active and creative members on all levels of production. "I would like women to know that there are careers and opportunities in craft beer. And I hope that they seriously take a look at that and go for it."

Although the perception that the craft beer world was built for and by men is still prevalent, times clearly are changing and the women of the Southwest Michigan beer community are working proof.  

For more infomation on West Michigan Beer Tours' 'Women of West Michigan Beer Tour visit here

For More information on Saugatuck Brewing Company's Women in Craft Beer event visit here.
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