- 2007 Jon Kelley
- Michele Lowney, one of only a few female brewers in the nation, keeps Phantom Canyons taps flowing.
With an e-mail address that begins with "beerwench," it's clear that Phantom Canyon's Michele Lowney takes a lighthearted approach to being one of the few female head brewers in the nation.
Were the fact not posed to her in conversation, she'd be the last person to point it out. Like most ale crafters, she's just a laid-back person who loves beer enough to endure the physically intensive process of making it for a living.
In the male-dominated, sexist-marketing-driven industry that is beer-making, Lowney stands within the 1 to 2 percent of brewers who are female. Though nobody's officially counted, Paul Gatza, director of the national Brewers Association, speculates there may be only 25 female head brewers in the country. That number might increase to 50 if you include assistant brewers and women in other lead brewery capacities.
That's throughout 1,419 U.S. brewpubs and breweries, as counted just 2 months ago by the Brewers Association. Colorado alone hosts two large-scale breweries (Coors and Anheuser-Busch), five regional microbreweries, 18 localized breweries and nearly 75 brewpubs, putting itself at the vanguard of U.S. brewing, along with California and Oregon.
Via word of mouth and a handful of phone calls, the Independent was able to positively ID only 15 female head brewers, from Carol Stoudt at Stoudt's Brewing Co. in Adamstown, Pa. who emerged in 1986 as the first female brewer in the U.S. since the prohibition era to Teri Fahrendorf at Steelhead Brewing Co.'s Eugene, Ore., location, now in her 19th year as a West Coast beer pioneer.
"It's the first-wave pioneers that usually get shot," Fahrendorf jokes, deferring credit back to Mellie Pullman. The former head of Schirf Brewing Co. in Park City, Utah, Pullman inspired Fahrendorf with her victories at the 1988 Great American Beer Festival (GABF). "The second-wave pioneers usually survive and get the credit," she says.
Talk of those who came before seems to be standard water-cooler (or mash-kettle) fare. Even the men are clear on whose shoulders they stand: Women brewed the beer in 15th- and 16th-century England and Scotland. Even as late as the 18th century, 80 percent of licensed brewers in the U.K. were women.
"It was the Industrial Revolution that ultimately ended the cottage industry run by the alewives," explains Lowney, who interned in Scotland for two winters in '02 and '03. It was a woman's duty to brew for her household at the time, even taxes could be paid in beer to the churches, which then would resell it to travelers, she says.
"Everyone who has any knowledge of beer history is aware that women were the brewers until men realized that money could be made at it," confirms Gatza.
Then greed and mass production set in, and along came Schlitz. Well, it's not exactly that easy to sum, but you get the idea.
Hebrews and Shebrews
Regardless of gender, brewers are stereotyped. Common presumption says they wear Carhartts and baseball caps and are outdoorsy, adventurous people. Brewers in the West are usually skiers and kayakers. Universally, they're chill.
Scott Niemeier, former head Il Vicino brewer, says "the typical brewer as I envision him is a 35-year old white male often a hippie."
The 38-year-old Lowney agrees with the white part, and says the typical age tends to range from 26 to 40. But, she adds, the demographic beyond that is quite diverse. She only knows a couple hippie brewers, and more rock 'n rollers.
These are relatively harmless stereotypes, compared with those that many female brewers have faced while earning spots inside the competitive trade. Fahrendorf ran into veiled resistance in her early years, getting weeded out of interviews by being asked to perform unrealistic tasks.
"One guy asked if I could carry a 160-pound half-barrel up a set of stairs," she says. "Nobody should ever carry one that way."
And from a handful of memorable comments from bar customers, she recalls the time a man said to her: "You're the brewer? But, this beer is good."
She's always taken it in stride.
"They expect you to be a 200-pound German guy with a handlebar mustache or something," she jokes. But she says that ever since her first batch of beer went over well in Berkeley, Calif. earning handshakes and congratulations by a roomful of male brewers at a tasting she's been part of the "old brewers network the old boy network."
Lowney, a New York City native, says she's never directly experienced discrimination as a woman, and has only positive comments about the men she's learned from and worked with. She says she laughs off most of the towel-popping, ass-grabbing behavior. "Boys are going to be boys they never grow up.
"But I don't take things personally. You can't get offended easily [in brewing]."
Tommyknocker Brewing Co.'s Steve Indrehus with whom Lowney also interned for a brief stint in Idaho Springs describes the male-dominated brewing industry as "not a warm and fuzzy place to work. It's an industrial situation, a physical job, and it's fraternal to a certain degree. Some women can handle that environment, but not very many."
He adds that Lowney is an example of a "thick-skinned" woman who obviously can, because of her "tough personality."
Niemeier, who wanted to hire Lowney over nearly 10 male candidates at Il Vicino before his departure and her selection of Phantom Canyon, says all the stereotypes about female brewers are nonsense.
"Absolutely, women can do the job," Niemeier says. "People always talk about the heavy lifting and heat, but it's also a lot of hanging around and talking beer, which a lot of people tire of. You really have to be passionate about brewing to do it."
Jordy Dralle, currently of Second Street Brewery in Santa Fe, N.M., believes she may have been passed over for a couple jobs in the 15 years that she's been brewing, since "it's kind of a man's world and they relate more and are more likely to hire [a man]." But she thinks things are different today than they were, say, 10 years ago.
"All the men I've worked with have been really supportive," she says, "and if it weren't for many of them, I wouldn't be in this business at all."
Salt Lake City, Utah's Jennifer Talley, at Squatters Pub & Brewery, has been brewing for 16 years and cites Fahrendorf as one of her mentors. She says that aside from sparse inconsiderate customer comments, her brewing experience has been "excellent everyone's been incredibly welcoming and inclusive." She thinks many of the guys are just happy to have a girl to talk beer with. "And as long as the beer tastes good," she says, "there's never been a problem."
From beasts to yeasts
Next time you really enjoy a brew at Phantom, thank the Clinton administration. The government's spotty support for some environmental agencies left Lowney, originally a wildlife biologist in Idaho, unable to obtain a permanent position in her field. (She originally went to school to be a veterinarian.)
Lowney decided to switch careers and, in 1999, she attended the Siebel Institute of Technology and World Brewing Academy in Chicago, the premier brew school from which Fahrendorf had graduated years before.
Lowney's extensive prior studies of chemistry and biology gave her a leg up when it came to many of brewing's precise practices.
From Siebel, Lowney spent a year in Frisco County, being a "snowboard bum," before heading to Maine to brew for three summers at Bar Harbor's Atlantic Brewing Co. During the winters, she studied in Scotland. Lowney came to Colorado and worked at Boulder's Mountain Sun Brewery between 2004 and 2005, then landed in the Springs.
In some respects, she's still a snow bum. Though she left her board behind for skis, she's joined the Copper Mountain Alpine team. Still in her first year, she's already beating veteran racers many of them men in the giant slalom. She'll find out at a March 11 race whether she'll make nationals. In the summers, she kayaks, hikes and rock climbs, enjoying outdoor and extreme-type hobbies that she says many brewers pursue.
"All artists are an off breed," she says, arguing that brewing itself is artistic in nature. "I also do some photography. A lot of brewers are musicians. [We're] usually intense people."
Where from here?
Should brewery patrons and the beer world at large prepare for an onslaught of goggle- and galosh-wearing women in the coming years?
"The number of female brewers seems to be increasing," says the Brewing Association's Gatza.
Second Street's Dralle agrees. She remembers only five or so female brewers when she got her start. "As more women get into brewing and others see that we can do this, I think they won't feel intimidated," she says.
Fahrendorf notes an abundance of women outside the brewery but in other beer-related fields. "There are female judges at the GABF and in administrative positions at the schools ... in the labs, in auxiliary fields and at large breweries," she says, adding that lots of women have superb palates and know beer, even though they're not brewers.
Again, highlighting the support of many males in the industry, Lowney says she's often heard men say, "We could use more women."
When asked if they had ever considered forming an alliance, a club or even a Web site for female brewers, all of the women acknowledged they'd entertained such thoughts, at least. But everyone's busy.
"It would be kind of neat to get to know each other, even if it were just a girls' night out at [an annual] brewers conference," says Lowney.
Fahrendorf thinks if women had not been treated as equals by men over the years, "[they'd] have had a greater drive to band together."
"I wouldn't be opposed to it," says Dralle. "Not necessarily to set ourselves apart, but it's nice to have a common bond."
If it happens, though, don't expect any kitschy "Girls Kick Ass" sweatshirts and bumper stickers to emerge from the event. They are beyond any girl-power moments and legitimately, now and hopefully forever, members of the boys' club. After all, in many respects they're the original brewers; this was their club first.
Damn right, the beer is good a woman made it.