Hip microbreweries have cemented their place in North Carolina's recent history, dotting formerly vacant warehouse districts and lining the perimeters of urban centers in more than 170 locations around the state. And most of them are run by men.
But within the suburban splendor of Holly Springs, flanked by cul-de-sacs and Food Lion supermarkets, Bombshell Beer Company has quietly carved out a herstory all its own.
The three-year-old brewery is North Carolina's only 100 percent all-female-owned microbrewery—with all female brewers.
Historically, the first humans known to ferment libations from barley were women in ancient Mesopotamia thousands of years ago. Today, the industry is overwhelmingly male-dominated; women make up thirty-two percent of brewers nationwide.
Catapulted by this revelation, longtime home brewer Ellen Joyner decided to do something about it. Since 2005 she had been experimenting with home brews. By 2011, she applied the "each one teach one" approach by sharing her skills with a friend, Michelle Miniutti. Within a year, they were producing twenty gallons of beer or more per week at Miniutti's house.
"We brewed a lot outside in my garage," remembers Miniutti. "Neighbors would stop and stare and wonder what we were doing."
The two friends would host blind taste tests against established local breweries and found that people often preferred their beer over the competition.
The seeds of Bombshell Beer Company were planted in these early stages. The brewery opened in 2013 with the addition of a third owner, Jackie Hudspeth, a longtime friend.
"We lived in the same neighborhood," says Hudspeth. "One day they asked me if I wanted to help them start this brewery, and it only took me about five seconds to say yes."
- Courtesy of Bombshell Beer Company
- Bombshell Beer Company's three owners: Michelle Miniutti, Jackie Hudspeth, and Ellen Joyner
The brewery sits in a lot off Quantum Drive in Holly Springs. Its taproom welcomes visitors with a simple color palette of beige and maroon, flat-screen televisions, and its logo of a pinup girl toasting a pint glass, which occupies one wall. The interior occupancy caps at seventy, with modest outdoor picnic-table seating. Bombshell gives off more of a comfy, neighborhood vibe than the modern approach of Carolina Brewery, the veteran operation just two miles down the road. Miniutti calls their relationship friendly, which is a common refrain among brewers across the state.
"Craft breweries are like siblings," she says. "We're competitive, and everybody steps up their game, but we all want to support each other and see each other succeed."
For Miniutti and her partners, Bombshell's success depends on mastering the craft for a quality product. The brewery serves six to eight different drafts at a time. Head Over Hops IPA, its most popular, is big and brash. It jumps with quick early notes of citrus that smooth over into a bitter finish, boasting a fuller mouthfeel than other tap beers. Rounding out the lineup of drafts is the Starlight Ale, the Spell Caster Black Ale, the Full Jar Pale Ale, the Hop Tease Session IPA, and, my personal favorite, the Strawberries & Cream Summer Ale. Each well-balanced beer is unlike the one before it.
"The demand for craft beer is fickle," says Miniutti. "People are constantly craving a new style of beer. The market is hard to satisfy because you can produce so many different flavor profiles within one beer."
Like its statewide predecessors, the brewery functions as a fun, fluid community center of sorts, hosting several events and local fundraisers.
The three women divide the work to make sure each pulls her own weight—literally. Miniutti, who primarily does the company's marketing, jokes about Hudspeth's day-to-day role as the distribution manager.
"It's like she does CrossFit all day! She's five-foot-three, but she has all this muscle because she moves around 165-pound kegs all day."
Along with the physical demands of running a business, Hudspeth and Miniutti are also mothers, who must balance irregular hours with family obligations. But it's nothing daunting. The owners have collectively made it one of Bombshell's missions to encourage other women to follow their dreams regardless of gender stereotypes.
"I was brought up being taught that I could do anything," says Joyner. "Going into a 'man's world' didn't faze me. I hope [that] starting Bombshell shows other women not to let gender get in the way."
Miniutti hopes they can bring more women into the craft beer world. She cites Raleigh Brewing Company (the first North Carolina brewery with a female CEO) and Charlotte's Birdsong Brewery as models in matriarchal brewing. She also points to Kim Jordan, cofounder of the longstanding and celebrated New Belgium Brewing Company, which recently opened up a distribution center in Asheville. Jordan has helped grow her business in paramount ways: in 2012, New Belgium was listed as the third-largest craft brewery, and eighth-largest overall brewery, in the country.
Bombshell plans to keep experimenting with brewing techniques to give beers added dimensions of flavor, like producing barrel-aged beers and sourcing local coffee for stouts.
"I think women are more interested in beer because craft beer is more interesting to drink," says Miniutti, "and we're grateful to be a part of this developing industry."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Gender Bender"