If someone were to walk into a brewhouse in North Carolina one hundred and fifty years ago, it would most likely be an actual house, and the brewmasters would be women.
Women in brewing has something of a hidden history. But at the second annual Biere de Femme all-women beer festival on Saturday at the Raleigh Beer Garden, it's going to be difficult to ignore women's contributions.
On several mornings throughout January and February, female and nonbinary teams took over the North Carolina breweries where they work to prep for Biere de Femme. The teams—including brewers, bartenders, managers, marketers, and lab tech staff—brewed a variety of styles, from a spicy Vienna lager to a tart peach grisette.
The first Biere de Femme (and first all-female brewer festival of its kind) took place last March in Shelby, N.C. Two months later, the first FemAle Brew Fest was held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and more are in the works all over the country. Biere de Femme is put on by the N.C. chapter of the Pink Boots Society, an Oregon-based nonprofit that supports women in the brewing industry. Proceeds go toward scholarships for women in the field.
On the morning of Friday, January 26, the women of Mystery Brewing Company in Hillsborough got together to brew beer, not unlike any other day in the predominately women-run brewhouse.
Four female brewers work at Mystery on a regular basis, which makes the brewery an outlier in an industry where only 4 percent of brewmasters are women, according to a 2014 study by Stanford University that looked at 1,700 active breweries.
"The truck drivers are kind of funny because they walk in and always expect a bearded dude and find women," says Amanda Lee Scherle, packaging manager at Mystery. "We say that [owner] Erik [Myers] probably has an honorary uterus because it's a much more sensitive place."
For the festival, Mystery's office manager, Brittany Judy, came up with the idea to brew a golden ale with cinnamon that's meant to be reminiscent of churros, which they plan to serve alongside a chocolate dessert. They named their beer Domestic Goddess, partially inspired by Nigella Lawson's feminist baking book and partly because a few members of their brew team are serious bakers.
"I liked the idea of highlighting that brewing [has] been very male-dominated for a long time, and yet it's such a basic part of baking and brewing and doing all of these things that are typically considered domestic," says Judy. "We wanted to play on that a little bit and bring out the goddess in the world of brewing, so to speak."
The idea for Biere de Femme came from Jordan Boinest, co-owner of Newgrass Brewing in Shelby. During a Pink Boots brainstorming session on how to raise more scholarship funds, Boinest developed the idea, along with Caroline Parnin, Anita Riley, and many others, to make the festival an annual event. Proceeds from last year's festival enabled Smith, who brews for Highland, to take a trip to Germany. There she met and toured with Sister Doris of Mallersdorf Abbey, who is essentially the torchbearer of Germanic abbey brewing.
Last year, Riley released Brewing Ambition, a book of recipes and stories from the women of N.C. craft beer. While speaking to women brewers during the book's research process, one thing that surprised her were the myriad strengths they bring to the table.
"I think it just paints a picture of how many opportunities there are within this industry for all sorts of women, whether it's a trademark lawyer, an executive director of an alliance group or marketing group, a brewer or office manager," she says. "All of these skill sets are really valuable and important. Someone may love craft beer, but think, 'Oh I can't be a brewer, so I can't do this job.' That's not true."
More than thirty beers have been brewed for Biere de Femme. The event also features a demonstration by Riverbend Malt House, sensory training by Oskar Blues Brewery, and music by Melodic AF.
But what helps distinguish it from other beer fests is a little history lesson from Erin Lawrimore, university archivist at UNC Greensboro, who has been researching the state's history of women in beer. Lawrimore will bring copies of early N.C. beer recipes to the festival, which she found in cookbooks from the early- and mid-1800s.
While researching for Well Crafted NC, a UNC-G library project covering the breadth of beer history, she discovered a rough timeline of women in beer that dates back to before the 1800s. In the beginning, women brewed beer at home, with ingredients like spruce and molasses, but later got squeezed out of brewing operations altogether during industrialization. But more recently, in the 1980s, women pushed back into the industry. In 2013, Bombshell Beer Company opened as the first all-woman-owned brewery in the state.
Biere de Femme begins at 1 p.m. for VIP ticket holders ($75), and opens at 2 p.m. for general admission ($45). Guests will receive a commemorative glass and beer samples from all of participating breweries. VIP guests will have an additional hour to sample, with a dedicated VIP area, special bottle pours, and light appetizers.
"I'm not sure I would use the word 'change,' but it's celebrating what's there," Lawrimore says of Biere de Femme.
"I think there are a lot of people who think that you have to have a giant, bushy beard to brew beer, and an event like this is an awesome opportunity to prove that that's not the case. There is going to be some dang tasty beer at this thing, and it's all brewed by women."