Ventura County Women Tap Into Brewing With Gusto
From head brewers to homebrewers, local women are hopping into making beer
Historically, brewing beer was one of the long list of domestic tasks left to women. That role changed in recent centuries with industrialization. As brewing became big business, the professional brewmasters tended to be men. These days, women are increasingly making their mark in the local craft beer community, stepping into key roles as head brewers, cellar workers and homebrewers.
Look around your nearest taproom and you’ll see plenty of women with pints in hand; a 2014 Nielsen report suggested women consume 32% of craft beer. But that same year a Stanford University study of 1,700 active breweries found only 4% had female head brewers or brewmasters. Nationally, women are acutely underrepresented in leadership roles in production breweries. In Ventura County, that tide is turning.
Of our 14 independent craft breweries, two have female head brewers and women increasingly fill different production roles in our commercial breweries. Women pursue brewing for the same reasons as men—love of beer and the skill required to make it—but they must overcome more barriers. I spoke with our county’s top female brewers to learn more about moving past the “guy’s job” stereotype.
In cat-eye glasses and Carhartt pants, Kim Leonard of Ventura’s Smoke Mountain Brewery greets me atop the western crestline of Rincon Mountain, where scorched citrus trees stand before singed live oaks, delineating the battle fought on Jill and Edward Darren Siple’s land during the Thomas Fire. New growth is already appearing at the aptly named mountaintop brewery, but some of the most significant renewal here has been bringing on Leonard to run the beer program.
Walking along a patio with the Los Padres National Forest in panoramic view behind her, Leonard recounts landing the job last year. She worked in production at Stone Brewing Co.—one of the 10 largest craft breweries in the U.S., according to a Brewery Association ranking—after earning her brewing education at UC Davis. Interested in returning to the Ventura area, where Leonard spent part of her childhood, she saw that Smoke Mountain was hiring.
“I almost didn’t apply for the job because they listed it as a head brewer position and that was very intimidating to me. I thought you had to be a head brewer to become a head brewer,” she says, restacking a bag of malt. The Siples, she says, were kind people who understood her education and experience, and said to her “We’ll grow together.”
As she showcases an insulated room stacked with barrels, Leonard describes recipes in development: a beer inspired by the Old Fashioned cocktail with English Strong Ale as the base style; a Japanese-style lager with pears cultivated onsite and toasted rice. Leonard supplements her technical training with creative vision, integrating her recipe ideas with the Smoke Mountain Brewery mission to create estate-grown beers sold through a subscription-based program.
Past beers have included Saison du Vin made with their Rincon Mountain Winery Viognier and Rincon Point Gose made with coriander, Santium hops and hand-harvested seawater.
In addition to developing innovative recipes and building a barrel program, Leonard points out where she hopes to grow a beer ingredient garden with herbs and fig trees. Together with the Siples, Leonard will utilize the barley, hops and wine grapes they grow in San Luis Obispo County to deliver specialty brews with onsite ingredients.
Forty-three miles east of Smoke Mountain, Head Brewer Brittany Brouhard runs a different kind of beer program. At Enegren Brewing Company in Moorpark, clean crisp lagers ferment at cold temperatures for weeks longer than quick-fermenting IPAs or Hefeweizens.
Brouhard, who also manages the laboratory, knows what it takes to make these nuanced beers because she started with Enegren in April 2016 in a cellar position (a general brewing industry term for someone who assists or manages in brew equipment cleaning and sanitation and brewing operations).
A homebrewer for 10 years, Brouhard and her husband co-own a brewery she helped open in Hawaii, flying back and forth between Moorpark and Maui every few weeks. Along with earning a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and sports medicine from California Lutheran University, Brouhard took courses in brewing at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago and at UC Davis. She is currently studying for her Certificate in Brewing and Diploma in Brewing through the Institute of Brewing and Distilling.
Enegren Brewing promoted Brouhard to assistant brewer after six months with the team. Around this time, Brouhard found out she was expecting a child, but chose to continue working in production until her 39th week of pregnancy. Asked why she worked so long in a physically demanding position, Brouhard says she loves her job and values the work she does.
Shattering any illusion of a beer-drinking burly workplace, owners Chris and Matt Enegren welcomed Brouhard to bring her daughter, Austyn, to work until she felt comfortable putting her in daycare. “Chris, and Enegren Brewing Company, are not just supportive but family-oriented,” she says.
In December, Brouhard was promoted to head brewer and currently oversees a shift toward lagering more beers. Brouhard enjoys the challenge of producing lagers. These refreshing beers don’t allow for any margin of error, she says, “because there is no way to mask off flavors.” The Maibock she is preparing now will be released at the beginning of April, in time for Enegren’s Frühlingsfest on April 21.
AND MORE WOMEN
In order to become a head brewer, you first need experience working a cellar position. Kali Bennett had to be persistent to land her job at Casa Agria Specialty Ales in Oxnard. Bennett learned to brew at home with her father and cut her teeth between Surf Brewery’s homebrew shop and Concrete Jungle Brewery.
Bennett says Casa Agria was her favorite brewery and she took a taproom position to get in the door. She had to make her intentions known and asked at every turn if she could help in the back. “And here I am,” she exclaims, “working as a cellar woman for my favorite brewery.”
Women are also increasingly visible in breweries’ front-of-house roles. Akira Dann does social media and works the taps at Leashless Brewing in Ventura, and is also an active homebrewer. Dann sees advantages to being a woman beer drinker and homebrewer: “I more often see women I know express interest in unique beer flavors and styles. This leaves us open to trying new things, and experimenting with different ingredients,” she says. Dann brews with locally foraged herbs like mugwort and yerba santa and uses wild yeast. “This gives me a great appreciation for my local terroir,” says Dann.
Other women homebrewers are helping to prove that brewing at home instead of a commercial brewery does not diminish quality. Georgia Flair of Ventura has garnered a reputation in our community for excellence. A frequent participant in homebrew competitions evaluated by certified judges, Flair medaled five times in four different West Coast competitions in 2017. Her winning styles include American Strong Ale, Eisbock, Specialty Cider and Vienna Lager. She has also grown hops at her home for the past three years, which she used last year to emulate Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Celebration, a fresh hop IPA.
Flair began brewing in 2006 in Portland, Oregon, in the midst of a local homebrewing boom. She took a hiatus to raise her son, and eventually moved to Ventura, where she started attending Ventura Independent Beer Enthusiast (VIBE) meetings with her husband. From their garage-converted-to-brewhouse, Flair continues to learn and improve. Asked whether being a female brewer gives her the upper hand, Flair says, “I think women are able to draw on subtle flavors and utilize adjuncts and additions that men might gloss over.” Beyond ingredients like fruit, she says, those include “malty flavors versus bitter flavors in beer and how I think lagers and other malty beers are a lost art, given the palate-pounding trend in hoppy or sour beers today.”
Flair laments that one disadvantage to being a woman brewer is that some-times when she attends beer-related activities people assume she is just accompanying her husband, but she pushes past it and lets her beers speak for themselves.
While more women gain employment in professional brewing or take up brewing as hobbyists, brewing remains male-dominated and the gender gap may be a difficult one to overcome. Bennett says women shouldn’t be intimidated by the physical strength required to brew, and that women in brewing are behind because of social constructs, not ability.
If you do encounter resistance, consider Bennett’s course of action: Get any job you can at your favorite brewery and be persistent about advocating for yourself. “I constantly put out my intentions of wanting to brew and learn from anyone willing to share,” she says. “Find someone willing to teach you and be willing to take their advice and get hands on.”
“It’s just a matter of time until more women realize we can work in whatever career we choose,” says Bennett. “I chose beer.”
HOP ON HOMEBREWING
Whether women (and men) are looking for a new hobby or to go pro, there are several ways to connect with our local beer-making community. Visit our local breweries, and check out our active and supportive homebrew clubs. Here you’ll find a community of like-minded people, friends and mentors:
Ojai Beer Barons
Simi Valley Home Brew
Thousand Oaked Homebrewers Club (TOaked) TOaked.com
Ventura Independent Beer Enthusiasts (VIBE) VIBEBeer.com
And some books to get you started, including recommendations by Kai Krupa, a homebrewer, chef and our Ventura County savory signature recipe contest winner in 2017, who identifies as gender-nonbinary:
Brew Better Beer: Learn (and Break) the Rules for Making IPAs, Pilsners, Stouts, and More, by Emma Christensen (Ten Speed Press, 2015)
How to Brew: Everything You Need to Know to Brew Beer Right the First Time, by John J. Palmer (Brewers Publications, 2006). The first edition is available free at HowToBrew.com; a fourth edition was released in 2017.
Radical Brewing: Tales and World-Altering Meditations in a Glass, by Randy Mosher, (Brewers Publications, 2004)