Going Against the Grain: Women homebrewers are on the rise in Baltimore
By By Anna Walsh
Oct 06, 2015 | 12:38 PM
Beer would be nothing without women brewers throughout history. So argues Tara Nurin in an article for Beer & Brewing magazine, in which she writes that archaeologists "agree on one thing: the vast majority of ancient brewers were women." Though women were responsible for starting the brew, they were often pushed out of the field across cultures once brewing became corporatized and organized. "At first, Egyptian brewing likely fell to the women of the house," she writes. "But records suggest that as 'production' breweries spread across Egypt, men replaced women as brewers, and those women were pushed into secondary roles." A similar thing happened in Germany in the 16th century when the ruling classes outlawed certain brewing additives and made it more expensive to brew: "Men reacted by building production breweries and forming international trade guilds. Law and custom kept women out of both."
"Especially once you look at 20th century brewing and post-Prohibition . . . it is definitely men-heavy," Laura Cohen tells me at a coffee shop in Mount Washington. That was part of the reason why she decided to create Lady Brew Baltimore, a "creative and collaborative space" for homebrewing that gives "women in particular an opportunity through this vehicle to do something and to take risks and to be supported."
Cohen began homebrewing five or six years ago, when she decided she needed a new creative outlet. "For a while I was the only person I knew that brewed," Cohen says. "And then I met a great group of men who became really good friends of mine and we all brewed together sometimes and learned different things. And then after about a year of that, I started to get inquiries from female friends of mine and then all of a sudden it became women I didn't know [who] were like, oh hey, I'd really like to learn how to do that."
Lady Brew Baltimore is distinct in that, instead of meeting to talk about homebrewing or swap tips, "we work in collaboration every step of the way," Cohen says, "so we decide on recipes and what kind of beer we want to make together, and then we brew the beer together, and then we all decide on creating labels and someone different creates the label each time, and then we bottle together, and then whenever we do homebrew competitions, we do it together." New members are thrown immediately into the mix: "You come and you've never done it before? That's cool, filter out the ingredients and decide what order they're gonna go in, and they're like, 'what?' and I'm like 'yeah it's gonna be great, do it!'" Cohen says.
Because it's a collaborative space meant to help women learn how to brew beer, "We usually have women who join the club and come for a few brew sessions, which is a few months, and then start coming less and less because they brew on their own, which is really the goal," Cohen says. Some women come for one brew cycle, and "there are some women who have come consistently for years now." She estimates that more than 50 people have come through the club across the years.
"The reason why brewing is so exciting, and homebrewing, is that you can make beer that doesn't exist, you can make something that isn't already out there and goes against the canon of beer, which is very exciting," Cohen says. "And so it's another way of going against the grain or going against what people say you can or cannot do." While many homebrewers and brewers tend to be conservative about what sort of ingredients they deign to use in beer, Cohen says, "I'm just like, 'Whatever! Whatever makes a really good dessert or cocktail or soup will make a great beer!' And just trying it out and not really being attached to perfection but it's about creativity and experimentation and trying new things." For Baltimore Beer Week's Chilibrew competition, which she helped to organize this year, Lady Brewers has entered a peanut butter and jelly beer: "We basically have a wheat beer that we've made with concord grapes, so that's like the bread and the jelly," she explains, "and then one of our lady brewers who's also an ice cream maker is making peanut butter ice cream and we're making little peanut butter beer floats."
Although Cohen only knew male homebrewers when she first started, "I think there is a shift," she says. Mike Andrews, the lead organizer for Chilibrew IX, writes in an email, "At least 18 of the 51 registered CB9 competitors are women" and at least six of the beers entered in the homebrew competition are brewed by women. Andrews has been a member of Baltibrew, another homebrew club in Baltimore, since January, "but even in that short amount of time, I've seen the group become less of a boys' club," he writes. (Full disclosure: CP contributor Ryan Detter is also a co-organizer of Chilibrew IX and is the "monthly meeting czar" for Baltibrew.)
Jill Antos, co-owner of Nepenthe Homebrew in Woodberry, says her customer base is "primarily men, but I would say they really only have a slight majority. This is our third year open, we've had such a surge of women getting involved in brewing
. . . I would say probably 60 percent men, 40 percent women." But Nepenthe isn't necessarily representative of overall homebrewing trends, she says: "The homebrewing industry has been growing consistently over the past decade or so. The industry nationwide has kind of slowed down, but we haven't, our customer base is constantly growing. And we're a little different than the traditional homebrew store, we tend to skew a little bit younger, a little bit more urban, we're in a more central city location, so we've got a much more diverse customer base than most stores in the area would." While the average homebrewer is 40 years old, according to a 2013 survey from the American Homebrewers Association, "20s, 30s is our primary customer base," she says. (The American Homebrewers Association survey did not include data on gender.)
For those looking to get into homebrewing, Nepenthe offers private classes with a brew on premises, and the owners are happy to help out beginners. "It's so fun—we call it a rabbit hole because it's like, the more you do it, the more interested you are, the more you want to learn about it, the more you want to advance," Antos says. "We always welcome new people, we love it when new people come in, we'll walk them through and show them everything that they need." Cohen has also put together a "homebrew quick guide" book for Lady Brew with illustrations and instructions that reflect her enthusiasm for the hobby. (In the ingredients glossary, she writes of additives, "Add to the boil! After cooling! Whenever! WOAH!") And for those interested in joining Lady Brew Baltimore, the group will next meet on Nov. 8 to brew a dark sour with butternut squash and sage.
"Yes, it's a place to come and learn how to brew beer," Cohen says of Lady Brew, "but it's also a really good DIY community that's about collaboration and recognizing each other's awesomeness and doing great things in the city."