Brew à la fem

Brewing is not a man's sport anymore as crafty women add a feminine edge

Saltspring Island Ales co-owner Becky Julseth (front left), with Claire Connolly, Aly Tomlin and brewer Heather Kilbourne.

Brewing is not a man’s sport anymore as crafty women add a feminine edge

In 1886, a woman named Alvina Peters arguably became the first female brewery manager in western Canada when she took over her late husband’s Vancouver Island creation, Empire Brewery, which had only opened a year earlier in an area known as Spring Ridge — now Fernwood.

Her succession only lasted a single year, after her brewery burned down in 1887. Yet almost 125 years later, women brewers and brew masters remain a rarity in the industry. And, despite feminine-first organizations like the Pink Boots Society, Barley’s Angels and Women Enjoying Beer fostering an environment of female community in brewing on the west coast, only a handful of women have leaped to the opportunity.

“Many of the things that held women back before are not obstacles now,” says Becky Julseth, co-owner of Saltspring Island Ales. “There are resources, training scholarships and a lot of support for getting more women into this industry.”

Saltspring Island Ales promotes fresh, handmade craft beer, with a feminine edge — of the six staff members, three are women, including brewer Heather Kilbourne. And while the group is known for its fine ales, Julseth says it doesn’t hurt that the group stands out at beer festivals; just not in the traditional way.

“I only know eight women in the entire brewing industry, so it’s novel to celebrate this and give women more than just a tight shirt and a pretty smile behind the counter,” says Julseth. “These women are in the back, making the beer … there’s a lot of hard physical work, but your ability to lift heavy things doesn’t make you a great brewer. Heather is about 125 pounds, but she’s not slowed down by anything.”

Julseth, 31, says she’s always been a beer enthusiast, but took over the brewery three years ago with her husband. And while she says people don’t always think she’s the owner — whether due to age or gender — she’s never experienced any type of brew discrimination. Murray Hunter remains the original brew master of Saltspring Island Ales, however, though he has been training Kilbourne for the last year.

“It’s a competitive industry and getting hired can be tough, for men or women, especially when you’re young but brewing is part basic kitchen chemistry, part magic,” says Julseth. “One neat thing women bring to the industry is a whole new array of tastes and palates — we’re seeing a greater variety of flavours that appeal to women consumers.”

When it comes to shifting the industry, Spinnakers is another brew industry saying cheers to feminine involvement. Kala Hadfield, daughter of owner Paul, has been trying her hand at brewing since last September. While she’s been involved with the brewpub since she was just a toddler, in a short 10 months she says she’s “getting stronger every day,” and is looking forward to one day forming her own craft beers.

“People have been so supportive, and it’s such an exciting time to be part of the craft beer industry, as it’s really starting to explode now,” says Hadfield. “It’s also fun to just be behind the scenes, getting dirty and learning from the masters.”

Hadfield, 28, agrees that women bring a new array of flavours to the industry. While she says she’s a “big hop head” herself who prefers IPAs, she believes myths still abound.

“A lot of women just decide they don’t like beer, but that could be because of the lesser-quality brews they’ve tried out there,” Hadfield says.

“There are just so many styles and flavours now, from fruity to chocolate, that if they just come down to try some, almost anyone can find a fit.” M

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