“Take No Shit and Make Good Beer”: Denver’s Women Brewers and the Disruption of a Male-Dominated Industry

Lisa Ingarfield | @tritodefi

Denver, and Colorado more broadly, is a veritable candy store of craft breweries. For those of us who love exploratory, interesting beers or just a well-crafted stout, Denver is a wonderland. According to the Brewer’s Association, Colorado ranks third with 7.3 breweries per capita. Its craft beer scene has exploded in the last five years, rising from 126 in 2011 to 284 in 2015. In fact, nationally, the United States has seen a sharp increase in new breweries since 2008 after decades of stagnancy. In 2016, there were 5301 breweries in the U.S.

Male-Dominated Industry 

Despite this dramatic increase in breweries at a local and national level, the number of women brewers is still minimal. The Pink Boots Society, a national organization with chapters across the country, works to support women in brewing. They offer educational seminars, teach each other what they know, and provide educational scholarships. FemAle Brew Fest put on by the Fem Collective is a community of women supporting the missions, issues, and ambitions of women in brewing and another resource for women in the trade. The Brew Fest was hosted in Fort Lauderdale, Florida over Memorial Day weekend and featured thirteen women brewers from across the U.S. including Denver’s own Great Divide Brewing.

Steve Kurowski, the marketing and operations director at the Colorado Brewers Guild shares it is difficult to track the number of women involved in the brewing industry, as this is not information the Guild or the Brewer’s Association gathers. Anecdotally, Kurkowski has noticed a dramatic change in the last ten years, with women flooding into the brewing career market. He acknowledges while the brewing industry in Colorado is finding and seeing more women getting into all aspects of craft beer from production to the lab, women hired as brewers, lead or otherwise, is more unique.

Bess Dougherty, Head Brewer at Grateful Gnome Sandwich Shoppe and Brewery

Bess Dougherty, Head Brewer at Grateful Gnome Sandwich Shoppe and Brewery

According to Bess Dougherty, the head brewer for the Grateful Gnome Sandwich Shoppe and Brewery, there were ten women brewers in Denver proper by her last (informal) count. Dougherty believes one of the reasons for the low number of women in brewing is the male dominated field. “I think any time someone enters a group that is overwhelmingly one type and you are in the minority, things are going to be more challenging.”

Can we go beyond the anecdotal to glean concrete info on women in the craft brewing industry? Why yes, broads, we can:

The Brewer’s Association references 2014 research by Stanford faculty which showed 17% of craft breweries had at least one woman CEO but only 3% were sole CEOs. This same research noted only 4% of 1,717 craft breweries included in the study had a woman as their head brewer/brewmaster.  In addition to the low numbers of women working and brewing in the industry, women are underrepresented as consumers of craft beer. According to the Brewer’s Association, in 2016, about 25% of women consumed beer and craft beer weekly compared to 75% of men. Of those women who do drink craft beer weekly, a whopping 72% of them felt like the beer industry treated them as an afterthought.

Broads Brewin’ It: Lady Justice Brewing

Photo Caption: Lady Justice Brewing Better World Blonde Ale their first brew ever as LJB. (By the way, it’s delicious.)

Photo Caption: Lady Justice Brewing Better World Blonde Ale their first brew ever as LJB. (By the way, it’s delicious.)

In researching this article, I had the great fortune of discovering Lady Justice Brewing. When I learned about this brewery, I squealed with joy! This is no exaggeration. Not only are they entirely women established, women owned, and women run, they are a community supported brewery (CSB). This means they sell brewery memberships for six months and every month of a membership cycle, members receive a 22oz bottle of their beer. Members also get to try special batches and provide feedback and input. But that’s not even the best part. What is most fantastic about Lady Justice, is all their net profits go to a scholarship program for organizations supporting women and girls in Colorado. How. Cool. Is. That?!

Owners Kate Power, Betsy Lay, and Jen Cuesta met while working at Peace Jam, and currently all have “day jobs,” brewing mostly on the weekends. They wanted to “do” brewing differently, and the CSB model made sense. As Power identified, people in Denver value giving back to their community.

L to R: Cuesta, Power, and Lay

L to R: Cuesta, Power, and Lay

Lady Justice has been fully operational since September 2016 and when I visited, they were brewing a golden ale, commissioned for NARAL Colorado’s golden anniversary gala held in Denver in late April. Each year they make two to three beers dedicated to strong women; their Sandra Day IPA is one example. Lady Justice was also one of five Denver women brewers contributing to the Pussy Riot Makin’ Noise beer series released around the presidential inauguration in January. In both the Pussy Riot beer and their strong (women) beers, they brew using hops called “Warrior Hops.”

Lady Justice recently awarded their first round of grants supported through their community membership business strategy. The grant recipients included three Denver girls wishing to attend the World Hoops Academy, an organization serving girls who play basketball in the Denver Metro area. They gave additional awards to three local Denver organizations working to support the success of women and girls: Women’s Wilderness Girls’ Program, Hope in our City Youth Leadership Program, and the Good Neighbor Garage program of Hands of the Carpenter

“Take No Shit and Make Good Beer”

Lay, the main brewer of the LJB crew, talked about some of the struggles they have had as women in the beer industry, but also about how much the community has embraced them: “In Denver we are lucky because there have been enough women brewers who are already established and have dealt with a majority of what women brewers have to deal with” like homebrew stores making assumptions about what the LJB women knew, or individuals surprised to learn women are the brewers and not men.

Lay points to how women are portrayed in beer commercials or used as props to sell beer at bars as examples of the gender problem in the beer industry. “There’s gender discrimination in every field and industry, beer is not an exception” says Lay. “For us it was about tapping into a community of women who were willing to help us out.” These same women, Lay and Power share, had already experienced their fair share of sexism and were able to provide support to LJB on how to navigate it. Lay’s advice to women brewers just starting out is to “take no shit and make good beer.” Nuestra and Power agree. Lady Justice Brewing is combining its love of brewing good beer with a desire to positively change the community--a unique strategy and one helping to change lives and satisfy the taste buds. Women brewing great beer and then paying those profits forward to benefit girls and women in Denver? Yeah, we broads can get behind that.  If you are interested in getting a CSB membership, check out LJB’s  Facebook page, or sign up for their email list via their website.

When asked what tips she had for Denver women interested in getting into brewing, Bess Dougherty responded, much like Lay from LJB: “Just do it. Seriously. Do it… Engage in online forums to talk about your beer, share stories and pics from your brewery. I have found just being vocal in sharing what I do and how much I love it has helped inspire other folks (women and men) to take the leap into brewing themselves.”

So there you go ladies, roll up your brewing sleeves and jump right in. While the women’s brewing community might be small, it sure is mighty and comes with a side of social justice.