What pulled you sideways from the business world into brewing?
I was a COBOL programmer back in the eighties. In college, I picked my major because that was the only thing hiring. We were in a serious recession, similar to now. I remember thinking “I don’t really know what I want to do when I grow up, but if I can get a job, I can save up some money so when I figure it out, I can go back to school.”
I was with Honeywell, then I was with Burroughs, which became Unisys, which at the time was a Fortune 100 company (now it’s nothing). I was in software services and software support.
But I realized when I was working there that it wasn’t really a good fit. I’m a people person; setting me in a corner and saying “Here: code” was like making me into an accountant. If I sit in a corner too long dealing with abstract things, my brain isn’t too happy.
There was a division in the company called marketing support. This is the person who is the bridge between the field person and the software person who made the custom computer code. I spoke both those “languages,” so I could support the marketing person, and still understand all the technical stuff.
Well, they wouldn’t give me the job! Finally, my manager said, “The truth is that my department is under a hiring freeze, and if I let you transfer, I’m not allowed to replace you. I need the body.” And I go, “I’m not that good over here!” He goes, “Doesn’t matter, it’s you or no one.” I was stymied.
Meanwhile, I’d been homebrewing for three years. I’d been saving all my extra money and thought I’d do something really wacky, something from my homebrewing hobby. So I attended the American Homebrewers Conference in Denver in ‘88. At the time, the Great American Beer Festival was held in conjunction with the AHA. I met Charlie Papazian, I met Michael Jackson, and I met John Maier [now the head brewer at Rogue] who at the time was the brewmaster at Alaskan Brewing. He tells me “I was a senior aircraft technician for Hughes Aircraft in LA, then I attended the Siebel Institute in Chicago.”
I thought, Oh my gosh, if he can make the jump from high tech into brewing and survive financially, so can I. But what’s Siebel?
At the time, there were only two options for brewing school: one was the Siebel Institute in Chicago, and the other was getting a masters in fermentation from U.C. Davis.
Then I go to the GABF—it was small, there were probably all of 20 medal winners—and I watched this little woman, smaller than me, her name was Mellie Pullman, and she was the head brewer for Schirf Brewing Co. in Park City, UT, and she won a medal. And I thought, if she can do the job physically, so can I.
I told my parents on the phone “I might become a brewer!” They said “I don’t know, honey, you’ve got a pretty good job.” Now they don’t even remember that conversation: they say “Honey, we supported you from Day One.” They don’t remember trying to tell me I was going to go broke. But I was stubborn. I decided to go to the Siebel institute for the diploma course.
I didn’t even want to try for an assistant brewer’s position. I’m pretty small, and I knew they’d take one look at me and say “I can hire my nephew Louie who’s an ex-body-builder for that job. Why should I hire this little girl?” I figured I’ll just use my brain instead of my brawn. There’s a way around everything.
I was nervous about my ability to fulfill all the requirements, because I didn’t have a food science or brewing background. All the other people on the course were professional brewers already who were coming for fine-tuning, and I didn’t have their background or experience. But the instructors said, well, we have a study room and library, you can stay late to ask questions and we’re happy to help you.
I didn’t want to screw up my job, just in case I didn’t cut the mustard. I went to my boss and asked for a three-month leave of absence, but they said no. I said, “You can’t replace me, but you won’t give me a leave of absence?” They said no. So I gave them my notice. And I’d just gotten employee of the month!
I loved Siebel. I was their first woman class president, which was cool. I went into that class, and I was the only craft brewer in the class.: 24 people, and just two other people were paying their own way. Everybody else worked for a large brewery somewhere in the world. I walk in there, and the first thing they’re asking each other is “What brands do you make?” I said, “I don’t make brands, I make styles.” They said, “What’s that?”
I said, “You know, styles of beer, different kinds of beer.” They said, “What are you talking about? There’s only beer and there’s brands.” So I realized, I’ve got to educate my own classmates. None of these people had ever brewed a batch of beer! They ran computer equipment that brewed the beer, or they were in packaging and needed to learn about ingredients. To them, beer was just the liquid you put in the bottles and cans, and they needed to learn more about it in order to move up in management.
I said, “Have any of you guys homebrewed? Have you tasted your ingredients? Have you smelled it?”
“No, we’ve got these giant bins, it’s all automated, we just punch it on the computer and that’s how we make beer.”
“I think it would be good for some of you guys to actually brew a beer.” Siebel had a small pilot system, so I said “Who wants to make a class beer? What kind of beer do you want to make?” “Oh, whatever.” I thought, they still don’t get it. We did an Oktoberfest, which was handleable.
“Have you ever been to a brewpub or a microbrewery?” I asked them. “What’s that?” “Well, there’s three of them in Chicago, and we’re going to all three.” So I organized rides, tours. Because I was this grand organizer, they elected me president. I had to give the speech at graduation!
You spent five months in 2007 on the road pulling a trailer and visiting breweries. What was the biggest thing you took away from that trip?
I visited 70 breweries and brewed at 38. There are all these friends like Garrett Oliver I see at conferences, and I thought how cool it would be to visit them on their home turf, see their breweries, and even put on the boots and brew with them. I asked my husband, Jon, about it, and he said, “Oh, honey, you’ve got to do it. It’s so you.”
What I took away from this was that brewers and the industry as a whole is so generous and so giving. People I’d never met before invited me into their homes and their lives. It made me proud to be part of this group, and humbled by their generosity and thoughtfulness.
Last year, you founded the Pink Boots Society for women in brewing. How different is the experience of a woman in the field of brewing? What do women bring to brewing?
For the first 10 years of my career, most of the time I was the only woman sitting at the table. And I felt very responsible to represent my gender. I felt I had to be more professional—more everything—because I didn’t want anyone to say, “Well, I don’t want to give her a chance because she’s a woman, or she’s short, or not as physically strong.” I wanted, if possible, to impress my male peers with my professionalism and my beers, to the point that they would want to hire women. As a matter of fact, Fal Allen told me that he specifically hired women brewers because he knew me and had learned I could do the job.
When I was looking for my first brewing job out of Siebel, it was tough. There was several people who are now friends—no names!—who have probably blocked these incidents out. But I interviewed with one man, and his question to me was “Can you carry a full half barrel up a flight of steps?” I said “No, but I would use a hand truck or setup a winch system. And to be honest, I think it would be dangerous for anyone to be carrying a 160 pound barrel up a flight of stairs.” And this person said, “I’m sorry, it’s not necessary for me to interview you further, because that’s a job requirement here.”
I went to another unnamed brewery, and I heard years later that as soon as I left the room, one guy turned to the one who told me the story and said “Do you think women can actually brew good beer?”
Who actually hired me was a company that had taken over a brewpub that had gone out of business, and they had no idea that this was such a physical job. They saw my resume, they needed a trained brewer, and they gave me the job. These people were just investors, and they didn’t have a clue. I’m looking at this 10 barrel all-grain system and translating my little extract recipes. It took me a little while to work it out and get the beers on tap, but when I did, I said to the general manager, we need to have a grand opening where I can invite all the other professional brewers in the Bay Area so we can taste each others’ beers.
So I invited them, this group I thought of as my peers, and they came and tasted my beers, and all most all of them came up at some point during the gathering and shook my hand and said “Your beers are good.” I didn’t realize it, but that was my initiation into the brewers’ club. Up until that point, I had been considered a wannabe, and I didn’t even know it.
So things have changed a lot, but there’s still a need for the Pink Boots Society?
There is. When I went on my trip, unbeknownst to me, a lot of the people who invited me to stop in did so because they had young women brewers. They didn’t tell me, and they didn’t tell the young women, but I showed up and they’d say, “Oh, you’re working with Laura today.”
Stone [Brewing Co, CA] was the first one. Laura Ulrich, we’re hanging out, and she’s asking all these career questions. She bought me dinner there at the Stone Bistro, and it was almost like she didn’t want to let me go. I remember she said these words, “Teri, I didn’t realize I was missing anything until I met you.” That sent shivers up my spine. She said “I didn’t know there was another woman brewer in the whole world. And you’re telling me there are, and I want to connect with them.” How can you not reach out to someone like that?
That’s where the seed was sown. All my career, reporters have asked me how many women brewers there are, and I had no idea. But as I went across the country, I started asking people and adding names to a list.
When I left Steelhead to go on the road, I had to dream up a new persona. So I became The Road Brewer, and I found a pair of pink boots to wear, so when I walk on site, here’s the girls’ color, pink, and rubber boots, the icon of the brewer.
Now, I’ve got this list of women brewers, and I thought, let’s call this the Pink Boots Society. The vibe was so positive, I thought, I have to do this for these young women and for all the others I’ve never even met. They inspired me to form the Pink Boots Society to inspire them and other young women like them.