Talking With OC's Woman Brewers: The Grit and the Glamour
A one-ton pallet of grain arrives outside the Tustin Brewing Company. All 40 sacks must be carried one at a time up the long flight of stairs for storage. Any glamour associated with beer brewing quickly drowns in the sweat of the brewer's brow. The work is so grueling and so time consuming that the grain distributors hide candy bars in between the sacks of barley and wheat for whoever must lug the 2,200 pounds of grain from one place to another -- typically the assistant brewer.
But at Tustin Brewing Co., the assistant brewer isn't the typical burly beast of a man that most people imagine when they imagine a brewer; it's 5-foot-tall Tina Thompson.
For the past eight months, Thompson has been the only assistant to head brewer Jerrod Larsen. At Tustin Brewing Co., brew days begin at 5 a.m., and although Thompson despises waking up early for anything, she jumps out of bed to brew.
"It's physical work and it's hard work but I think it's really rewarding," Thompson says. "At the end of the day, you're like 'Wow, I worked my butt off,' but it feels good."
The oldest record of the brewing process dates back to Ancient Egypt, where women--not men--were depicted in hieroglyphics as brewers. This ancient recipe of mixing barley and water in a kettle have nourished the men from the pyramids of Giza to the pastures of the US, and it was all at the hands of women.
Women in America have slowly started inching their way back into the world of beer after getting pushed out during the Industrial Revolution, when men and machines took over. In recent history, everything from female brewing organizations to the variety of beer styles have helped nudge women closer and closer toward craft beer.
There are various clubs where women meet in Southern California, but the most notable all-women organization stretches worldwide: The Pink Boots Society. Originally founded specifically for women working in the beer industry, the Pink Boots Society now also recruits more women into talking about, drinking, and brewing craft beer.
The Dix's garage brewery, MAD Brewery
Photo by Cleo Tobbi
Kristie Dix lives in a pleasant housing community that overlooks a serene lake in Mission Viejo. She has a number of hobbies, including cooking, hosting Bible study, and brewing her own beer.
Her skills in the kitchen feed her family heartily and that talent spilled over when the mother of three decided to pick up brewing about two years ago. It all began when Dix's youngest son, Joshua, bought her a simple brewing kit for Christmas from Williams Sonoma.
"[The grain] was expired so we returned it, did a Groupon from Midwest Brewing and they sent us two whole kits on accident," says Dix. "They said to keep it so we laughed and [I] said, 'One for me, one for Martin, my husband.'"
Recipes always help when it comes to brewing, but Dix certainly doesn't need any. She constructs her beer by taste. And if Dix does follow a recipe, like when she did to make Dogfish Head Brewery's Midas Touch, she goes to any length necessary to precisely reconstruct the beer.
For example, Midas Touch calls for honey, saffron, white muscat grape, and barley. Dix picked thyme honey from a local farmer and ordered her saffron direct from Spain. All she knew was that the beer was 60 percent wheat, 20 percent mead, and 20 percent muscat wine. When complete, the only difference between Dix's Midas Touch and Dogfish's was the brew site.
Brewsters who hunt for ingredients like Dix does do not use cheap beginner's brewing kits. The Dixes recently remodeled their home to turn their garage into a microbrewery, complete with name. MAD Brewery, what they hope to name the brewery of their dreams, is titled after her husband Martin's initials.
But despite producing well made beer in a high-tech micro brewery, Dix didn't convince the men in home brew clubs of her ability right away.
"Everyone in [the club] just thought I was the wife that showed up," Dix says. However, once the members learned that she could lead a conversation about brewing, they were more fascinated in the talk than anything else.
While Dix does much of the work beforehand, her husband joins her for each brew day. Her meticulous preparation and heightened palate have won Team Dix best of show and first place at the OC Fair and another first at the OC Fest of Ales.
But although the Dixes enter both of their names into each competition together, only Martin's ever makes it onto the awards.
It may be difficult to find women who brew beer professionally in Orange County, but Anaheim is home to Barbara Gerovac, who co-owns and operates Anaheim Brewery with her husband Greg. Revitalizing the brewery name from the 1800s, the Gerovacs decided to open their own brewery after they both racked up years of experience in the industry.
After her husband began brewing beer, Gerovac followed suit. The Gerovacs had both been in the military and when they met, they realized they enjoyed the exact same profession, only it took Barbara a bit longer than her husband to find a job once the two moved from the east to the west coast.
"It's hard to get hired," says Gerovac. "[Employers] just don't consider [women] a viable candidate. It's a really physical job. A lot of people want to be brewers and a lot of employers, if they got a guy, they just figure [he's] going to be able to pick up the 50-lbs. sacks of grain better than I can."
A member of the Pink Boots Society, Gerovac participated in the global day of brewing known as the International Women's Collaboration Brew Day. The event took place last March, producing Unite Pale Ale, a low ABV, easy-drinking ale spiced with coriander chosen specifically to entice more women into drinking craft beer.
The Unite Pale Ale proceeds contributed to Gerovac's choice charity, the Family Justice Center, while some went back to the Pink Boots Society that made the day of international brewing and womanhood possible.
Brewers love nothing more than experimenting with their beer. Home brewer and blogger Jessica McNew does more than just play with ingredients while she brews, she bakes with her beer. McNew runs the blog, beerandbaking.com, where she writes and photographs her boozy creations and adventures. Whether she's spending her time drinking, brewing, baking, or traveling, McNew's life revolves around beer. She got married in Ireland so she could visit breweries, her friends are brewers, her hometown wedding reception took place at a fellow brewer's house.
"I was technically married at a brewery," McNew says as she explains that she and her husband signed their marriage license at Cismontane Brewing Company.
Beer has even altered McNew's vocabulary. Words like, "beercation" (a vacation with craft beer at the center) and "fantastic man days" (full days dedicated to brewery hopping), pop up several times in this brew babe's conversation.
Even with two generations of women bakers before her, McNew didn't take to the batter so easily.
"I never appreciated when [my mom] tried to teach me," McNew says. "I tried making something from scratch for the first time and I kept forgetting the eggs or the sugar and I was like 'Wow, I really appreciate how ridiculously hard it is to make something from scratch'. It was really kind of like a challenge so I decided I would take the challenge and run with it."
McNew began her boozy baked goods adventure with the easily manipulated cupcake, but quickly expanded to more complicated pastries. Some of her creations include banana bread made with Fireside Chat from 21st Amendment Brewery and doughnut holes using Palmero from Hanger 24.
McNew also pays homage to the county that raised her and always looks for ways to transform some of Orange County's best brews into baked delights.
This past December, she took Noble Ale Works' and Beachwood BBQ's collaboration beer, The Ghost of Jacob Barley, and made beer buttercream cookie sandwiches. One of the principal ingredients of the beer was Portola Coffee Lab coffee, making for a warm winter treat like no other.
And then there's her skills as a home brewer. Her recent wedding reception included her and her husband's homemade pale ale infused with English Breakfast tea, sage, and citrus. It was gone within the first hour.
The wonderful Tina Thompson
Photo by Cleo Tobbi
Customers at Tustin Brewing Co. would cheer Thompson on as she assisted Brewmaster Jerrod Larsen on brew days. She began, and still works, as a bartender at the brewery and regulars would take notice of her hard work. Such support from the community, Thompson says, "encouraged [me] to keep brewing."
Tustin Brewing Co. unfortunately never paid Thompson for the hours of addition work put in as an assistant brewer but she never complained. She would often hear bouts of "You're crazy!" and "Why are you doing this?" from concerned customers, but Thompson shrugged them off. No one forced her to move thousands of pounds of grain up a flight of stairs or risk being scalded by boiling wort.
"It's not about making money," Thompson says. "It's just about being happy and waking up and loving what you do and serving your community and being able to make other people happy too."
The free brewing lessons recently scored Thompson a paid assistant brewing position at Bottle Logic Brewing. She signed up to become a member of the Pink Boots Society shortly after.
Although merely one in a small handful of women who brew in Orange County, Thompson hopes to inspire more ladies to take to the brew kettle. Thompson relishes working alongside the men in the industry knowing she's had to prove her strength.
"I like working hard and seeing my efforts paying off," Thompson says. "And I think it helps being a girl because you definitely have to work harder. You're not as strong, you're not used to this kind of work. It's challenging but it's fun."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.