Women and Beer: Breaking through the pint glass ceiling

Women are taking back the profession they started: brewing.

Credit: Ty Snaden

BC women are taking back the brewing profession they started


Last week at Women and Beer II, a Vancouver Craft Beer Week event, the first ladies of BC craft beer got together to share their brews with the public. The public turned out in droves, showing their support for the women who are taking back the brewing profession.


In the last five years, the number of local women in brewing has grown from a few to a decent handful. Women were the first brewers and now more women are re-identifying with their role in the origin of ale.


Given the ongoing appeal of the locavore food movement and the trendy reverence for handicrafts sold on Etsy, expect craft brewing to be the “Next Big Thing”. The more visible craft brewing gets, the more women will be involved in producing quality suds.


Men remain the primary beer consumers

Yet despite women’s growing attraction to craft beer, the current beer-swilling population is predominantly male. Women make up 51 per cent of the total population, and only 25 per cent of beer drinkers.


Here’s a sampling of Vancouver’s women in brewing who are changing the tide. These ladies are stoked about good ale, and aim to galvanize more women into sharing their ardor.



Rebecca Kneen

Co-owner and Brewer, Crannóg Ales, Sorrento, BC

About Crannóg Ales: Founded in 1999, Crannóg is the first certified organic microbrewery as well as the first zero-waste, on-farm brewery and organic commercial hop yard in BC.


Beer/Food Pairing: Crannóg’s Gael Blood Potato Ale with Carmeli’s Goatgonzola Blue Cheese. “Pairing cheese and beer is easy, but pairing blue cheese is a bitch. Here, the beer is malty and has earthiness from the potato which can stand up to a pungent cheese.”

Favourite place to drink in Vancouver: The Alibi Room

Is the Red Racer logo sexist? “I remember when Gary (Lohin) first started, the original graphic was a person of indeterminate gender of a mountain bike. Then it changed to the girl in a short skirt on an antique bike. I like the new image.”

Taking a break from hop-stringing

At the time of the interview, Rebecca Kneen is out in the field stringing her hops.


“What-ing the hops?” I ask.


“Tying them to the trellis,” she laughs.


Rebecca has worn farm boots since age three, when she began farming in Nova Scotia. Now, she’s a full time farmer and brewer. Her organic rhizomes (hops) are for sale and she’ll gladly share the hops manual she wrote, downloadable on the Crannóg site, in case you ever want to learn how to grow your own. After talking to her, I do.


Beer marketers rely on gender stereotyping

When I ask her why women don’t drink as much beer as men, she’s brimming with insight. “Light and low calorie beer that’s mass marketed to women is about gender stereotyping, not what women want,” she explains. “Women want a full flavor. They look for something interesting.”


Rebecca meets plenty of women who tour Crannóg with their husbands and don’t even want to try beer. Naturally, she persuades them. Often they end up liking a few of the beers on offer, the Back Hand of God Stout in particular. And gender has been an issue in other areas of beer appreciation.


“When I first began attending home brew clubs, guys wouldn’t even talk to me,” says Rebecca. “They were offended by a woman having something to say about beer that wasn’t giggling.”


Other times, Rebecca deals with guys in flip flops who offer to help her lift kegs. Her response: “Move, because you’ll hurt yourself.”


But when assessing palette sensitivities and gender, a hot topic in the gender and beer dialogue, Rebecca is not convinced that women’s scientifically proven superior palette skills hold true for her marriage to brewer Brian MacIsaac.

Taste preferences in beer can differ between men and women

“Taste is not a gender thing. I don’t like sours, Brian does. We detect different flavors, which turns out to be a really convenient system,” Rebecca explains.


Once inside the craft brewing industry, Rebecca thinks the business is woman-friendly.


“Craft brewing is egalitarian,” she says. “You work side by side. Guys expect you to lift.”


Heather Kilbourne

Brewer, Saltspring Island Ales, Salt Spring Island, BC


About Saltspring Island Ales: Salt Spring Island Ales brews with mountain spring water that’s piped directly into their barn. They’re best known for their award-winning Golden Ale—a nutty session ale, ideal for continuous quaffing.


Beer/Food Pairing: Saltspring’s Whale Tail Ale and any cheese from Moonstruck’s organic cheeses. “I like a little hoppiness—I’m not a total hophead—and Moonstruck cheese is just good.”


Favorite place to drink in Vancouver: The Alibi Room


Is the Red Racer logo sexist: “Nah, it’s cool.”

From bottling assistant to brewer

When Heather Kilbourne began at Saltspring Island Ales, she was assisting with bottling, cleaning and kegging. Less than a year later, she’s brewing.


“Murray (Hunter) the Salt Spring brewmaster introduced me to stuff bit by bit. He was eager to train someone else. It was really right place, right time.” says Heather, who brewed a Big-Leaf Maple Bud Ale for the Women & Beer festivities, in addition to working on the Smokin’ Cherry Bomb Ale collaborative brew that debuted at Vancouver Craft Beer Week’s Women and Beer II event.


Coming from a background in landscaping, Heather was used to the hands-on nature of craft brewing and relished the opportunity to step up and become a larger part of the brewing process.

The physical demands of brewing

“I like the physical aspect,” says Kilbourne. And yes, she can lift a keg. “Yeah, if I have to I can get one into the van and down again. It’s the stairs leading up to people’s cold rooms that causes problems,” she says.


I ask Heather how she got into craft beer. For her, it was all about exposure. “I grew up in Ontario around a lot of crappy beer. When I came to BC, I rediscovered beer through craft brew and I loved it.”


Although Heather has brewed cask ale, which uses an already formed base, she’s never brewed a bottled beer, from start to finish, alone. She aims to do so soon.


I ask her who she looks up to in the craft brewing industry and Heather immediately answers, “Claire Connolly,” of Big River. “I love Claire because she’s awesome, she knows everything and she doesn’t make me feel like an idiot when I ask questions. She’s super easy to talk to and she has the training.”



Claire Connolly

Brewmaster, Big River Brew Pub, Richmond, BC


About Big River: Big River is a classic brew pub with a 40 lane bowling ally attached. Patrons come for the craft suds, like the extra special bitter and the nut brown ale, made on-site according to the Bavarian law of Purity.


Beer/Food Pairing: Smokin’ Cherry Bomb Saison and Salmon Mousse


Favorite place to drink in Vancouver: “Big River has got a bowling ally in our brew pub. What could be better than that?”

Is the Red Racer logo sexist? “I think they’re cute. Central City makes a really nice IPA.”

A distinguished background in brewing and distilling

Claire Connolly has serious pedigree. Straight out of high school, she studied brewing and distilling at the notable Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. I ask about gender ratios. “There were two women in a class of 20,” she says.


Despite the shortage of women at uni, Claire went on to work under the talented Angela Wurges at Meantime brewing in Greenwich. Excited, I press Claire for more info on what it was like to work with one of the top female brewers, at a brewery that’s scooped up several international awards, and who has been a driving force behind the campaign for real ale.


“It was great to work with Angela,” says Claire. “She’s very skilled German brewmaster from Munich. Meantime took me to a new confidence level in my career; it was a different calibre.”


Head brewer before the age of 30

Claire’s career has been fruitful. Her goal was to become head brewer before she turned 30 and she made it at 27, when she began running the show at Dartmoor Brewery. She came to Canada to visit her best friend and get a glimpse of what brewing was like on the other side of the pond.


“I fancied a break,” she says. Her “break” has turned into an extended stay.


Since taking over at Big River Brew Pub, Claire has introduced an innovative and rotating set of seasonal ales to the classic in-house range. Some highlights include a gingerbread beer, a coconut porter and a rose petal honey ale. Claire cannot pick a favorite. She gets passionate when she talks about bringing in different ingredients and challenging the norm.


Women can better identify unique beer flavours

“It’s scientifically proven at beer events that women are better able to identify thresholds levels of unique flavors when tasting,” she says. Apparently, for men, practice drinking does not make perfect.


“Women can detect smells and flavors at a lower concentration, which is why mass marketed lagers, whose marketing campaign is all about being cold, don’t appeal to women. Cold is the opposite of flavor,” says Claire.


She’s the expert; she would know.


Leslie Fenn

Co-Owner, Howe Sound Brewing, Squamish, BC


About Howe Sound: Based in the former heart of BC’s now defunct hops farming region, Howe Sound produces 26 different ales that come in oversized, resealable “pot-stopper” bottles. Among other creds, the brewery boasts an ongoing relationship with the 81-year-old maestro of craft brewing in Western Canada, John Mitchell.


Beer/Food Pairing: Howe Sound Hips Hops Grapefruit IPA with a summer salad or a dessert like lemon mousse. “This IPA is light with ruby grapefruit citrus notes, but finishes with a buttery full-bodied taste. You could even pair it with white meats and fish.”

Favorite place to drink in Vancouver: “Craft brewing is about community. We support all the local restaurants that serve craft beer and they support us.”


Do women have a better palette? “Women have a different palette. Their noses can detect more nuanced aromas.”

The godmother of craft beer brewing in BC

Leslie Fenn is the godmother of BC brewing. She founded Howe Sound with her brother in 1996, when the BC craft beer industry was in its infancy. Howe Sound was ahead of the curve of the craft brewing movement, which started in Victoria and gradually made its way into Vancouver.


“Vancouver bars weren’t interested in local beers and craft beers until the last four or five years,” she says. Because of this, Leslie continued to work in ethnobotany—another field with more men than women—while helping her brother with the brewery start-up, before she was able to switch to running Howe Sound full time.


“I’m used to being in an alternate industry,” Leslie says. “I worked out in the boonies in resource management, forestry and land treaties. There were very few women involved in that.”


To Leslie, craft beer is a community drink from start to finish. Howe Sound’s sturdy, retro brown bottles are designed to open and “share with people you love,” she explains.

Keeping brewing local and sustainable

The brewery, which is one of the main sources of employment in Squamish, also has an eye on sustainability—every aspect of their production line, from farm to market, is linked to someone local. Howe buys local malts, yeasts and seasonal produce. Some of their spent grain goes to feed farm animals, some is baked into bread or used to make soap. She speaks passionately about selling at local markets and pubs and the possibility of partnering with a nearby coffee roaster. She urges me to visit.


Leslie is happy to see more women getting involved in craft beer. “More and more women I know are looking at craft beer as an alternate wine. They’re getting enthusiastic about hefeweizens like our King Heffy, and the subtleties in fruited citrus beers. They love our winter ale, which is like pudding in a bottle,” she says.


Leslie brought “Ménage à trois” a triple fruited beer, with raspberry, mango and of course, passion fruit, to the Women and Beer event at Vancouver Craft Beer Week. This resulted in a sizable queue of tasters at the How Sound cask.


“You have a huge increase in female interest right now in tasting craft beer and production,” Leslie says.

Challenges for women in craft brewing

I ask her if there’s any aspect of craft beer production that would be challenging for women.


“Yes, brewing is intense physical labor,” she says, “But there’s absolutely no physical challenge there that should keep a woman away.”


Becky Julseth

Co-Owner, Saltspring Island Ales, Salt Spring, BC

About Saltspring Island Ales: Saltspring Island Ales brews with mountain spring water that’s piped directly into their barn. They’re best known for their award-winning Golden Ale—a nutty session ale, ideal for continuous quaffing.


Beer/Food Pairing: Saltspring’s Porter paired with medjool dates and a slice of soft, blue cheese. “Our Porter is really unique because it’s quite dry compared to the heavier, more ‘desserty’ versions of the style.”


Favorite craft beer: “That’s a tough one. I love all our children. It changes all the time, but I’m on a major Saltspring Pale Ale kick at the moment.”


Who do you look up to among local brewers? “I have to say Rebecca Kneen at Crannóg, since she really pioneered the return of small-scale hop farming in BC. She literally wrote the book… and I am studying it as I go with our tiny hop farm.”

Following a dream of owning a brewery

Two and a half years ago, Becky Julseth fell in love with the idea of owning a tiny farm gate brewery and went for it. Saltspring Island Ales is one of the smallest craft breweries in BC and the only brewery with a 50 percent female staff.


“I’ve enjoyed local food and drink all my life. It was the opportunity to become a producer in this region that drew me into buying the brewery,” she says.


Becky credits the return of craft beer with opening up more opportunities for women in the industry, by making beer interesting again.

Taking beer from blah to exciting

“By the 1970s and 80s, beer had become the drink of the working man and wasn’t really a product marketed to women. Beer wasn’t very tasty nor very interesting—so if the product itself wasn’t interesting to women, why would many women seek out a job making it?”


Becky has a background in marketing and flexes her savvy discussing the future of women in craft beer.


“As a consumer group, women tend to prefer more complex flavours,” she says. “New craft beers offer that variety and complexity, and so are attracting more female drinkers. Women are actually doing a great deal to further the industry, simply through their buying power. All of a sudden, a massive market segment that almost never bought a 6-pack is open to the possibilities of real beer.”


I inquire about challenges she’s faced as a female owner in brewing.


Craft brewing a supportive industry for women

“Apart from the very occasional assumption that I don’t know anything about anything, I’ve actually found the industry really supportive to women. I’ve worked in other fields where women are treated a lot less equally. All in all, I feel that the men in the craft beer industry are super supportive. That being said, I think ‘getting hired’ can be more difficult,” Becky cautions.


“Some breweries might be wary of hiring women in the brewhouse because of the heavy lifting involved—and it is REALLY heavy—but being able to lift heavy things doesn’t necessarily mean you have a talent for the processes, or an excellent palate for developing recipes.”


As an owner who has invested in training a female brewer, Becky is certain that the physical challenges of brewing are totally workable for women and the breadth of talent women can offer breweries far surpasses any lack in lifting ability.



Leah Heneghan

Event Coordinator, Vancouver Craft Beer Week, Vancouver, BC

About Vancouver Craft Beer Week: VCBW, in its second year, consists of a weeklong series of over 60 awesome festival events, like the “Dead Famous Pub Crawl,” and satellite tasting events scattered throughout Vancouver’s hot resto scene. This year’s featured collaborative VCBW brew is a Cascadian Dark Ale.


Beer/Food Pairing: Driftwood Beer, bourbon and ovaltine cocktail with Thai mushroom soup. “Lauren Mote of the Refinery is a cocktail engineer. It was crazy. The malt in the ovaltine brought out the mushroom flavor in the Thai soup.”


Is the Red Racer logo sexist? “Well, I bought it for the packaging. The girl on the bike is a different kind of sexy.”


Favorite place to drink in Vancouver:The Alibi Room is my go-to place for beer.”

An unexpected response to “Women and Beer”

When Leah worked with Lundy Dale, the president of Vancouver’s branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), to start the Women and Beer event at VCBW last year, they were unsure about the turnout. They were in for a surprise.


“We sold out rapidly. It was unexpected,” says Leah. “And it wasn’t only women buying the tickets. Everyone wanted to celebrate the women of brewing and this year’s been the same.”


Leah is a recent convert, a newbie beer aficionado. “I got a taste of real ale when I lived in London and when I came back to Vancouver I got involved with CAMRA. I started talking to Rick (Green), the former CAMRA president, about how I’d love to do beer events and it took off from there.”

Beer is replacing wine as the drink to pair with food

Leah concurs that more and more people are getting turned onto the craft beer industry, and from her perspective there’s an increasing acceptance of pairing beer with food instead of wine. VCBW’s wine-versus-beer battle at Gastown’s Boneta Restaurant showed that cicerones can stand up to sommeliers.


“Beer is easier to pair with food. Most people don’t realize that it’s a better match,” says Leah, who has taken cicerone courses.


When it comes to women in craft brewing Leah says, “Brewing was originally a woman’s job but it has become a male dominated industry. Women are interested in being a part of craft beer, but they don’t know how to get into it,” she adds. “Once they’re in, they add a creative flavour perspective. They bring an advanced palette to the table.”


Leah’s mega-goal is to show more women how to break into brewing by creating more community-fostering craft beer events. Her personal goal is to start brewing in her own home.