Women and beer become a more common pairing


Amanda Geiger is the only female head brewer in West Michigan. Her career at Hideout Brewing Co. started behind the bar, but now she's promoting a larger role for women in the industry. Photo by Jim Gebben

Amanda Geiger has only been able to find six or so. And that’s troublesome because she needs 12.

Geiger, the only female head brewer in West Michigan, wants to make a calendar of women in the Michigan beer industry, but she’s struggling to get past June.

“I started looking because I want to do a ‘Babes of Brewing’ pin-up-style calendar,” she said. “But there are only six that I know of.”

The macro-brewers, such as Budweiser and Miller, have long used scantily clad women to sell their products in an industry long perceived of as a male-dominated field. For some reason, there’s a lack of respect for women in the beer industry, but that respect — and the number of women in the industry — is quickly rising. A society of women in the industry called the Pink Boots Society has about 10 members in Michigan and more than 900 nationally.

“I don’t think a lot of women are perceived as beer drinkers,” Geiger said. “But that’s changing, and changing quickly.”

In a 2012 Gallup Poll, beer edged out wine as the favorite alcoholic beverage for women ages 18-34. Wine had long held the top spot but was displaced as the popularity of craft beer in the U.S. has skyrocketed in the past several years.

Small-batch beers allow for large variances in flavors to satisfy a wider variety of palates. Men and women alike often are surprised by the coffee and chocolate stout selections or the citrus and pine of hoppy IPAs.

Geiger was a bartender at Hideout Brewing Co. for several years, and the head brewer, Wob Wanhatalo, pushed to get her into the brewery.

“Wob was always adamant about getting me to help brew,” she said. “So I started to get interested in it, and the opportunity just presented itself.”

Wanhatalo went to work for the Mitten Brewing Co., and Geiger took the reins at Hideout. She has taken the role of head brewer and embraced it.

“I love creating things that people love so much,” she said. “There’s a satisfaction when people have your beer and love it. And if you create the recipe, it’s an art form.”

Geiger cited the intense, often physical, labor involved with brewing — from heavy lifting and dirty clothes to long hours spent on your feet — to be one reason for the male-dominated industry.

Although Geiger said she likes being one of the few women brewing in West Michigan — others include Laura Houser at Founders Brewing Co. — it’s not as unusual as it used to be.

Kerry O’Donohue, vice president of marketing at Saugatuck Brewing Co., said he believes women have a more refined and acute palate when it comes to taste. He also noted the statistics in the Gallup Poll and said Michigan is a perfect place for people to expand their taste in terms of beer.

“We’re so rich in breweries, it’s a perfect place to get started,” O’Donohue said. “And younger women are more inclined to get into artisanal products like beer, wine and cheese.”

Saugatuck Brewing Co. will host A Celebration of Women and Craft Beer May 5 to help bring awareness to women in the industry. There will be several speakers, including Annette May, the first female to achieve Cicerone certification. A “Cicerone” is someone who has achieved a certain level of knowledge about beer, much like a wine sommelier.

The Saugatuck event came from an idea O’Donohue had while talking to a woman at the 8th Street Grille in Holland.

“She thought we should do a collection of beer specifically for women,” he said. “I thought, ‘Why would you want to limit the beer women can have?’ But I thought it would be good to put together an event that celebrates women in brewing.”

Professional women brewers will use Saugatuck’s brew system throughout the day, and various topics, including how to pair beer with food, cooking with beer and opportunities in the craft beer industry, will be covered.

Like wine, craft beer has turned into a specialty, and beer pairings and dinners are becoming popular.

Amy Sherman, host of the television show “Great American Brew Trail,” also will attend the Saugatuck event. Sherman is becoming well known on the beer scene, and locally the show has picked up steam since it began airing on WOTV 4. She has hosted panels and taught workshops throughout the state.

The brew house isn’t the only place women can be found in the industry. At Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids, Kris Spaulding has a different kind of role: She’s co-owner with her husband, Jason Spaulding. When Jason left his post at New Holland Brewing Co., Kris had a stable job at Herman Miller, which allowed Jason the flexibility to consider what he would like to do.

“When he left, he didn’t have a plan B,” she said. “It allowed him to take the time to figure out what to do next in that odd in-between time.”

When Brewery Vivant opened in the East Hills Business District, Kris took a backseat to Jason for two reasons. “He was already known in the industry, so that was natural,” she said. “And nine days after we opened, we had our son.”

Parenthood does throw another hurdle into the brewery equation, and the Spauldings are expecting another child this summer. But Kris and Jason have established a balance of work and parenting, with Kris accomplishing most of her work — managing sustainability and human resources — in the morning hours when things at the brewery are quieter.

The industry may be heavily led by men, but women are catching up.

“Breweries have just been male dominated for so long,” Kris said. “There was a time when few women were drinking beer. But those times are over.”

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