For millennia, dating back to ancient Mesopotamia, women have been the primary brewers of beer in numerous cultures. However, the American craft beer industry has been dominated by white men since its beginning, though recent years have seen incrementally more women and people of color assuming leadership roles in craft breweries.
For this column, I interviewed two highly influential women in California craft brewing, each of whom had significantly different experiences in their professional journeys, with different paths to their leadership positions, and each of whom rose to prominence at different times in the growth of the craft beer business.
Barbara Groom is one of the true pioneers in craft brewing in California, founding Lost Coast Brewery in Eureka in 1989 with a 10-barrel brewing system at a time when many people hadn’t ever heard of a “microbrewery.”
When I asked Groom to reflect on more than three decades in the beer business, she said, “The biggest positive change is when craft beer caught on with the general public. … The first 10 years were quite a struggle.”
She pulls no punches when discussing how the business has evolved, particularly starting with the rapid growth in small breweries after the Great Recession in the late 2000s.
“Some did it out of their garage, making only a few kegs a week,” Groom said. “These small breweries filled the available taps. The beer wasn’t always great, and that turned off some fans.”
As for advice for those who are interested in starting a brewery, Groom was frank.
“Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t do it,” she said. “A brewery is a black hole you throw money down. Advice for someone opening a brewpub is: Expect to work long hours. Be determined and have patience. It may take years to establish your brewery and make a profit.”
After so much time in such a challenging business, Groom cited her proudest accomplishment as the new 120-barrel brewhouse with canning, kegging and bottling lines; a 10-barrel pilot system; and an on-site laboratory.
“We were in an old, run-down warehouse for years,” she said. “After 23 years, I had saved enough money to build a beautiful new facility. It was a big project and I saw it through. It’s a source of pride for our local community.”
Lost Coast’s flagship brew since its grand opening, Great White Beer, initially pours a bright, clear honey-gold color with a dense, sturdy head of white foam, then becomes hazy with the natural yeast sediment from the bottom of the can, characteristic of Belgian witbiers. On the aroma, a lightly sweet wheat malt nose integrates seamlessly with gentle tartness, herbal spiciness with very mild peppery notes and bright zesty lemon.
The “secret blend of Humboldt herbs” is closely guarded, but likely includes floral coriander, citronella-like makrut lime leaves and orange peel, all of which are accentuated by the spicy, floral aroma of Liberty hops.
The flavor characteristics are quite similar to the aroma, with subtle malt and minimal hop bitterness as a background for the complex melange of herbs and complementary hops. The well-rounded mouth-feel belies the easy-drinking lightness of the 4.8% alcohol by volume (ABV), and the finish is smooth, lightly sweet and long-lasting.
DeVonne Buckingham of Drake’s Brewing Co. started at the bottom of the ladder and worked her way up over the past decade, from roles as a barback and tour guide in 2012 to brewmaster/director of brewing operations today.
Asked if she would do anything differently knowing what she knows now, Buckingham said “no.”
“I learned so much along the way,” she said. “Not just process and procedure, but also how to manage and lead, how to grow an eclectic team and how to majorly expand a brewery.”
Buckingham reflected on positive and negative changes in the industry over the past decade.
“There has been a slight increase in representation of women in positions of leadership,” she said. “Over the last few years, the industry as a whole is taking a harder look at equity and inclusion. Craft beer has grown in overall popularity and is available and easy to find almost anywhere. Technical advancements have been made in process and procedure and continue to get cooler and cooler. There has not been much change at all in terms of representation of nonwhite, nonbinary folks, and female representation remains low, especially in terms of ownership/leadership. Compensation remains low as compared to other manufacturing. The pandemic has taken a pretty big toll on regional craft breweries in particular.”
For women who aspire to be professional brewers or brewery leaders, Buckingham offered the following advice.
“I would advise any person wanting to lead to make connections, find mentors and teachers and work, work, work to learn and grow,” she said. “I would tell women to recognize that they will be playing by a different set of rules. You will be required to work harder in ways that your counterparts won’t.”
Buckingham’s collaborative leadership style comes through in the rotating IPA series from Drake’s, which includes experiments with different hops, fruits, malts and beer styles.
“It really is a team effort,” she said. “We share in recipe and label design across multiple departments. So, these beers are kind of a snapshot of Drake’s.”
A recent release in the series was the Leisure Suit Tropical Hazy IPA, brewed with tropical hops and mango and pineapple puree.
The beer pours a turbid, juicy gold color with a luxurious white head of dense foam. Ripe cantaloupe, bright pineapple sweetness, piney green mango, lush citrus and suggestions of fresh banana all make appearances in the aroma – in addition to the actual fruit, Citra, Ekuanot and Mosaic hops contribute to the island character.
The flavor echoes the ambrosia salad goodness of the aroma, with a complex blend of juicy fruit notes from hops and actual fruit, and just the tiniest hint of hop bitterness. Relatively full bodied and smooth on the palate, Leisure Suit finishes semi-dry with a refreshing touch of acidity.
Derek Wolfgram is a Certified Beer Judge through the Beer Judge Certification Program and an officer of the Silicon Valley Sudzers homebrew club. For more information, visit sudzers.org.