By Maria Lockwood
Superior Telegram, Wis.
Females have been brewing beer since the first drop fermented. Yeast, the agent that turns sugar water to alcohol, consists of mother cells that bud from daughter cells.
“Beer is made by women,” said Allyson Rolph, brewmaster for Thirsty Pagan Brewing in Superior.
Yeast may have smashed the glass ceiling, but it’s taking a while for humans to catch up. Rolph is one of only three female brewmasters in Wisconsin, although she prefers the term head brewer. She shares that distinction with Jamie Baertsch at Moosejaw Pizza & Dells Brewing Co. in Wisconsin Dells and Ashley Kinart at Capital Brewing in Madison.
Rolph was featured in a recent Wisconsin State Journal Story about Kinart that stressed how rare female brewmasters are in the state.
Although it’s been seen as a traditional men’s role, Rolph said women are just as capable. They may even bring a better palate to the job.
“I haven’t had any issues with the men in my field,” Rolph said. “They treat me very well.”
Rolph was an avid home brewer before she began interning at Thirsty Pagan in 2011. She was named head brewer in July 2012. The process mixes chemistry, math and creativity to brew a dizzying array of beer. Thirsty Pagan offers a rotating selection of 16 beers on tap, ranging from the clear, bright India Pagan Ale and Belgian style Trouble Maker Tripel to nitro beers, stouts and sours.
“I think we have a really wide spectrum of beer,” Rolph said, from light to hoppy, even spicy. Seasonal flavors roll through, giving customers a new beer choice nearly every week. All of them are made behind the counter, steps away from customers. Making them has been rewarding for the head brewer.
“The best part about brewing for me is always learning and being challenged,” Rolph said.
Last year, Thirsty Pagan produced 460 barrels of beer, two barrels at a time. The hand-crafted brew was so popular the business couldn’t make enough. They had to import beer to quench their patrons’ thirst.
“It’s a good problem to have for a short period of time,” Rolph said, but it can damage customer loyalty if the house beers they love aren’t on tap.
The business at 1623 Broadway St. added a seven-barrel system to keep pace with demand. The shining metal structure is dotted with knobs, gauges and clamps. As she brewed Thirsty Pagan’s North Coast Amber on Wednesday, Rolph engaged in a complicated dance — stirring the wort, starting the sparge, moving around the machine adjusting clamps, knobs and gauges.
“We’ve only been brewing on this system for about a year,” Rolph said, and they’re still tweaking recipes to make sure they taste the same as the smaller batch brews. Not content to sit on their laurels, the Thirsty Pagan brew crew continues to experiment with new blends.
With 100s of yeast strains that give off different flavors at different temperatures as well the ability to add other ingredients, possibilities abound.
Under Rolph, the brewery has expanded to encompass a host of new techniques. Beer ages in bourbon barrels in the basement of Thirsty Pagan; kegs of sour beer age in a separate room labeled “Funkytown.” That wide spectrum of beer is what customers come for.
“They can always find something new,” Rolph said.
She and her assistant brewers are assembling a yeast lab of their own, growing new strains to use in future formulas. One of her assistants is an artist; the other a chemistry student. Rolph is both. She started her university career focused on science and ended with an art degree from the University of Minnesota-Mankato. Rolph moved to the Twin Ports to manage an art gallery, but the intoxicating blending of home brews led her to Thirsty Pagan.
“I like the creative part — I get to be a maker — and it satisfies the science, geeky part of me,” Rolph said.
The head brewer enjoys giving tours of the facility and educating customers about the different beers being created. She’s not secretive with their recipes, either.
“If somebody wants to home brew a beer we made here, that says a lot,” Rolph said.
The entire Twin Ports brewing community has been supportive, she said. There is a wealth of experience in the area, and brewers are willing to lend a hand, whether it’s advice, extra growler caps or some yeast.
“I think it’s really part of why the Duluth-Superior brewing community is so strong,” Rolph said. “Because we have a lot of experience … and they’re not afraid to share.”