By Patricia Montemurri Detroit Free Press.
Onetime registered nurse and Detroit-area home brewer Annette May is to the world of beer what a sommelier is to fine wine.
May, 56, a native Australian, is a certified Cicerone (pronounced Siss-er-rown). The first woman to pass the U.S.-based certification program in 2008, that means she has exacting knowledge of how to identify, store, serve, educate and opine about beer.
So when May hears from many women that they don't like beer, the beer department manager simply tells them to try something other than the mass-produced, heavily advertised stuff.
At the store, she gracefully interrogates the curious about their tastes, how fond are they of coffee? Of chocolate? What kind of wines or fruits do they enjoy? And she usually convinces them to try something from the exploding array of craft beers, often made in small breweries in Michigan and around the country.
"Every flavor you can think of, somebody's made a beer out of it," May says. When customers take her advice, what May hears back is: "I didn't know beer could taste like this."
May and her expanding roster of female customers typify how women are brewing up a trend in the yeasty, hoppy, artisanal kettles of the exploding craft beer industry, both locally and nationally.
An increasing number of women are making and drinking craft beer, and a good long pour of it is made in Michigan. The state was ranked fifth nationally in craft breweries in 2013, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association, a national organization. Just from 2013 to 2014, the number of Michigan craft breweries jumped from 131 to 158.
Central Michigan University, Western Michigan University and Ferris State University, also in Michigan, are starting programs in the fall centered on brewing. The Michigan Brewers Guild, representing craft brewing professionals and enthusiasts, reports that about one-third of its 2,500 members are women.
In just the last few years, groups directed at women's surging interest in brewing, have sprung up. Fermenta, aimed at Michigan brewing industry professionals who are women, includes May as a founding member. In February, Girls Pint Out, a national organization to encourage women to socialize over craft beer as well as charity fundraising, debuted a metro Detroit chapter.
Across the U.S., 20 percent of craft breweries were founded or cofounded by a woman, and about 17 percent have a female CEO, according to data analyzed by Stanford University researchers, says Bart Watson, the Brewers Association's chief economist.
Many craft breweries grow out of husband-wife collaborations, which start at home, said Watson. It reflects, in part, the experience of Rachel Kanaan, who cofounded Unity Vibrations craft brewery with her husband, Tarek.
Kanaan, 43, got into the beer business because of tea. While living in California, she brewed and sold Kombucha tea, which is fermented from tea leaves, sugar, yeast and beneficial bacteria.
Now, back in her husband's home state, the couple's company sells Kombucha tea beverages, but also uses the tea as a base for eight varieties of Unity Vibrations beer, aged in barrels in an all-purpose production, packaging and tasting room facility.
Unity Vibrations beer and other products, soon to include a vinegar, are now marketed in 13 states.
"We became a microbrewery by chance," says Kanaan. To make it prosper, she has benefited from the advice and experience of other women brewers.
Both Kanaan and May are active in Fermenta, the local group for women "committed to diversity, camaraderie, networking and education within the craft beverage industry."
Fermenta, its name a feminine take on the yeasty fermentation that takes place in the making of alcoholic beverages, doesn't just limit itself to beer-making. The organization also seeks to include women who are making other fermented beverages such as wine, mead and hard cider.
May met her husband, Michael Bardalis, because of beer. A second job as a bartender in Chicago after May moved there led her to learn about beer. The couple met at the 2003 National Homebrewers Conference in Chicago. Bardalis is also a certified Cicerone and professional brewer. In the couple's basement is their own six-tap, dispensing homemade drafts from an Irish-style stout to a pale ale. The feminine hand deftly stirring hops into a kettle pot of brew represents the historical resurgence of women involved in beer-making, says May.
"Historically, women were the brewers in the household. They made the bread, and the women also made the beer," says May. "There's always been this female element that was lost over the years."
Angela Williams is proud to hold the title of cellarman at Griffin Claw Brewing Co. She practiced union-side labor law before she followed her taste buds into beer brewing, and experimented with her own home-brewing.
Her epiphany moment came when she paired a Russian Imperial stout with a bite of a fudge brownie.
"I didn't know you could put these things together," says Williams, 45. "I was so used to a light American lager that didn't stand out with foods. I began to realize that craft beer is so much more complex than I ever imagined."
That taste whetted her appetite for learning about brewing on a grander, life-changing scale. She volunteered to work in a brewery. That gave her a deep-down, aching-muscles sense of the physicality of making beer. She cleaned floors and kettles for free, while taking beer education seminars.
After stints at small breweries, Williams landed at Griffin Claw.
"The first education seminars I went to were mostly men. You go to events now and women are a much greater percentage," says Williams, whose aim is to open her own microbrewery or taproom someday. "I think women appreciate flavors more and the spectrum of craft beers offers a lot in terms of flavor."
Pauline Knighton does marketing for Short's Brewing. Her job title is "beer liberator" and her presence and pitch at beer tastings is upending stereotypes about who's drinking and knowledgeable about beer. In a culture bombarded by commercials with women as leer-inducing ornamentation, Knighton has to calmly assert herself as knowledgeable and professional.
"I'm very young, and I am blond and I am a female. And I have some interesting experiences with that sometimes," says Knighton, 24, a University of Michigan graduate who learned much about beer from her father, a craft beer enthusiast.
She and other women are well-accepted in the industry, she says, but when she's working at beer tastings, she hears the disbelief.
"A guy will say 'I hear a blonde is giving out beer.' And I'm standing right there. I'm very educated about beer. And I get asked all the time if I really drink beer," says Knighton.
"The millenial generation has really embraced local beer and that cuts across all sorts of demographics. It holds up across gender, across race, and across socioeconomic status," says Bart Watson, chief economist for the national Brewers Association.
Young women, ages 21-34, who comprise about 13 percent of the population, drink about 15 percent of the craft beer, said Bart Watson. "That's a new finding that shows young women are enjoying craft beer far more than previous generations and it's an interesting shift," says Watson. "Craft brewers have been able to attract young women to the beer category."
After the debut gathering of Girls Pint Out, the category now includes Angela Wszola and Chanel Jackson, both 21 and college students. They started the evening with Bud Lights and ended it having several craft beers.
"I never tried them, ever," says Jackson, of craft beers, admitting she was "scared that they might be gross." Instead, both were intrigued by some fruitier beers with wine overtones.
"It was so much fun," said Jackson. "It was really cool to interact with other people who knew more about beer." And they'll raise a craft beer to that.