If you’d told Witch Hunt co-founders Sarah Williams, Rose Picklo, and Barb Gettel a couple years ago that dozens of women would show up at 9am on a Saturday to brew beer and learn about the history of women in beer, they wouldn’t have believed it. Not because the interest wasn’t there, but because, until late 2017, Witch Hunt was just friends getting together to see step-by-step how beer is made, ask a lot of questions, and swap stories about what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry.
Those things were still the main focus on Saturday, February 10, at Surly Brewing Company’s Brooklyn Center facility, the location of the third Witch Hunt brew day. This time, instead of a handful of women, there were 38-plus—as well as a few men, some there to help brew; all there because they, too, wanted in on the conversation about gender equality in the beer world.
The idea for Witch Hunt started as many good ideas do: over a beer. “The first time was a one-off initiated over the bar with Allyson [Rolph, then head brewer at Thirsty Pagan Brewing, in Superior, Wisconsin],” says Williams, brand experience manager (among myriad other roles) at Fair State Brewing Cooperative. She and Rolph were chatting about how access to the brewery as a learning environment isn’t always made possible to brewery employees, and, mid-discussion, Rolph offered up her brewhouse as a classroom.
Williams and six other female beer-industry employees took Allyson up on her offer, and, in November 2016, the group of eight brewed the first official Witch Hunt beer: Pantsuit Amber Lager.
The following October, another all-female brew day was organized, this time at Fair State. That beer, dubbed The WitchHunt, was a 6.66% ABV, 70 IBU Cascadian Dark Ale brewed by a group of 15 women under the care and supervision of Katie Nolan, then a brewer at Fair State, and released on October 26—Hillary Clinton’s birthday.
It was just days after that second brew day that Witch Hunt, the group, really began gaining momentum. Williams was presenting in that month’s Fair State University seminar, “Girls To The Front,” about the trials of women working in industries traditionally dominated by men, and half-jokingly told attendees that if anyone wanted to donate their website-building or public-relations expertise to help take Witch Hunt to the next level, they should let her know. Marketing and communications expert Adrienne Vitt did just that, and, within a month, the group went from a casual once-a-year gathering of friends to brew a beer to a nonprofit dedicated to the education of and advocacy for women and non-binary individuals in beer.
The desire to learn about beer and connect with like-minded individuals within the brewing world was evident among those gathered to help make the third Witch Hunt beer: The Familiar, a dry-hopped tart ale named after a witch’s sidekick and featuring 20 pounds of orange peel, 20 pounds of orange zest, and Centennial and Cascade hops.
Witch Hunt is certainly not the first organization to address the issue of gender disparity in beer: Barley’s Angels, a worldwide network of chapters by and for women exploring beer, has been around since 2011, and The Pink Boots Society was created in 2013 as a support system for women beer-industry professionals to advance their careers through education; both have Minnesota chapters. But there’s something about the hands-on experience offered by Witch Hunt—the chance to not only learn about beer from other women, but to actually help make it; to see what it feels like to lift a 55-pound bag of malt and taste the wort—that goes a step further in binding together women and non-binary individuals in the brewing industry and give them the tools needed to feel more confident in their respective roles.
Of the 38 people officially signed in as participants, 32 were new to Witch Hunt; a little over a dozen people had never participated in a brew day of any kind, including myself, even though I’ve worked in and around the industry, first as the associate editor for The Growler, currently as the media coordinator for Sociable Cider Werks, for almost three years now.
Right away, Williams and Surly’s quality manager, Riley Seitz, set the ground rules for the day: namely that all questions are valid, and the more questions the better. “This is a safe space,” Williams said to the crowd of plaid-and-hoodie bedecked women and men—Gary Nicholas, a brewery consultant, and handful of Surly brewers, including Josh Lemke, head brewer for The Familiar, represented the first men to participate in a Witch Hunt day. “The goal of Witch Hunt is to encourage learning, and we want everyone here to feel comfortable and supported.”
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After running through a few basic safety rules—safety glasses and closed-toe shoes must be worn, watch out for slippery floors and rogue hoses—it was time to brew. Seitz explained each step of the process in detail, from the exact temperature of the strike water to why it’s called strike water to what diacetyl is and why it’s bad. Questions came from first-timers and long-term beer industry professionals alike, leading to conversations about everything from harvesting yeast to why everyone was there that morning.
“We all feel the pain of being a woman in the beer industry,” said Ness Guenther, taproom manager at 12welve Eyes Brewing in St. Paul. Before 12welve Eyes, she was a beertender at NorthGate and regularly dealt with customers going out of their way to ask her male counterparts questions because “they looked like what we’re told brewers look like: men with big beards.”
That sentiment was echoed by multiple participants, many of whom had had similar experiences when it came to being second-guessed in their roles. “One of my biggest insecurities is my lack of technical knowledge,” said Lucia Skinner, a sales representative for Sociable Cider Werks. “I want to be taken more seriously in my role. As a woman, that’s more of a challenge, especially when I lack the proper knowledge. I’m here as a way to set myself up for success in an informed way that validates my position.”
Lexie Litke, a warehouse associate at Surly and the only woman in her department, said creating a space for women to learn about the brewing process was something that has definitely been missing so far in her career. “The majority of production crews are men, and all the truckers I deal with on a daily basis are men,” she said. “I constantly feel like my voice isn’t being heard. Today is great because it’s less intimidating and more comfortable.”
That goal—dedicating more time and space to women in brewing—is also on the mind of the leaders of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild. As of November 2017, for the first time ever, the two top roles of the Guild are filled by women: Lauren Bennett McGinty, as executive director, and Laura Mullen, of Bent Paddle Brewing Company, as president. McGinty was at Surly on Saturday, and said while no hard plans are yet in place to formally address gender equality in the brewing industry, it’s something that’s always on her and Mullen’s minds. “We want to make sure women know we support them, and we want to develop women’s roles in the industry,” she said. “Whether that’s eventually putting together women-focused events or conferences about diversity in the industry, we want to be more conscious of these things.”
Increased awareness is also at the core of Witch Hunt’s mission, both for brew days and for the nonprofit organization. “We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from women in craft beer saying they want to be more involved,” Gettel said. “The 501(c)3 will give us more structure to help us fulfill that niche in the market and encourage more women to be part of craft beer in Minnesota.”
She motioned to the packed room. “For whatever reason, they’re here. As long as people are showing up and participating, that’s a good enough reason to do this.”
The Familiar will be released at Surly’s beer hall on Thursday, March 8: International Women’s Day. Learn more about the beer and Witch Hunt at witchhuntmpls.org.