In honor of Ninkasi, the tutelary goddess of beer, the first recipe for this ancient brew was written on a Sumerian clay tablet about 3,900 years ago. Throughout much of history, women were the primary ale crafters, hence the term alewife in 15th-century England. Though they lost this distinction with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, women are now making a strong comeback thanks to the craft beer revolution. Today, Orange County is home to six independent breweries owned or co-owned by women. We talked to these modern pioneers to learn what inspired them and how they’re proving that the making of craft beer is hardly gender-specific.
AMANDA PEARCE-SMETS: People might hate on millennials, but they get it. Inclusion comes easy with them. What worries me is that a local brewery has a 20-foot mural of a woman’s face phallically having beer poured into it like a porno—painted in 2017! I fucking hate it, and every woman I know does, too. As more women come into leadership positions, I hope stuff like this changes.
LISA PEREZ: I’ve noticed there are many, many more female beer consumers than ever before. But in the brewery tasting rooms, many assume that a guy behind the bar is the brewer or the owner. When they find out it’s me, they’re often surprised and excited. The stigma is still there, but gradually changing.
ROBYN SPEVACEK: I don’t think this will ever change for the masses. Unfortunately, we have always been sexualized. That seems to be the nature of our culture.
PATRICIA BARKENHAGEN: I see more women in the industry today. It shouldn’t matter what sex we are, we all have the same passion for great beer. I may not be the brainchild of Bootlegger’s—that was mostly my husband—but I’ve been in the business from the start. After nine years, I still constantly hear people referring to me as “the owner’s wife” despite all of my responsibility.
MARY ANN FRERICKS: I’m a co-owner with my husband, Greg Nylen, and before we opened, I’d often hear “Are you the owner’s wife?” I asked Greg if a customer ever asked him, “Are you the owner’s husband?”—a question, which if based solely on our respective hours spent on premises, would have been just as logical. After a few years, it seems most people recognize me as a co-owner and not just the owner’s wife, which is nice.
BARBARA GEROVAC: When I went to the national Craft Brewers Conference in the 1990s, (I’d estimate) less than 5 percent of attendees were women. Today, at both national and state conferences, I see closer to 50 percent. As more women work in the industry, we’ll gain the influence to effect change. What impact have women made in the industry in O.C.?
SPEVACEK: At our brewery, I think we have the biggest impact on flavor. I feel like we have a superior palate, which has helped point out discrete off-flavors that can impact production and quality down the road.
FRERICKS: I definitely think we have greatly elevated the tasting-room experience. I pity the man who plans on opening a brewery and does not consult with at least one female. I’ve been to far too many places that look like a Bass Pro Shop with some tap handles. I also think women are more prone to consider the hospitality. No matter how fantastic the beer, if it’s served on a dirty bar in a tasting room littered with empty glassware, my experience is diminished. What did you do before your brewery life, and did that bring anything to the table in your business?
GEROVAC: I was in the Army for 20-plus years and retired as a lieutenant colonel. Before opening Anaheim Brewery, I brewed professionally for 10 years. … Having logistics as a background was huge, as warehousing, managing inventory, leading, and training people are useful business skills. Marching, not so much.
SPEVACEK: I was a horticulturalist and have always been intrigued by native plants and how they can be used in beer. I forage from our family properties and currently have acorns fermenting, which need to sit a year before they can be used. I’ve released two beers from pine and cedar conifer plants. Other things in the works are elderberry flowers and buckwheat.
FRERICKS: I have a master of fine arts degree, taught college, and worked as a studio jeweler. I participated in art fairs across the country. When not on the road, I was either teaching or making jewelry. It was a very creative, grueling, high-risk, and crazy-but rewarding life that turned out to be terrific preparation for brewery ownership. Like owning a brewery, it was a job and lifestyle.
PEREZ: I still have my day job! I’m an engineering manager for a major aerospace company, which helps me in many ways in the brewery. Documenting processes, being organized, and communicating with all levels of staff are important skills in my day job and what I’m doing in the beer business.
PEARCE-SMETS: I did marketing for a homebuilder overseeing model homes. I constantly use my project management skills to stay organized around the brewery.
BARKENHAGEN: Preschool teacher. It could get totally chaotic—multitasking and dealing with different personalities from not only the children, but co-workers and parents. Being able to communicate with everyone efficiently prepared me for the brewery. Running Bootlegger’s, I get flashbacks to my classroom life more than you would think. How many hats do you wear at the brewery?
BARKENHAGEN: With three tasting rooms (Fullerton, Redlands, and Costa Mesa opening soon) I mainly run that show. If it ever slows down (laughs), I’d like to focus on finding ways to utilize our business to help local charity events, to give back and show that craft beer can be a beneficial part of any community.
SPEVACEK: I wear all of the hats, but my main job is production. I do most of the physical work in making beer. I didn’t have experience brewing before two years ago, but there were empty boots and I filled them. I figured, I can cook and follow a recipe; how different could this be? I also do accounting, payroll, managing the tasting room, and assisting with our beer club.
FRERICKS: Ironically, the only hat I have never worn is brewer. I do everything from meeting with city officials to picking up trash in the parking lot. Barley Forge is fairly unique in that we also have a licensed kitchen, so there’s a lot to manage. One of my mottos is “The devil is in the details.” I take it all really personally, which is both a blessing and a curse.
PEREZ: I’m brewer, blender, beertender, manager, accountant, regulatory specialist, janitor, marketer, and whatever else is needed to make the business run smooth and be successful!
GEROVAC: I wear almost all hats except serving guests. I’m not a front-of-house type of person. I just don’t have the personality for it.
PEARCE-SMETS: My husband, Rick, handles brewing operations. I do everything front of house and back of office. … The one thing I’ve learned is to treat my time like a resource: delegate, manage employees better, make decisions faster, have growth strategies—all things I struggled with at first. Craft beer is a business as much as a passion. I’ll add that the other ladies here have been great resources and are always willing to give advice or just commiserate. When you meet new people, what’s the reaction when they learn you own a brewery?
FRERICKS: If they’re beer fans, most express a desire to be my new best friend. My favorite conversations are when I can dispel a few myths (and let people know) that the actual brewing of the beer is but one of many components.
PEARCE-SMETS: Most aren’t as excited as I am. I think most people don’t know how to wrap their heads around it. They would be more excited if I said I worked at Google or that I was a doctor or owned a gas station, because that’s something everyone has a direct connection with. I forget how much craft beer is a specific interest. There’s always someone who wants to kick the tires of my business and ask me endless questions and offer unsolicited advice. Most people associate craft beer with white dudes with beards. How do we increase equality and diversity?
PEARCE-SMETS: Simple—hire diversity. It’ll always be a white boys club if we don’t make a conscious effort to run a business that’s inclusive as well as make a guest experience that’s welcoming of everyone. Craft beer doesn’t discriminate.
SPEVACEK: I think we just continue to normalize equality—not just in brewing, but in all aspects of our society and culture.
FRERICKS: Lead by example. And set people straight when the record needs correcting.
PEREZ: My day job is still growing equality and diversity even when it’s driven down from the top levels of the company. The beer community isn’t that much different. O.C. is rich with many talented women in the industry, and we all need to continue to support each other to reach that next level.
GEROVAC: I’m a pioneer, not just as a woman, but as a person who opened a brewery. That’s still a rare thing. One of the only beers you all brew is IPA. Is it your go-to shift beer?
SPEVACEK: IPA is my go-to when I go out or get home after a long day. I would say it’s usually the most predictable in flavor—you know what you’re getting if it’s fresh. I love to drink sour beers, but these can really vary in taste. So I usually steer clear of them, unless it’s my own beer and I know the level of sourness and flavor.
FRERICKS: To my palate, a well balanced IPA is second to none. That said, I harbor a rapidly increasing interest in sours.
BARKENHAGEN: I used to enjoy IPA, but my palate has changed the past few years. I prefer a more clean, crisp, refreshing beer like a Vienna-style lager.
PEREZ: I love many different styles of beer. However, my daily go-to is definitely IPA.
GEROVAC: Right now, I’m really into malty beers. I’m especially digging our Vienna lager, La Morena.
PEARCE-SMETS: I love a good IPA, but with the way things are going with the haze craze, IPAs are becoming glorified hoppy wheat beers. I enjoy them, but they’re not IPAs. I want bitterness. I want balance. You go to a fancy restaurant that has a great wine list, good cocktails, and a bad beer list. What goes through your head?
SPEVACEK: I don’t get judgmental because I can appreciate wine and fancy cocktails, but I usually don’t go to restaurants with a bad beer list because my husband refuses to support them.
FRERICKS: Honestly, it’s a huge turnoff. I view the lack of a good local craft beer list, even if it is just four or five options, as an indication that the restaurant is suffering from a lack of imagination and failing to stay relevant. Ultimately, I expect those failings will be reflected in the food as well.
PEREZ: I’m disappointed. There are so many awesome breweries and wonderful beers to choose from, I feel they are doing a disservice to their customers and to their cuisine by not taking the opportunity to offer a good craft beer selection.
GEROVAC: I don’t get judgmental at all. Beer isn’t fancy.
PEARCE-SMETS: I get all bent—especially when it’s all corporate products. It shows they don’t take the time to curate a good list. All it takes is a badass beer buyer to turn a place around. At the end of the day, the consumers care, too. … It’s all about education on both sides of the bar. Who are your female role models, in or out of the industry?
SPEVACEK: That would be my mom. She has taught me that I can do anything that a man can do and more. In brewing, it would be Averie Swanson, head brewer of Jester King in Austin, Texas.
FRERICKS: Natalie Cilurzo from Russian River Brewing Co. comes to mind. She appears to have perfected the art of owning and operating a world-class brewery. She contributes to both her community and the industry as a whole. She’s also married to her longtime business partner, Vinnie, of Pliny the Elder fame.
GEROVAC: Two incredible women I met at the first meeting of the Pink Boots Society (for women in the beer industry): Carol Stoudt from Pennsylvania’s Stoudt Brewing Company, who opened in 1987 with her husband. Like me, she’s brewer and owner. In fact, she’s the first woman brewmaster in the U.S. since prohibition. Laura Ulrich was the other role model I met that day. She has been with Stone Brewing Company since 2004. She’s now their small-batch brewer and president of the Pink Boots Society.