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Ladies of the Kettle

Ladies of the Kettle

Starting women’s homebrew revolution, one batch at a time.

In The Naked Pint, Hallie Beaune and Christina Perozzi share, “In Medieval times, it was not unusual for the women to be the primary brewers of the household and town. In some cases even master brewers. The Brewers Guild formed and gained power after the 1300’s at which point women were then rarely allowed to be certified brewers.”

So there was a lapse.

A 600 year lapse- in which women weren’t recognized as brewers. The American Homebrewers Association conducted a survey of homebrew supply shops in 2008. 72% of respondents indicated that less than 10% of their beer-brewing customers were female. Another survey conducted in 2007 revealed that 96% of the Association were men.

George Hummel who has owned Home Sweet Homebrew with partner Nancy Rigberg since 1990 says this is changing. “More women are coming through then before and definitely more couples have become involved in the hobby.”

It didn’t take me long to find three die-hards in our great beer city.

Dana Mathes is an interior designer by day. Steph Weber, who actually brewed six batches of beer for her own wedding, is the woman behind the kitchen savvy blog, “brew.cook.pair.joy” but daytimes it as a software engineer. The third, Natalie DeChico, you can find grading papers for a paycheck then manning the taps at Hulmeville Inn for tips at night.

For the cute-as-a-button-quail DeChico, it’s inherited. “My dad has been homebrewing since 1992, I was in second grade. I grew up helping him brew. I used to hate the smell of the wort boiling. I thought it smelled like stewed tomatoes. My dad let me help him stir the wort and bottle the beer.”

During her senior year at Penn State, she studied abroad in England, where she was exposed to cask conditioned ales. “When I returned home, my dad and I found a recipe for an IPA from the Kings and Barnes brewery in Horsham, England. It had golden syrup in it, which is what the British put on their pancakes instead of maple syrup. The perfect balance of hops and sweet malt taste was amazing.”

The couple that brews together stays together? Mathes started home brewing when her and her husband got a kit as a wedding gift. “It’s a nice thing to do together and I never brew without him although he sometimes brews without me.” They’ve really run the gamut with styles, getting as intense as once brewing a coffee porter with 12 cups of espresso.

It was a similar start for Weber. “Tim, my husband (then boyfriend) and I started back in college. We had been getting really into craft beer and were trying as many different beers from as many different breweries as we could. We were at Victory Brewing Company geeking out about their beer, when one of our friends said, ‘Why don’t you guys try making your own?’ A couple months later, we bought all the equipment and were off on our way!”

Weber’s proudest effort is the “Grand Cru,” which was brewed to commemorate their 100th batch of beer. Their centennial beer was brewed with cherries, golden raisins, aged on French oak.

Once you’ve got your “baby” brewed- you want to share it. Taking homebrews to BYOS, brewing for weddings and special events are common. “I am so proud and excited to share my homemade beer,” says ALEiens DeChico. “I bring my beer everywhere I possibly can: restaurants, friend’s houses, family reunions, birthday parties, etc.”

I can’t believe I’m about to share this. My first attempt at homebrewing was participating in a company contest, LongShot, with Boston Beer in 2004. I started with good intentions. I walked into Hummel’s shop and he gave me a recipe for witbier. I got orange peel and coriander, extract, and the hops (the varietal escapes me). Something awful happened along the way. My homebrew was foiled, but I couldn’t admit failure to my company so I took the advice of an acquaintance, and started doctoring up bottles. He had me adding half a bottle of Lindeman’s Peche to half a bottle of unpalatable homebrew. I knew nothing. He frequently made mead, so I thought he would have a credible solution. I would ship the shady bottles to Boston. I would get the team points for my company contest, and no one would ever talk about how bad my beer was. I thought way wrong.

Apparently the sixer exploded at an airport. I got hate mail from FedEx. Their words were not gentle, nor professional. I wish I would have saved the profanity-laden letter. I now ship UPS.

I did want to learn though. I actually spent my 25th birthday some years ago at Nodding Head Brewpub, stewarding a homebrew competition. I still want to learn. I’ve wanted to brew with my significant-other, a professional brewer himself. But I guess he gave up the five gallon pot 12 years ago when he got his commercial system.

Pringles style- once you start you can’t stop. Weber said, “The first beer we brewed was an extract kit from Midwest Supplies called Honey Weizen. At the time, we were pretty sure it was the best beer we had ever tasted, and were hooked from then on out.”

Weber has been brewing all-grain for two years now. Mathes and DeChico are starting to make the switch from extract. All the ladies brew with liquid yeast. White Labs seemed to be the favorite.

“I think the liquid yeast is healthier and more prolific. I also use a yeast starter for all my brews to increase the amount of yeast I am pitching into my beer and to also make sure all my fermentables are used up,” says DeChico.

She is always thinking outside the box. Currently in her secondary vessel she has “Sonny’s Citra Pale Ale.” The ale uses only the Citra hops in the boil, zest from oranges, tangerines, and a grapefruit, Cara Munich malt, golden light liquid malt extract, and is currently in the secondary with two vanilla beans. I am hoping that it has a mild sweet malt taste, citrus hop taste and scent, and finishes with a touch of vanilla. I made up the recipe myself so I am interested to see how it turns out.”

That’s what the creative brewer loves most about brewing- the designing process. As Randy Mosher questions in Tasting Beer, How strong will it be? What will be the color? Bitterness? What primary flavors are you going for?

She mentions that ALEiens, the homebrew club of which she is the sole female member, was so inspired by Flying Fish’s Exit 4, an American Trippel, that they bought a pound of the new Citra hops to split it among some members.

The hop crisis of 2007 didn’t affect DeChico’s homegrown hobby.

“No, it’s kind of like gas… do you stop driving when gas prices increase? Nope. I love hops and often brew hoppy beers so I don’t mind spending a bit extra to achieve the style I am looking for. I also tried to grow my own hops last year and am giving it another go this summer.”

Weber lives in Oaks, just about half an hour from Keystone Homebrew Supply in Montgomeryville. “We buy our base malts in 50 lb sacks, so shipping would be ridiculous if we ordered all of our ingredients from an online retailer. Plus, it’s important to support your local homebrew shop!”

I like the idea of visiting the shop, but there are many people turning to the internet these days to order. A major advantage is that they tend to not be out of stock on desired items and ingredients.

DeChico recommends Midwestsupplies.com which boasts a huge selection at a very low cost.

Although it’s commonly believed that sanitation is the hardest part, Weber disagrees, “Many home brewers get way too worked up over sanitation! The hardest part in my opinion is brewing with consistency, which requires extreme precision, diligent note-taking and rigorous temperature control.”

Mathes gives kudos to her better brewing half, “I do not consider myself the brains behind the brewing operation.” She knows her role as “head sanitizer.” I just enjoy it because it’s something fun for us to do together.”

With all this beer being brewed, it begs the question for home brewers-who even needs to go to the bar? The Webers have a basement bar that’s actually built around a chest freezer with the capacity for six beers on tap simultaneously. But they have a five year business plan to own a brewpub to be called Twin Leaf Brewery.

DeChico has her home bar all planned out. “Three taps: one for a session beer, one for a butt-kicker beer, and the third for my homebrew!”

“I am actually working on a new club competition. Think Iron Chef with beer…” I have a hunch you’ll be hearing a lot more about the young DeChico in the future.

We need more women to join these three dynamic home brewing ladies. As the cliché goes, we’re doing well. We need to do better. We need more Carol Stoudts. More Kim Jordans. More Whitney Thompsons.

Beer Activist Chris O’Brien, in the enlightening book, Fermenting Revolution lectures “If more women were brewers, beer would appeal to more women.” He continues, “For beer, the most commonly consumed alcoholic beverage in the world to be so male dominant, is both an injustice and a tragedy. The injustice is in excluding so many from something so good. The tragedy is that lacking feminine influence, beer is still far from achieving its full potential.”

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