A woman’s place is by the kettle

Lee John checks one of the fermenters at Apocalypse Ale Works in Forest. (Photo by Lee Graves)

Lee John checks one of the fermenters at Apocalypse Ale Works in Forest. (Photo by Lee Graves)

Lee John had something to prove.

Two things, actually: that she could brew delicious beer and that she could succeed in a male-dominated business.

Task No. 1 necessitated waiting until her husband, Doug, was out of town. An award-winning home brewer, beer instructor and owner of their retail shop, Pints O’ Plenty in Forest, Va., Doug had been at Lee’s elbow for many a batch.

Now, the stakes were different. Their dream was to open a brewery — Apocalypse Ale Works — but the law prevented Doug from heading both a retail shop and a brewery. So Lee got the nod.

With Doug gone, she brewed solo. And not some simple pale ale, but a complex porter-based recipe using dark cherries, wine yeast and bourbon-soaked oak chips.

“I presented it at the home brewers’ meeting, and it was a success,” Lee said.

Task No. 2 is a work in progress. Apocalypse Ale Works is firing on all fermenters since its Feb. 1 opening with a tasting room in Forest and kegs distributed in Richmond, Lynchburg and elsewhere. Lee joins a small circle of women who not only brew professionally but also head a beer business.

“It’s getting better, but it’s a man’s profession,” Lee says. “If Doug is standing next to me, people will talk to him and ignore me. I don’t fault them — it’s always been a male-dominated profession.”

Well, not entirely. One of my favorite aspects of beer tradition is the strong role of women. Ninkasi, the top goddess of ancient Sumeria, was the culture’s chief brewer. In the Middle Ages, alewives did just what the name suggests — kept the ale flowing for the men of the castle (and tavern). Martha Jefferson, the matron of Monticello, was renowned for her brewing.

“Martha was making all the small beer,” Doug says. “It was the traditional role.”

These days, not so much.

“Anecdotally, I would guess that women brewers make up about 1 percent of the brewers in North America, probably less worldwide,” says Teri Fahrendorf. She is president and founder of the Pink Boots Society (rubber boots are de rigueur for brewing). The nonprofit provides educational opportunities to women in the beer profession. Its membership has grown to more than 850 worldwide. The society lists seven members in Virginia, including Mary Wolf, owner of Wild Wolf Brewing Co. in Nellysford, and Rachael Cardwell, assistant brewer at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond.

“We are the female movers and shakers in the beer industry,” declares the society’s website.

So why are women such a minority? For decades, beer was considered a blue-collar drink, Fahrendorf says. Women were a small part of the consumer base and had little interest in beer as a business. As the foodie movement has grown, craft beers have brought more women to the table — and into the industry.

But brewing is no breeze. “It is a very physically demanding job, with long, hard hours,” Lee John says.

Like some other couples who have made a mark in brewing — Carol and Ed Stoudt of Stoudt’s Brewing Co. in Pennsylvania, Deb and Daniel Carey of New Glarus Brewing Co. in Wisconsin — the Johns are a team. He does the recipes, she does the tasting room, and they both brew.

“He’s my unpaid technical assistant,” Lee explains with a smile.

“It was a dream I forced upon Lee,” Doug says wryly.

On a quiet Monday, Doug and co-brewer Bryson Foutz began kegging Apocalypse’s new seasonal, Sixth Seal Chocolate Stout. The brewery formerly housed the local fire department, so they have room to spare for their gleaming 30-barrel system. Outside, stairs climb to a furnished deck and the tasting room. One wall sports posters of the beers’ bold labels: Golden Censer, an unfiltered wheat beer; Hoppocalypse Imperial Red Ale, a big, balanced brew; and Lustful Maiden, a Belgian Dubbel.

Lee explains the brewery’s name. “Apocalypse means the end for a new beginning,” she says. She and her husband left regular salaried jobs to embark on their beer adventure. “Now we’re able to do something that makes us happy,” Lee says. “The pleasure that I get from seeing people’s faces the first time they take a sip of our beer — it’s a huge payoff.”

As she speaks, Doug comes up from the brewery to check the line to the taps. They pour a few ounces of the rich, brown stout into glasses, swirl and sip.

“Mmmm,” Doug murmurs.

“I think it could use a little more carbonation,” Lee says, and Doug agrees. Before heading back downstairs, he leans over, gives Lee a peck on the cheek and says two words.

“Congratulations, honey.”

This entry was posted in Vicki's View. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *