Claire Winder. Lady Brewer

Claire Winder’s work at Saint Arnold Brewing Co. requires physical strength and a special wardrobe. Photo: James Nielsen / © Houston Chronicle 2012

When she was 13, Claire Winder‘s parents thought modeling school would help her overcome shyness.

Last week, the now grown-up and personable Winder did indeed strike a pose for a photographer as a bystander called her a “rock star.”

But instead of a catwalk in Milan, she strode the tiled floors of Saint Arnold Brewing Co. Her fashion sense was expressed in a red T-shirt and shorts, accented with safety glasses and a pair of rubber work boots. She is one of eight professional brewers on staff, and the only woman of the bunch.

“The joke with me now is that I have man hands,” said Winder, 25, holding them out for inspection. “Because I used to have really girly hands. You get your calluses quickly.”

Winder is one of relatively few women in the U.S. to draw her pay in the male-dominated and physically demanding world of brewing. The job requires her to lug bags of grain, boxes of hops and the unwieldy hoses that snake their way around the brewhouse floor.

Brewery work also entails a lot of cleaning. Last week, Winder was monitoring the machine that swept spent grain from a huge stainless-steel brewing vessel. She soon would slip inside from a porthole-type opening at the top to finish the job by hand.

Wynne Odell, CEO and co-founder of Odell Brewing Co. in Colorado, a state with a strong craft-beer market and more than 100 breweries, said she wishes more women were interested in working there. Odell has just two women in the production area, both of whom started on the bottling line.

“It’s not a job for everyone,” Odell said. “Although it’s very romantic in concept, what you’re doing, it’s not really.”

Thriving industry

Yet brewery jobs are booming as smaller, independently owned craft breweries open across the country to rival the global brewing giants such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller. The Brewers Association recently reported there are more than 2,100 breweries and brewpubs in the U.S. today, up from just 89 in the late 1970s.

“I can generally say I feel (the number of) women brewers is increasing since craft brewers have come on the scene with many more brewing jobs available since the 1980s,” Julia Herz, the Brewers Association’s craft beer program director, said in an email.

The trade group doesn’t track brewers by gender, but the Oregon-based Pink Boots Society counts more than 850 members working in the industry. Winder is one of eight Texans on the rolls; the others list their jobs as brewmaster/owner, cellarwoman and five sales and other non-brewing positions.

Born in England to a chemical engineer father who moved the family to Houston when she was 4 years old, Winder’s European parents saw nothing odd about taking her to beer festivals, including the short-lived ones at downtown’s Market Square park. There, 8-year-old Claire was introduced to Brock Wagner, founder of a new microbrewery he had christened Saint Arnold.

Fast-forward to June 2011. Winder had completed her undergraduate and master’s biology studies in the United Kingdom. She was back in Houston to consider her options and had asked Wagner to serve as a reference on a job application.

But Wagner, who had kept up with the Winder family over the years, asked if she had considered brewing. He liked her science background and hired her for a full-time position.

Part of the team

One of the first challenges was to find a pair of rubber work boots that fit. They had to be special-ordered. But more than a year later, even as she prepared to start a graveyard shift, Winder said, “It’s never a boring job.”

And her male colleagues, while a little quiet around her at first, quickly embraced her as part of the team.

“Nobody thinks less of you because you’re a woman,” she said. “There’s not that kind of vibe.”

Meanwhile, a beer marketing expert says the industry is, advisedly, paying more attention to women beer consumers as well.

“My goal is to make myself obsolete,” said Ginger Johnson, founder of the 4-year-old Women Enjoying Beer.

Johnson is a frequent speaker and fierce advocate for breweries – consulting for the likes of New Belgium, best known for its Fat Tire amber ale, and the renowned Wynkoop brewpub in Denver – to take women beer drinkers seriously and appeal to them as independent-minded consumers with sophisticated palates who just happen to make the lion’s share of purchase decisions in the nation’s grocery stores.

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