Food & Drink

Meet the Women Bringing Monumental Changes to the MSP Craft Beer Scene

Published On 01/18/2017 Published On 01/18/2017
Sarah Bonvallet
Sarah Bonvallet, Owner and creative director at Dangerous Man Brewing | Jerard Fagerberg/Thrillist

Every time I do an interview at a brewery, I’m always directed to the same person. Typically, I’m referred to the brewer, and typically this brewer is a man -- a congenial dude with a blue-collar ethic and a beard that could sell beer on its own. This image of the brewer has come to epitomize the very identity of brewing in its many facets. This person isn’t just the creator; they’re the manifestation of the entire craft beer industry.

It’s a pervasive association -- find the beard, find the person who knows what they’re talking about. Meanwhile, entire populations of the craft beer world are being ignored. As the industry leaps forward, more and more people that don’t match the archetype have taken leadership roles in the state’s 120-odd brewhouses. Most notably, women have taken a commanding role, occupying positions in all phases of the industry.

Though the outward face of craft beer is still indelibly male, these are the women who are committed to changing the way you think about their industry.

Jerard Fagerberg/Thrillist

The Figurehead

Deb Loch
Co-founder and master brewer, Urban Growler

Jill Pavlak and Deb Loch laid new ground when they opened Urban Growler in 2014. Not only was their co-owned microbrewery the first beermaker in Minnesota owned by women, it was the first with a female head brewer. At the time, it was a novel achievement, and forward-thinking beernuts crammed their brick building in St. Paul to support the cause. Two years later, Loch has seen her company become less of a novelty and more of an institution -- and she couldn’t be prouder of that transition.

“A lot of people don’t actually know that we’re the first woman-owned brewery,” she said. “It’s an interesting fact that might get people here the first time, but I hope they come in the second time for the beer and the service.”

Though she brushes off the term “figurehead,” Loch’s influence on the brewing industry in Minnesota cannot be denied. A biomedical 9-5er turned brewery-owning trailblazer, Loch’s story has intoxicated localvores and earned her countless invites to speak on panels on behalf of her gender. She’s the de facto press contact for anything gender-related in the beer scene. It’s all very flattering, but her intention was only ever to make great beer.

“We love to tell the story, because it’s a way for people to connect,” she said. “People are sometimes nervous to meet us, and we’re like ‘Us? Why?’ We’re just two regular people.”

This identity struggle isn’t new to Urban Growler. Since the beginning, Loch has weighed the idea of selling her business as “the women-owned brewery.” On the one hand, she’s glad to inspire a population she knows is underrepresented in her industry. On the other, she doesn’t want her gender to be a gimmick.

Luckily, Loch is becoming less of an anomaly in her community. In her two years in the commercial space, she’s seen a determined uptick in the number of women joining her ranks. It’s still not quite enough, but if her example can convince anyone that their gender isn’t a factor, then that’s her definition of success.

“More and more women are realizing this is an option and that you don’t have to have a beard to be a brewer,” Loch said. “There’s the scientific aspect of it, and there’s the creative aspect of it, and both parts are gender neutral. You just have to trust that you can do it.”

Jerard Fagerberg/Thrillist

The Empiricist

Rebecca Newman
Quality manager, Summit Brewing

No one in Minnesota beer has a better pedigree than Rebecca Newman.

Though she started out her food science career doing intern-level PR for the California Fresh Eggs Commission, Newman has been part of brain trusts from Anheuser Busch to Dogfish Head. She’s helped turn Sierra Nevada and Samuel Adams into national craft beer behemoths -- it’s a pedigree that got her headhunted by Minnesota’s leading craft brewer Summit Brewing when they were looking to do the same.

”I have 30 years of experience, and that’s my moniker: quality and consistency,” Newman said. “And for me, that quality has always been good if not great.”

But it wasn’t something innate that’s driven Newman to a superlative spot amongst beer scientists in Minnesota. It’s been a measured, longstanding dedication to science. Before she was selling eggs or testing pilot batches, Newman envisioned life in a lab coat, but she bucked her chemistry courses and plans for medical school when she met her husband, and that decision freed her up to join Anheuser Busch right as they were experimenting with aseptic packaging.

“In those days, you got to learn both brewing and packaging through the eyes of quality,” Newman said. “They found out I was a good taster, and I got to learn not only how to make beer but also how to look at process deviation and how you test for changes.”

This procedural training is evident in every facet of Newman’s personality. She is exacting and intimidatingly precise. She navigates conversations like she’s solving an oxidation problem on a bottling line.

In her mind, that’s the ethos women in brewing need to have in order to be taken at their true value. Summit created the quality manager role for Newman when she joined last year because they knew there was no one better suited to take them from legacy local brewer to national player. Newman was so precise about her own value that she didn’t allow them to question it.

“There are some really great women out there coming from engineering science and starting to break into the brewing side of it,” she said. “But you have push through and show that you have the academic training and intestinal fortitude to do the work. Nobody’s going to give anyone it all. You have to work for it.”

Jerard Fagerberg/Thrillist

The Bootstrapper

Kathleen Culhane
Owner and head brewer, Sidhe Brewing

When Kathleen Culhane turns over the palm of her left hand, you can see a scar that stretches from the tip of her middle finger to the stem of her wrist. It’s a dramatic mark, but it’s really a wonder Culhane hasn’t accrued more battle wounds considering the sheer amount of DIY she put into her brewery.

Culhane is the purveyor of St. Paul’s Sidhe Brewing -- a two-barrel watering hole she gleefully refers to as “Minnesota’s Queerest Brewery.” The space isn’t as chic as some of the taprooms springing up in the Twin Cities, but everything from the keg washer she welded to the lab bench she maintains was assembled from her slapped-together training. Though she flayed her palm open when a ladder slipped out from under her while she was hanging DuraBoard, Culhane completed the bulk of the contracting on Sidhe without incident. It’s a point of pride for her.

“I have a hard time relating to people who can’t fix small things,” Culhane said. “My whole life, it seemed to me that, to be able to afford things, I needed to maintain them. I’ve picked up a lot of diverse skills, all of which have contributed to my ability to make and maintain this place.”

Though she has no formal training as brewer, Culhane is one of the most experienced homebrewers to have gone commercial. In her desk, she has stacks of spreadsheets that date her basement batches back to 1998. It’s a skill she taught herself out of necessity -- when there weren’t enough good beers at the liquor store, she made what she wanted herself. That ethic carried over when she finally opened her own brewery in 2014.

Even after a decade and a half, Culhane knows that living by autonomy and self-determination means the work never gets easier. Things improve; but the scars pile up, too. In the end, it just feels right to battle.

“[We’re] the smallest commercial brewer in Minnesota right now,” Culhane said with a satisfied nod. “And we’ve been bootstrapping and shoestringing the whole damn time.”

Jerard Fagerberg/Thrillist

The Humanist

Sarah Bonvallet
Owner and creative director, Dangerous Man Brewing

Sarah Bonvallet’s biggest fear is getting bored.

A trained photojournalist, Bonvallet fell in love with collecting stories. She became addicted to exploring new environments and meeting new people. That’s why her turns in software and nonprofits never stuck. There’s a thirst in here that routine doesn’t satisfy.

“I’m enamored with humanity,” Bonvallet said. “That was my ability to be exposed to so much in the world.”

When her husband Rob Miller wanted to turn his homebrewing operation into a full-time business, she leapt at the opportunity to try something diverse and new. She co-wrote the business plan and volunteered to slog through the licensing while Miller focused on nailing down the processes. When Dangerous Man finally broke ground, she gave herself a title that she knew would keep her from stagnating.

“We have so many talented people on staff -- incredibly creative, idea-generating individuals,” she said. “We’ve set up our business to be very open to everybody’s ideas, and as the creative director, I’m the sifter of those.”

Bonvallet gives her employees a degree of artistic freedom that’s uncommon in brewing. Her extreme empathy has created a culture of collaboration, one that’s made offbeat endeavors like the brewery’s first-of-it’s-kind growler shop or their upcoming community garden into viable realities. Dangerous Man has spun off founding brewers at Modist Brewing and Wisconsin's Oliphant, but it’s also been the launching pad for Farmhouse Madeline Island, a from-scratch eatery adrift in Lake Superior. Successes like these are what enrich Bonvallet’s experience as creative director.

“We don’t have an HR person, so I’m the person who makes sure [people are] moving forward personally and professionally,” she said. “We’ve had very few people leave, and if they have, they’ve gone on to amazing things.”

Bonvallet attributes this anything-is-possible attitude to her father, who raised her without gender limitations. In doing so, he also created an aversion to routine and limitation. “I’ve never felt like gender was a hindrance,” she said. “We have really powerful women here doing awesome things, but it never feels like it matters if they are or aren’t women.”

Jerard Fagerberg/Thrillist

The Pavement Pounder

Marta Daehn
Sales manager, Boom Island Brewing

Log cabin building is only one of the passions Marta Daehn has taken up with obsessive gusto -- just ask her about her chainsaw. When she’s not scribing and cutting logs in the north woods of Minnesota, Daehn spends her days obsessing over specialty coffee and collocating her experiences at local taprooms on her blog, Marta Drinks MN.

“I’m by no means a cicerone or anything like that,” Daehn effaced. “I just like going out and tasting things. It’s just an extension of me, and I’m kind of wacky.”

Daehn’s effusive, try-anything mentality has made her a perfect salesperson for the Belgian revisionists at Boom Island Brewing. In her time working with co-founders Kevin and Qiuxia Welch, she’s done everything from bartending to PR to marketing. Now that she’s settled firmly into a sales role, she’s a leader in making the small-time Northeast brewery a fixture by constantly inserting herself into the community. These days she’s putting in more face time than blogging hours.

“I’m trying to keep up with my writing, but truth be told, I’m out on the streets selling a lot,” she said. “It’s really hard to not be a part of this community, now.”

Sales is perhaps the one sector of the beer industry that’s female-dominated, but that comes with barbs of its own. Daehn has suffered sexist remarks about the role of her appearance in her sales pitches, but she deflects such comments without getting discouraged. She may be reticent when it comes to her technical training, but Daehn is not shy when it comes to wielding the expertise she’s compulsively gathered in the last two years on the road.

“There are these stereotypes about what kind of person works in the beer industry, and I am not that,” she said. “But there’s no reason you shouldn’t give me as much respect as another sales because of my appearance.”

Jerard Fagerberg/Thrillist

The Benefactor

Jacquie Berglund
CEO and co-founder, Finnegans

Jacquie Berglund doesn’t operate like most people in the craft beer industry, and neither does her brewery.

Berglund founded Finnegans as Minnesota’s first charity brewer, and 16 years later, they’re still the only nonprofit beermaker in the state. For those 16 years, Berglund had been brewing under the auspices of Summit Brewing, but next year, she’ll open her own brewery in Minneapolis’ Elliot Park, complete with a social business incubator she calls the Finnovation Lab.

“I’ve never been a brewery owner before,” she said, grinning irrepressibly. “I got into the beer industry because of the social business model. Trying to make a difference and make the world a better place. That’s the core of what we do.”

100% of Finnegans profits are donated to solving hunger in the Midwest. In August -- less than a year after announcing their new space -- Finnegans crossed the $1 million donation mark. Accomplishments like these would satisfy a normal person, but Berglund is built to keep burning. She operates at full sprint and with blinders on.

“I’m out here to compete with everyone else, so let’s go,” she says when asked about her strategy for success. “I’ve got a great product. I’ve got a great business model. And I just go. I focus, and I go.”

Though she’s personally never encountered gender discrimination, Berglund knows that isn’t the case for many women, minorities, and immigrants trying to break into brewing today. That’s why she’s adopted a policy of radical inclusion. She sees Finnegans and the Finnovation Lab as a platform for empowering craft beer’s underrepresented populations. If people can just siphon a droplet of her determination, she thinks it can give them the confidence to persevere.

Jerard Fagerberg/Thrillist

The Legacy

Tara Alcure
Minnesota market manager, Surly Brewing

Tara Alcure started in the beer industry nine years before she could even drink. Working at her dad’s distributor in Chisago City, a 12-year-old Alcure sifted through packages with broken bottles, repackaging the intact product for shipping. It was sticky, unholy work, especially for a preteen.

“I had glue gun burns all over my hands, and there were fruit flies everywhere,” Alcure said, looking back. “It was awful.”

But the experience wasn’t enough to keep Alcure away. She continued to work there into adulthood, doing everything from route management to signmaking to inventory control. When, after 88 years of family ownership, her father sold the company to J.J. Taylor Distributing in 2012, she transitioned over, managing brands like Deschutes and Brooklyn Brewery.

After a stint as Green Flash’s liaison to the Midwest, Alcure was brought into Surly to help the flagship Minnesota craft brewer continue its path towards national distribution.

Since joining in 2015, Alcure has helped Surly move into North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska only a few short months after touching down in bars and liquor stores in Wisconsin and Iowa. Alcure has also brokered deals with big chains like Target, Costco, and Buffalo Wild Wings, leaning the brunt of her five-generation legacy into making Surly one of the most widely available Minnesota brands in the country.

As the granddaughter of the first woman to own a distributor in Minnesota, Alcure’s legacy as a woman in beer is also something she prides herself on. She remember attending distributor meetings with over 60 attendees and being the only woman in the room. Now, things are changing -- there are more women are taking up management positions, and as the new guard of craft brewers begins to steal market share, the playing field is evening in a way she’s never experienced.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but when I started, it was really at the cusp of the boom,” she said. “Now, it’s crazy to see how many women are in the business now even over the last seven years.”

Jerard Fagerberg/Thrillist

The Executer

Kate Winkel
Taproom manager, Bauhaus Brew Labs

About a year ago, bartenders at Bauhaus Brew Labs noticed there was something wrong with the bartop. When they’d set a glass down, it’d slide down the wood, plummeting towards the patron’s lap. Kate Winkel knew how to fix it -- she got herself two of the biggest slabs of oak she’d ever seen, sanded them, treated them, and popped it in place of the old warped counter.

Just like that, no more wandering pints.

This sort of no-bullshit, results-driven execution has been Winkel’s legacy at Bauhaus. Bauhaus’s owners the Schwandt family knew they wanted their brewery to be an idea-driven beer playground, but they also knew there had to be someone grounded enough to help them make those ideas come to life. That’s why they poached Winkel -- a 10 year vet of the Twin Cities service industry -- from her job at Heyday before they even opened their doors.

“There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work here,” Winkel said, referring to the brewery’s full calendar of events and parties. “I’m the execution. It’s like being the captain of a ship. The ship has to sail, and that’s kind of my job.”

Winkel knows that the taproom manager doesn’t have the most alluring role at the brewery. People in her position aren’t being featured in The Growler often, and being a woman only compounds the situation.

“I know more about beer than half the male population that walks in here,” she said. “But any of the bearded fellas up there, they’re the ones who get the question ‘Do you own the place?’ They don’t look at me as an Asian woman and assume I’m in the leadership position.”

She admits that’s getting better though. As the operational boots on the ground at Bauhaus, it’s her mandate to create experiences for drinkers that extend beyond the product in the glass. Making sure the bartop doesn’t sabotage your experience is part of the job, but it’s just as important to build an environment that regularly challenges sexist instincts.

“I’m very particular about who is gonna come onto my team, and I like hiring women,” she said. “More people need to see, and they need to hear us talk about beer.”

Jerard Fagerberg/Thrillist

The Extrovert

Amanda Buhman
Account manager, One Simple Plan, and administrator, Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild

Amanda Buhman’s enthusiasm is persuasive. She has a smile so big that it lifts the aviators off her nose and onto her forehead, and when she talks about the beer business, it makes you want to quit your day job and open up a three-barrel brewhouse in your garage.

“The trajectory that we’re in right now is extremely exciting,” Buhman said. “We’re a fledgling industry trying to catch up with their own growth. I’m consistently amazed to be at the table for it all.”

Buhman’s started working for Minneapolis PR agency One Simple Plan in 2011, the same year brewing in Minnesota erupted thanks to the Surly Bill. At the time, she was an admitted wine snob, but she hadn’t fallen in love with the world of beer yet. That was until the Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild became a client and Buhman wanted to rise to the occasion.

“Now, I hardly recognize that old self. I feel like a peer with men in the industry,” she said

Buhman isn’t just the PR rep for the Guild, she also holds a position as an administrator, which is incredibly unique in her field. But in typical, enthusiastic fashion, she’s thrown herself into it uninhibitedly. You can often find Buhman at Guild events ushering patrons towards entrances and manning booths as the public -- and very personable -- face of the Craft Brewer’s Guild.

In addition to her weekend work with the Guild, Buhman’s 9-5 responsibilities are padded with after hours face time and entertaining clients. It’s more socially exhausting than any other sector in the beer industry --  you have to be outgoing to keep up --  and no one is as effervescently, tirelessly outgoing as Buhman.

“There’s a certain kind of frenetic environment that I'm naturally geared for,” she said, beaming to excess. “I apparently don’t know how to relax.”

Jerard Fagerberg/Thrillist

The Evangelist

Paige Latham
Local beer blogger

On a Monday night, Modist Brewing in North Loop is packed with patrons, each one holding a notebook as they glare glassy-eyed at a projection screen. They trade notes with sips, engrossed in the words of Paige Latham as she walks them through the science of late- and early-stage hopping.

The sold-out event is part of a series of courses designed by Latham and Modist to help educate the general public on how to better understand (and thus enjoy) beer, but it’s only the licensed cicerone’s latest attempt at universalizing craft brewing -- a mission she’s lived her entire adult life.

“I really appreciate handmade local products that benefit craft industries,” Latham said. “So if I can take someone’s dollars and put it towards someone I know making the beer, that’s personally important to me.”

Latham took up craft beer evangelism after a road trip in Wisconsin exploded her palette. She chronicled the trip on a blog, but that quickly expanded into a full-fledged home for all her beer adventures entitled Alcohol By Volume. The more she wrote, the more she wanted to learn.

ABV has always been about letting people in; Latham’s writing is approachable, unassuming, and reads like a serialized guide for how to get into beer. Much of the knowledge Latham dispenses was garnered from her time working at the now-defunct St. Louis Park bottle shop the Four Firkins. It was at there that she became a Cicerone Certified Beer Server, gradually developing a competitively astute palette for beer.

Latham’s reputation earned her freelance work as a critic for The Heavy Table, and it progressed her work at ABV as well, but the skill to taste wasn’t the only takeaway she took from the Firkins. Her time at the sample table also taught her the addictive satisfaction of converting people to craft beer. She wouldn’t be coaching a roomful of novices if it weren’t for the regular world-shattering she conducted during that time.

“Expanding the definition of beer is what I’m interested in,” Latham said. “I really enjoyed seeing people come up and say, ‘What’s the closest you’ve got to a Budweiser?,’ and I’d give them a Surly Hell or a Lagunitas Pils and totally make their day and surprise them.”

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Jerard Fagerberg is a cisgendered white dude who loves beer, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to be. Help him expand the definition of “beer drinker” at @jgfagerberg.

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