Breaking beer’s glass ceiling: Women at St. Louis craft breweries help diversify the industry
Beer, like other industries, faces the challenge of becoming more diverse.
Research from the trade industry group Brewers Association shows 92% of brewers at businesses throughout the country are men, as is 85% of the total production staff.
“Seeing how much that number is male-heavy I think is a little bit surprising,” said association chief economist Bart Watson.
“Beer is not exclusively loved by men. You know, women love beer too.”
Efforts to shift away from a male-dominated industry can be found in the St. Louis region.
“Women can brew. Just like we can do anything else,” said Abbey Spencer, the head brewer at Third Wheel Brewing in St. Peters.
She became a big craft beer fan after moving to the area from Chicago a few years ago. Spencer tried some brews at a local watering hole, which led to enrolling at a free beer school and eventually a new career.
“This fun little hobby of trying craft beer eventually morphed into home brewing,” she said while working among the shiny silver brewing tanks this summer at the operation just off I-70 in St. Charles County. “Eventually it morphed into me creating this women's craft beer club and homebrew group and then eventually working in the industry, and then it led me here.”
Initially, Spencer didn’t want gender to be a focus while on the job, but the owners liked the idea.
"Having that as almost a schtick, little did they know I had no interest in the schtick,” she said.
Spencer changed her mind after a friend doing marketing for the brewery pointed out that others look to her as proof of career opportunities for women in beer.
While serving as a mentor is a big step forward, Spencer says more work is needed to further open the industry.
"Let's figure this out in this male-dominated industry - white, bearded male-dominated industry," Spencer said. "How can we make it a little more diverse, and how can we make it more welcoming to everybody else?”
There is progress.
The Brewers Association is working on education programs and focusing more on general inclusivity. Also, a group known as the Pink Boots Society, which has a St. Louis chapter, is devoted to helping women and nonbinary people build successful beer careers.
Spencer says he’s pleased with the efforts but admits, “It’s a slow go.”
Another lead female brewer in the area also recognizes the pace of improving diversity.
“I think it's a slow process, but that's typically how change works," said Danielle Snowden, who leads the brewing efforts at Earthbound Beer on Cherokee Street in St. Louis.
On the surface, Earthbound is full of the smells, tastes and tanks of a typical brewery. But below, it has something cool - a massive cellar built in the 1860s that gives the operation unique character.
“This is definitely German engineering at its finest because they knew what they were doing when it came to lagering cellars for beer.”
The area now stores empty beer containers after the owners turned to Craigslist a few years ago to find people to help remove the massive amount of debris that fell in the space over the years.
Snowden enjoys showing the cellar, along with making beer at Earthbound.
She’s worked her way up from giving tours, washing kegs, bartending and other responsibilities. Despite that background, Snowden still gets reminders of being a woman in a male-dominated industry.
"You have to put up with some sexist stuff, but you know, I don't pay a lot of attention to that," Snowden said. “Of course, I’ve had experiences at beer festivals where I’d be there with a man and people come up and just assume that he knows more about beer than I do.
“That's not people being malicious. I think that’s just what their mind says this is what craft beer looks like.”
One of her solutions is to highlight more women, people of color and LGBTQ community members involved in the industry.
Despite the challenges, Snowden sees the career field as a chance to constantly learn.
“Craft beer is always evolving,“ she said while admitting failure is part of the learning process. “I tried to home brew a Kale and cucumber beer, and it was awful.”
Although that concoction didn’t work out, Snowden has come up with more successful suds than duds, just like her counterpart at Third Wheel Brewing in St. Peters.
One of Abbey Spencer’s biggest beer lessons came after spending more than six hours peeling and chopping peaches for a new brew.
“Not one peach flavor. Not one peach aroma,” she said. “Now I know. Just by the puree."
Even if more creations are not successful, Spencer and Snowden plan to keep trying to make craft beer drinkers in St. Louis happy while the industry takes a more diverse path.