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Brewsters: A look at the women behind West Michigan's craft beer industry

Pauline Knighton, Shorts Brewery Beer Liberator.

We hear about the boys, the beards, and the brawlers, but what about the broads? As Grand Rapids continues to grow its craft beer culture, more women are becoming involved in the industry and taking on creative and leadership positions right beside their male counterparts. On the heels of last weekend's 10th Annual Winter Beer Festival and in advance of this weekend's Women of Craft Beer event at the Downtown Market, Lauren Carlson gets to know some of the women behind the beverages.
 We hear about the boys, the beards, and the brawlers, but what about the broads? As Grand Rapids, now named Beer City USA, continues to grow its craft beer culture, more women are becoming involved in the industry and taking on creative and leadership positions right beside their male counterparts. Showing peers and consumers that craft beer brewing, tasting and marketing isn't just a boys' club, the women behind greater Grand Rapids' tasty craft brews are changing the perception of the industry, one beer at a time.

"I've never been intimidated by the men," says Manda Geiger, brewster for Pike 51 Brewery in Hudsonville. Geiger started her career in craft beer 10 years ago at Hideout Brewing Co., where she worked her way from bartender to brewer, soaking up the knowledge of her colleagues. Transitioning to Pike 51 two years ago, she was excited to work alongside friend and head brewer Jeff Williams while continuing to perfect her craft.
In the craft beer industry, Geiger has always felt accepted. "They've never treated me like I'm 'just a girl,'" she says. Geiger is also thankful for more female colleagues, who continue to change the industry. "[There are] at least 10 women now that I can name that are actually brewing," she adds.

"Women are not afraid of beer," agrees Kris Spaulding, co-owner of Brewery Vivant. Spaulding's own interest in beer led her to frequent trips to New Holland Brewery, where she first met future husband Jason Spaulding. Later, after he left his position at New Holland, Spaulding saw their potential to found their own brewery, which opened in 2010 on Cherry St.

Serving as co-owner and sustainability director, and also handing Vivant's human resources operations and charitable contributions, Spaulding's hands are full. "My passion is the community stuff as well," she says.
With a goal of contributing 10 percent of Vivant's annual profits to charity, Spaulding spends much of her time allocating and administering these charitable funds. "A lot of people are still surprised that a woman can be involved as an owner," says Spaulding, who tackles much of Vivant's behind-the-scenes, though vital, operations.

Independent brewers are also making a name for women in the industry, forming groups that champion education and host events especially for women. Sheryl Rose, who founded the Pussycat Beer Guild in 2008, says, "We take anybody that wants to join."
Sheryl Rose, leader of the Pussy Cat Beer Guild. Opening their doors to women of all levels of interest, Pussycat educates, brews beer and hosts guided style tastings and field trips. "It's a safe environment to ask questions," she says. In collaboration with HopCat, the group brewed and sold their 5th anniversary beer, S'more Sassiness, at this year's 10th Annual Winter Beer Festival, hosted by the Michigan Brewers Guild just last weekend.

Pauline Knighton, south central beer liberator for Shorts Brewing and president of Fermenta, also seeks to educate and empower women in the industry through her seven-month-old nonprofit. Fermenta differs from Pussycat because their events are open to men, and they also focus on wine, cider and spirits, in addition to beer.
"Michigan is just really strong in those other beverages," says Knighton. With 120 paying members, some of whom also participate in Pussycat, Fermenta travels and hosts events each month in different cities and regions of Michigan.

In just over one year in craft beer, Knighton has had "very positive experiences with men and women in the industry," she says. Mostly, she feels that consumers of craft beer tend to stereotype brewers and other beer professionals, assuming that men are more knowledgeable or more experienced. However, "it's like one third women now," she says. Rose agrees, citing the giant leaps women have made in the 15 years that she has been a part of the industry. "Its an exciting time to be a woman," she says.

Another newcomer to the industry is also making waves for beer experts, men and women alike. One of the area's only certified Cicerones, Angela Steil recently accepted a position of beer director at new taphouse and grill Gravity on the East Beltline. One of only approximately 2000 in the world to pass this extensive, international exam, Steil knows her stuff.

After graduating from Grandville High School, Steil spent two years in New York, at first to join the modeling industry, and then to soak up the urban craft beer culture. "I had all of these incredible beer options open to me," she says. Drawn to craft beer from the very start, Steil learned of the Cicerone program and soon began studying to reach her ultimate goal of Master Cicerone. Abandoning a career that forced her to constantly lose weight, she found her true calling.

A panelist at the upcoming Women of Craft Beer event at the Downtown Market on Friday, March 6th, Steil looks forward to diving into the Grand Rapids beer scene and forming relationships with its talented women. "There's plenty of opportunities to get involved around here," she says.
Though craft beer is "kind of a man's industry," says Steil, she is confident that women can make a splash in Grand Rapids. Most importantly, she asks, "How can we improve our time in the beer industry?" noting that perception, not numbers, will truly make the difference for women in the culture.

These women, and many others, are slowly but surely changing the perception of the industry for craft beer consumers. As brewers, owners, marketers or directors, the women of West Michigan prove that craft beer is accessible to all types—no beards required. 

Lauren F. Carlson is a freelance writer and editor, Aquinas alumna, and Grand Rapids native. Her work can be found at www.emptyframecreative.com, and she can be reached at lauren@emptyframecreative.com for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird
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