Home beer brewing calls to a new generation -- and to women

NOT JUST FOR GUYS: Nathalie Balandran tends to a brew during a meeting.
NOT JUST FOR GUYS: Nathalie Balandran tends to a brew during a meeting.
(Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times)
Special to The Times

IT’S ONE of the many home brew competitions that take place around the country each year. There’s the panel of certified judges, the international entrants in 28 categories of beer and mead -- and there’s the hops-filled afternoon of sipping and scribbling until a winner is crowned.

But photos on the website for the Queen of Beer’s Women’s Homebrew competition -- this year’s judging takes place Oct. 25 -- hint at the special flavor of the contest held for the last 12 years in Placerville, east of Sacramento. Last year’s grand-prize winner glams for the camera in a rhinestone tiara; a few scrolls below, Miss Queen of Beer 2005 models a pink faux-fur crown, a bottle of her winning Russian Imperial stout proudly in hand.

Ladies, fire up your brew pots and polish those carboys. Your pint glasses are waiting.

Home brewers: An Oct. 1 Food section article about women and home brewing of beer stated that Jillian Wallis volunteered to update the Pacific Gravity Home Brewers club website. In fact, she updated the website of Culver City Home Brewing Supply Co., which hosts the club. —

Women have recently become more visible in the home-brewing world as novice and veteran home-brewing aficionadas are joining online forums, networking, entering competitions, even starting their own women-only home brew clubs.

Christy Elshof, the 55-year-old president of the California Homebrewers Assn., or CHA, a nonprofit home-brewing education organization in Santee, Calif., says she has only a handful of female friends her age who home brew. It’s the younger generation that is leading the charge.

Beginning in the late 1990s, Elshof says, the number of women at home-brewing club meetings and festivals decreased, but, she says, “About two years ago, there was a resurgence of women in their 20s and 30s entering [our competitions] and attending our home-brew festivals.” Overall attendance at the CHA’s annual Southern California Homebrewers Festival held in May in Ventura has also increased.

Women in professional brewing are beginning to network with their peers as well as with amateur brewers. Media outlets have also recently taken notice of women in the field. The Phoenix-based national beer magazine Draft profiled a quintet of prominent brewing women in its May/June issue including Tonya Cornett of Bend Brewing in Bend, Ore.

The current issue of Imbibe, the Portland, Ore.-based beverage magazine, carries a story about 27-year-old brewer Elba Copado of Tlaquepaque, Mexico. And the trade publication Beer Northwest highlights eight female pros in its current issue, including Lucky Labrador’s Abby Sherrill.

Women aren’t neophytes when it comes to home brewing -- they’ve kept a watchful eye over bubbling pots of fermenting grains for centuries. Throughout the Middle Ages, English and Scottish women routinely brewed beer. Some opened public ale houses, although by the late 18th century, alewives were replaced by brewers at monasteries and commercial beer houses.

Teri Fahrendorf, former head brewer at Steelhead Brewing’s California and Oregon facilities for 17 years and one of the first women to brew commercially in the United States, attributes the renewed female interest in home brewing to the thriving craft beer industry.

“It’s a natural progression from appreciating beer to making it,” says Fahrendorf, who brewed her first batch in 1984 at age 25. “We’ve got this generation of women who developed a taste for craft beers at a young age. Once you taste a dark stout or a sour cherry beer, it’s like good food and cooking -- you want to make it yourself.”

Golden State brewers

CALIFORNIA is home to almost a dozen active professional women brewers, cellar women and brewery lab technicians, according to a list compiled by Fahrendorf for her website, the Pink Boots Society, devoted to bringing professional women brewers together. The site launched an organization; the group’s first meeting was in April during the San Diego Craft Brewers Conference.

Neva Parker, the 29-year-old laboratory manager at San Diego’s White Labs, a commercial manufacturer of yeast for brewing, distilling and winemaking, didn’t home brew until she started working at the lab six years ago. She’s a member of San Diego-based QUAFF (Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity), a San Diego home brew club that has seen an increase in female membership.

“There’s this different perspective . . . more build a recipe from scratch . . . with women who home brew. It’s one of the things that drew me to finding other women at the club.”

In Los Angeles, 36-year-old Christian Perozzi, a beverage consultant who has designed beer menus at local restaurants such as Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, promotes women and beer through the online forum she launched last month, Beer for Chicks. Recent discussion threads include “You know you’re a beer geek if . . .” and members’ favorite fall beers.

When Perozzi and Nathalie Balandran, a 24-year-old nursing student, couldn’t find a local ladies’ home brew club, they organized one.

“We started as this little collection of women who enjoyed brewing and wanted a place where we could exchange information and meet new friends,” says Balandran, who works nights pouring pints at Father’s Office in Santa Monica. “But we wanted a place without that intimidating feeling you can get from the guys’ clubs, especially if you’re new to brewing.”

Balandran and Perozzi’s club is a spinoff of Culver City-based Pacific Gravity. By joining with an existing club, they were able to use the same local brewers supply store as the male-dominated parent club for meetings and keg storage. The five-member Pacific Gravity Ladies Homebrew Club brews a different beer at each meeting.

Home-brewing clubs have often seemed to female enthusiasts like an outgrowth of guys’ nights out. Tongue-in-cheek names such as the SLOBs (San Luis Obispo Brewers) don’t soften that image.

“I hate to say it, but it felt like a middle-aged men’s club,” recalls 29-year-old home brewer Jillian Wallis, a PhD candidate at UCLA, who attended a Pacific Gravity Home Brewers club meeting shortly after she moved to Los Angeles two years ago. “I couldn’t really participate in their conversations.”

Instead, Wallis volunteered to update the club’s website -- from home. She and Sarah Olmstead, a doctoral fellow at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, haven’t found their way to the spinoff group; they’ve been brewing in Olmstead’s garage.

When CHA President Elshof began home brewing 12 years ago, she was known as the “orange blossom lady” due to her propensity to pluck the flowers off the trees outside her office.

“Home brewers make beers they like, so it’s not as much that women make a certain style, it’s more that they refine a beer to suit their style,” says Perozzi, who experiments with herbal infusions such as lemon verbena. Wallis says she’s a Belgian-style wit beer kind of gal -- the coriander and orange peel are irresistibly spicy.

Linda Rader, the 2005 Queen of Beer and self-described IPA (India pale ale) fan, brewed her winning stout on a whim. “It was literally my 100th batch of beer, and I wanted to make something special.”

Fahrendorf thinks that the experimental approach to home brewing is what turns today’s amateurs into tomorrow’s professionals. “I home brewed for three years before I went pro. You’ve got to play around to figure out what your style is going to be -- that’s what makes a good, consistent brewer.”