Masters Of The Brewniverse: Queen Of Hops

For the past few months, my life has been consumed by Queen Of Hops. My apartment is filled with bottles and baby carboys. I discovered that my dog likes to eat hops and my cat likes to drink sanitizer.

Queen Of Hops, the first and only women’s homebrew competition in New Jersey, was founded by New Jersey Craft Beer’s Heather Rheam, inspired by her “dissatisfaction with the current state of acknowledgement (or lack thereof) in the beer world.“ The way beer is marketed has influenced how women in the beer industry are perceived and acknowledged.

She says, “The beer patriarchy is something that I come across fairly often. Although, I have to say that I don’t think the boys club attitude is necessarily a fault of the, err… boys. I think the many years of the big beer companies marketing directly to men has set a tone, at least in this country, that beer is just not for women.”

I agreed with her. In particular, I hate beer commercials with a passion. I think they run them on loops at MRA meetings.

InfoMania, a satirical news show on Current that dissected marketing ads, had a segment called Modern Lady, which specifically examined how women are used in campaigns. In 2010, Modern Lady Erin Gibson examined beer ads from companies like Miller, Budweiser and Heineken, and concluded that beer hates women. She reminisced fondly on ‘80s commercials, where women were sex objects in beer ads. “Who knew we were living in the good old days? Because sometime between then and now, women in beer commercials have gone from big-boobied eye candy to the enemy.” She points out commercials that humiliate women physically or psychologically by making them into stereotypical caricatures like bimbo, eternal spinster or “awful shrew.” In addressing beer, Gibson said, “It seems to me that you don’t really like women. “

Rheam conceits that, “For the most part, the craft beer world is more gender neutral, but stereotypes don’t die too easily; there’s no physiological reason that most women don’t like the taste of hoppy beers.”

This tragic Mother’s Day story was the catalyst for the competition:

There is a liquor store that always has beer tastings on Saturdays. However, for Mother’s Day weekend, they decided to change the beer tasting to a “wine smoothie” tasting (whatever that is). I think for most, including the beer guy there, who is a cool dude, this wouldn’t seem like a big deal at all However, since I’m a woman AND a mother who loves craft beer, this hit a rather large nerve.

In the future, please buy Rheam beer for Mother’s Day. Rheam noted, “About 80 percent of the household shopping is done by women; you would think that if these stores want to sell more craft beer they should be trying harder to sell it to women, not excluding them from it.”

This is despite the fact that women were the predominate brewers (brewsters) for thousands of years, from Mesopotamia to the middle ages. But as brewing became commercialized, and was not a domestic duty (basically, when men really wanted to make money off of it), their exclusion began. Women were all but gone from the brewing process by the Industrial Revolution. It wasn’t until the craft beer boom in the 1980s that women started taking up leading roles again, most notably Carol Stoudt of Stoudt’s Brewing Company, who is known as “The Queen Of Hops” there, although she was not affiliated with the competition.

Back to the competition. Rheam teamed up with Weyerbacher’s Natalie DeChico and Vito Forte, owner of North Arlington’s Copper Mine Pub, a diminutive red-walled dive bar with over 80 rotating craft beers (note: Forte is not a woman). They recruited other women in the beer industry. There was even a free women’s only homebrew class in August by Love2Brew, a homebrew supply store and competition sponsor, for beginners. The all-female panel of judges included Rheam, DeChico, Tara Nurin (journalist for Ale Street News, historian for Pink Boots), Kristen Sykes (certified beer judge), Rebecca Flynn (Carton Brewing), and Nikki Cavanaugh (Rushing Duck Brewery and Copper Mine bartender).

I wanted to write this story so badly but I needed a woman. I called all my homebrewer friends. They didn’t know any. All the local papers I worked for wanted a hometown hero to follow. I asked Jersey City Brew Club if they knew any female brewers. But no one did, nor could they goad their girlfriends. Founder of JCBC, John Misarti said, “It’s hard enough to find guys to brew. Good luck.”

I resorted to asking my friends who drink a lot. I asked my friend Cindy, “Do you know any women homebrewers?”

“No. Just you.”

I’d been lazily brewing for about a year—I made drinkable liquids that resembled beer. But I still didn’t have a handle on ingredients nor could I lift five gallons without injuring myself.

I asked Cindy if she wanted to help. She said yes and that she’d ask Maggie, and I asked other beer managers at local bars, beer drinkers and beer writers. Soon we had an elite team of women who were craft beer connoisseurs but had never brewed before. Yeast Infection, our new all-women Jersey City-based homebrew club, was born. “As soon as I saw the disgusted look on my boyfriend’s face when I told him we were called Yeast Infection, I knew we picked the right name,” one person said. We figured out our shtick. All of our beers would have feminist inspirations and disgusting agro names, if possible. Like Patriarchy Pale Ale, Eat My Juicy Pie spiced apple brown, Pop Your Cherry cider, etc. We would feel so stupid if none of us placed. “I always wanted to brew, I just needed a pun,” Maggie said. New Jersey Beer Co. volunteered grain for us, and JCBC lent support. Everyone wanted a hometown hero.

How many other women were inspired to brew because of the competition? And start teams or clubs?

The judges were blown away by the response; 56 entries total, despite Hurricane Sandy travel disruptions (it took me a week to get my beer to Copper Mine from Jersey City and I was the only one from Yeast Infection to make it). Rheam said that none of the judges expected “the sheer number of entries and interest in this first-time event. None of us working on the project expected so much buzz and enthusiasm. There were businesses contacting us wanting to be in on sponsorship, and we had to close registration for the competition because of the number of entries we had that kept coming in.”

The beers were split into two categories when the judges were flooded with more entries than expected: Specialty and To-Style. In total, nine awards were given out at the Queen Of Hops awards party at Copper Mine on Nov. 15.

The applicants came from all over New Jersey and ranged in ages from early 20s to 60s.

One thing that stood out for the judges: creativity. The Specialty category came up because so many herb/spiced/vegetable/fruits were used in the beers. “Women are so creative! All the back stories about why these women started to brew and why they picked that certain style, those hops, or that herb, had so much thought into it,” DeChico said. “It was interesting to see how creative and, frankly, risky so many women approached these brews. From the beginner to the well-seasoned homebrewer, as well as the beer names and stories,” Rheam said.

The grand prize went to Heather DeGroot for her Jalapeño Saison. “We had a groundhog problem in our garden and it ate everything except for the peppers,” she said, “So I decided to put them in a beer.” DeGroot, currently residing in Monmouth Junction, has been brewing since last November, and it was her seventh batch. As the winner, she will have the opportunity to make a beer-flavored ice cream with The Bent Spoon, an artisanal ice cream shop in Princeton, and The Brewer’s Apprentice in Freehold will brew a 15-gallon batch of it.

As for the quality of the entries, “I was very pleased with 25 percent of the brews and would pay for them. 60 percent I would drink again and about 15 percent needed some work with the ingredients or had some off-flavors,” DeChico said.

Next year, they plan on having more judges and spreading the judging out over two days, instead of one night. “I’m afraid of having over a hundred entries!” DeChico laughed.

I got lost on my way to the awards ceremony, but I walked in just in time to receive first place in the Specialty category for my coconut vanilla Cleaning Lady Porter.

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