It was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I went along to the Project Venus meeting at Bath Brewhouse, on January 11th. the full name is Project Venus UK and Eire and it was established in 2011 by a small group of brewsters (women brewers) to promote and further educate women in brewing and beer. It was inspired by the Pink Boots Society in America, which was created to empower women beer professionals to advance their careers in the beer industry through education.
Strictly speaking, none of this should be necessary. In the Middle Ages, many ale-houses were kept by women – hence the expression ale-wife – and this led them into brewing. Brewing was regarded as women’s work – indeed, the inventor of beer back in the dim and distant past was almost certainly a woman. It was only with the rise of big brewing companies in the late eighteenth century that brewing was taken over by men. However, the unstoppable rise of microbreweries has given women the chance to break back into what was their traditional territory and, as I was to learn, many have seized the chance.
I arrived bright and early, but Anna Schwäble, resident brewer at James Street Brewery, the in-house brewery at Bath Brewhouse, was already busy preparing the mash and consulting with Kathy Britton (Managing Partner, Oldershaw Brewery, Grantham), Claire Monk (Head Brewer, Welbeck Abbey Brewery) and Fiona MacEachern, (Brewster , Loch Lomond Brewery.) They told me some suggested brews were sent to the host brewster, and Anna had opted for a chocolate stout. Not only did the mash include both chocolate and caramel malts, they would be adding chocolate powder, and, later on, chocolate nibs (tiny fragments of chocolate) mixed into chocolate husks. Meanwhile, more brewers were arriving as well as a couple of researchers from the University of Lincoln. In all, there were fifteen brewers and two researchers, plus myself and a brewster’s friend who had come along for the ride (literally.) There were soon discussions going on about ingredients, techniques, equipment, and the problems of improving premises. Sue Hayward, of Waen Brewery had a number of unique problems. Living in a small Welsh town, Llanidloes, it is sometimes difficult to get some of her ingredients. Without the internet, she said, she would find it difficult. The chilli flakes for their wildly successful Chilli Plum Porter were a good example. So successful had this beer been, along with their award-winning Blackberry Stout, that they have had to install new equipment which will take them from a 5 barrel plant to an 18 barrel plant, though she does not intend to leap straight from one to other.
I had a long chat with Emma Turner from the Mighty Hop Brewery, based in Lyme Regis. We had mutual friends – John and Becky Whinnerah of Art Brew. Becky, unfortunately, was not well enough to come. Emma is a lively, feisty lady, but she gave me an insight into some of the prejudice that brewsters face. She was giving a tour to a CAMRA group when one of the men turned round and told her she had no right to call herself a brewer. ‘Let’s admit it,’ he said, ‘you’re just doing what your boss tells you. You’re just a dogsbody. That’s not being a brewer.’ If this sort of thing is coming from CAMRA members who ought to know better, we should not be surprised if prejudice comes from others too.
I also talked to Jaime Clowes who now works at Sambrook’s Brewery. She got bored with her office job, and as she was already an experienced home brewer, she worked part time at Sambrook’s before being taken on. I asked her what she thought she would get out of these Project Venus meetings. She said it was good to meet like-minded people, and that many of the top brewsters were role models for her. It was clear there was a happy interchange of ideas going on, and she said that was a benefit to her, but above all, it gave a sense of community, important if you’re in a minority.
I could see what she meant by role models. Top of the list among the attendees must be the formidable Sara Barton, founder of Project Venus and winner of Brewer of the Year from the Guild of Beer Writers in 2012. She makes a virtue of being a woman – her business is called Brewster’s Brewery, and one of her ranges is named after Wicked Women. Michelle Kelsall, of the Offbeat Brewery of Crewe, proudly declares on all her pump clips that her beer is ’brewed by a chick’. It hasn’t stopped her winning several awards. Amanda Seddon and her friend Kathryn Harrison, united by their love of good beer which they discovered after Amanda’s husband took them off to beer festivals, finally started up their own brewery. It’s called Wilson Potter, based in Manchester, and its beers are already attracting praise.
Sara Carter is Head Brewer at the long established Triple fff brewery. She joined in 2008, and in 2012 took the top job when Graham Trott retired. Another attendee was Angela Würges, from Zerodegrees in Reading. And then there was the unforgettable Lizzie Ellis. Her sister is Victoria Ellis of Lincoln University, who came with a fellow researcher, Agnieszka Rydzik, as they are working on a project about women in brewing. The sisters had been educated in Australia, but when they came home, Lizzie was told her qualifications would not be recognised. For a time, as she admitted, she drifted. The sisters had dreams of making the big time with their band the Almaboobies, in which Lizzie is a talented bass guitarist and vocalist. They soon decided life on the road was not for them, although the band is still together. Their parents were, by now, running a pub in Horncastle, Old Nick’s Tavern, and her mother was invited on a brewery tour. Lizzie went along and it was love at first sight. She knew this was what she wanted to do. She worked her way up in a small local brewery, including working for nothing for five months as she learnt the trade from top to bottom, doing sales as well as brewing. However, due to ill-health, the owners felt they had to cut back – but Lizzie is not out of work. Her father is now opening a small microbrewery behind the pub, and Lizzie will be head brewer.
There must be something about brewing that draws people. The appropriately named Sarah Hughes now works for S A Brains as a lab technician, checking quality. Like Jaime, she had been in a desk job, but, after taking a brewing course, had been employed as a brewer for two years, but had moved. She is desperate to get back to brewing.
The last attendee was Jane Peyton. Jane not only writes about beer, she’s a beer sommelier, brewer, and gives tutored tastings. She also knows about whisky. She was wearing a T-shirt with a superb design by her sister Helen – a pint of beer labelled ‘Perfection.’ She‘s a mine of information as there’s not much about alcohol and its history that she doesn’t know. She is planning a fruity porter with one of the brewers, and there was much discussion over flavours.
It was a fascinating day, if very intensive. I felt really tired at the end – and it wasn’t just beer I’d drunk. I had learnt a lot, not least how keen brewsters are to co-operate with each other. I learnt that the wort used to be called ‘brewer’s breakfast’ and that an egg would be added to a glass of it. (It’s unbelievably sweet as I discovered when I tasted it.) I found out why Oyster Stout is so called. Back in the days when oysters were a poor man’s food, the shells were often used as a cheap way of clearing beer. Then, as beer was made more nutritious, by adding other ingredients such as milk, it was decided to add whole oysters. I listened to a discussion about whether it was better to have short hair which could be put under a cap or long hair which could be clipped back.
Finally, we decided on the name of the beer. It’s to be called Venus Velvet, and it should be ready by about the end of January. Now all we need are more women to enjoy it – and some to decide that brewing is the career for them. As the brewsters readily admitted, it’s hard, physical work, but it allows you to be practical and creative at the same time. And Project Venus and its members are there to help anyone who wants to go down this path.