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Women who are mad about beer

SHANE COWLISHAW
Last updated 05:00 02/08/2014
Wendy Roigard

VALKYRIE BREWING: Wendy Roigard was inspired by the myth that Valkyries serving mead to the souls of slain warriors.

Ava Wilson
HARD WORK: Beer Baroness brewer and Pomeroy's Pub manager Ava Wilson hard at work in the brewery.
Vanessa Martin
PETER MEECHAM/FAIRFAX NZ
BIG BREWERY: Brewer Vanessa Martin inside Lion Brewery in East Tamaki, Auckland.
Tracy Banner
FAIRFAX NZ
QUEEN BREWER: Sprig & Fern co-owner and head brewer Tracy Banner in the Sprig & Fern Brewhouse in Richmond.

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When you think of a female brewer, you could be forgiven for picturing a young, skimpily clad beauty. The myth that nubile women are brewing your beer has been pushed long and hard by DB, the maker of Tui, for years.

But in fact, New Zealand breweries are dominated by men, despite women having a far more historical claim to the craft.

For thousands of years brewing was handled by women and in medieval times most villages had at least one brewer, often a woman.

Many of the tavern owners were also women, who brewed the beer everyone drank.

It was only really when beer started to be mass produced and fell into the hands of advertisers that men began to take over.

Thankfully, the pendulum of gender dominance has begun to swing back with more and more women slipping back into the beer profession.

This worldwide movement even has its own support group, the American-based Pink Boots Society that was created to empower women in the beer industry and help advance their careers through support, training and scholarships. One of its founders, Denise Ratfield, who works for the popular Stone Brewing company in San Diego, will be a guest at this year's Beervana festival in Wellington where she will launch a New Zealand chapter of the society.

As Your Weekend discovered, she shouldn't have much trouble finding members.

VANESSA MARTIN - Lion

A career in brewing that has taken her around the world was an "accident", Vanessa Martin says.

Now working at The Pride, Lion's new Auckland facility, Martin graduated from university as a microbiologist and found herself faced with a choice between pharmaceuticals or beer.

She chose beer, and left for Australia in 2004 where she went to work for Tooheys.

Two years later she was in the United Kingdom working for Budweiser, taking over from fellow New Zealand brewer Natasha O'Brien.

After returning home in 2010 she joined Lion, working as a brewer for three years before becoming "manufacturing excellence facilitator".

While not involved in the day-to-day brewing process any more, Martin keeps sharp by touring the beer pubs of Auckland and joining Lion's tasting panel - many of whom are women.

She describes female brewers like herself as a "growing breed" and is happy to see more entering the industry, although she is adamant being in the minority is no disadvantage.

"It's quite nice working in a mainly male industry, there's no bitchiness . . . I guess we're all just passionate about beer."

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NATASHA O'BRIEN - DB

Lifting sacks of malt that weigh the equivalent of your own body weight is not everyone's idea of a perfect first day at work.

After graduating from Massey with an engineering degree a little over a decade ago, Natasha O'Brien decided beer was the most interesting thing she could use her skills for.

Problem was, in those days the big breweries came and cherry-picked the top students before the end of the academic year and O'Brien was not one of them.

"At the time I was focused more on tasting the beer rather than the other stuff."

Luckily, a trainee position opened up at DB Waitemata shortly after graduation and before she knew it she was arriving for her first day.

The brewing manager, she says, was a "tough old guy" and sized her up immediately.

"He asked how much I weighed, I said ‘55kg on a good day', he said ‘that's how

much one of the sacks of malt over there weighs'."

O'Brien practised shifting the sacks for half an hour but says as she was one of the only women employed at the time, the men at the brewery took her under their wing and helped her out.

She says this camaraderie is one of the things that she enjoys about working in the industry.

"I don't think it's any different being a woman, you're defined on your abilities, not your gender. I forget I'm a woman in the industry, that's how good it's been."

During her time at DB she took a four-year break for her OE, where she worked for brewing giant Budweiser in the United Kingdom.

Brewing such a light beer on a massive scale taught her a lot, as faults are easily recognisable, and she returned afterwards to DB where she is now the packaging manager.

O'Brien loves doing beer tastings with women, where she tries to break down the common conception that all beer tastes the same.

"Some women say beer is too bitter, so I say ‘try this dark beer'.

"With beer, the world's your oyster - you can spend your life living and breathing beer and you'll never know everything."

AVA WILSON - Beer Baroness

For Christchurch's "baroness", beer is in the blood.

Ava Wilson is the manager of Pomeroy's, a craft beer beacon that is owned by her parents. When the pub built a brewery out back and started pumping out its own beer under the 4 Avenues label, Wilson decided there was no reason why she couldn't make her own.

Through her day job she had already met some of the country's top brewers, so she enlisted their help in designing recipes for her first few beers at the end of 2012.

Since then Wilson has gone on to release another five beers under the "Beer Baroness" label with the latest, a stout, dubbed "the bearded lady".

While in no way claiming to be a master brewer, Wilson says having access to a brewery and Pomeroy's as an outlet for the beer was too good an opportunity to pass up.

"My job very much is the pub and running Pomeroy's. This has been like a sideline thing, but it's been in the last 12 months it's really taken off. "

Wilson is also involved with the Pink Boots Society and earlier in the year became the first brewer in the world to brew "Unite Pale Ale", a beer made as part of International Women's Collaboration Brew Day on March 8.

"I don't believe there should be any separation or we should be brewing wheat beers or anything like that specifically for women.

"I think women appreciate good beer as much as men do, so for me it's about breaking down those stereotypes."

WENDY ROIGARD - Valkyrie

She may not have the blonde hair of her company's namesake, but Wendy Roigard has no doubt her brewery is aptly named.

Being of Danish descent, she began researching Scandinavian legends after deciding to start her own company in 2010 and stumbled upon the Valkyries - blonde-haired, fair-skinned maidens who carried out the will of the god Odin.

Roigard discovered the Valkyries had an additional duty, serving mead to the souls of slain warriors, and were known as "mead maidens".

It was a perfect fit and Valkyrie Brewing was born.

Roigard says she stumbled into brewing after working in marketing for a malt importing company and falling in love with all the great people she met in the industry.

She became, and still is, a director at distribution company Beer NZ and decided to try her hand at brewing.

Using a recipe created by Liberty's Joe Wood, she brewed her first batch at Harrington's in Christchurch.

"It was a lot more cleaning than I thought. It was predominantly cleaning."

The beer, which included hokey pokey, was a success and she is now brewing once a month with plans to double her output next year.

When it comes to female brewers Roigard believes more will appear as appreciation for beer continues to grow.

"What's been in the media has really shown women there's room for them in the industry and the great thing is that the men are really supportive, I've never seen any gender bias at all."

TRACY BANNER- Sprig & Fern

A story about female brewers in New Zealand wouldn't be complete without Tracy Banner.

Born in Liverpool during the 1960s, Banner - who has been called "the Queen of Brewing" - began work at 16 as a lab technician. This led to a job at giant brewery Bass, followed by Cains of Liverpool, then to Auckland to work for Lion when she moved to New Zealand with her husband.

In 1995, she moved to Nelson to brew for McCashin's, then became head brewer and brewery manager for Speight's.

After a brief period off work to be a mum, she bought into Tasman Brewing with her husband, and the name was later changed to the Sprig & Fern.

Today, the Banners own the brewery themselves, supplying a chain of owner-operated taverns in Nelson-Tasman and Wellington.

During her career the brewing industry has been dominated by males, and while she admits this is still the case she's enjoying seeing females emerging.

Women drinkers are also beginning to embrace beer.

"Women are drinking pints of IPA which we would never have seen maybe 15-20 years ago."

After more than three decades Banner is still enthralled with brewing and is encouraging of other women who may want to follow in her footsteps.

"Just go for it, if you've got the passion I have, I'm still as passionate as I was 30 years ago . . . I'm still coming up with new recipes I've never brewed. Just follow your dream but be prepared to work very hard."

- Shane Cowlishaw is the co-writer of Fairfax's blog The Beerhive; at facebook.com/beerhiveblog or twitter.com/beerhiveblog.

- Your Weekend

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