Story by Dave Eckert
When you think of the craft beer industry, what kind of image comes to mind? Maybe a big, burly guy with a full-on beard and a plaid shirt? Or perhaps, it’s more of a nerdy millennial with glasses who insists on waxing on about the hoppiest of all hoppy I.P.A.s? Yes, those stereotypes exist, but I’m here to tell you that they are just that-stereotypes! Today’s craft beer scene consists of every type of demographic imaginable: age, race, religion, and perhaps most importantly, gender. I recently met four women who are integral to Kansas City’s craft beer industry. They are brewers, writers, scientists, and craft beer advocates and experts. They are also part of a growing number of local women making their mark in beer.
I think it’s fitting that I start with Jennifer Helber. Helber runs Grain to Glass in North Kansas City, which caters to home brewers and craft brew lovers through sales and tastings. It was Helber who questioned why I had turned to six male craft beer insiders in writing an article on recommended suds for the summer. Good question, I thought, so I made it my goal to rectify that by speaking with Helber and three other “women of worth.” “I have a science background. I have a master’s degree in microbiology from U.M.K.C., and while I was working there, John McDonald (Boulevard Brewing’s founder) came to us to start up his first yeast samples,” Helber shared. Some ten years later, Helber ended up working for McDonald and Boulevard, running the company’s Quality Assurance laboratory.
A nine-year stint at Boulevard included Helber getting heavily into the sensory aspects of beer. She took a sensory course at the University of California-Davis, started judging beer contests, and in general, fell in love with craft Beer. But, Helber told me, it was sometimes a lonely love affair. She was almost always the only woman in the lab, though she says things are changing, not just in terms of there being more women of science, but more women who appreciate the science and the results of brewing. “I’d say it’s about 60-40, men to women, who come into my shop. There are women of a certain age who say they don’t drink beer, but I think that’s just because they don’t know how many delicious, locally made, craft beers there are. But in the younger generations, the women the craft beer scene wholeheartedly,” Helber told me.
Alana Broyles is one of those women. Broyles is the creator of the Eleven Three KC beer blog (K being the 11th letter and the alphabet and C being the third). We sat down recently over a craft beer at K.C. Bier Company where Broyles told me she got into craft beer about six years ago. “I got tired of drinking the same beer all of the time, so I’d go to the liquor store and do mix and match six packs just to try different beers,” Broyles said.
From there, Broyles’ passion for, and interest in, local craft beer continued to grow. She wanted to know more about local beer releases and beer-themed events in the metro but couldn’t find a central source for the information. So, she created Eleven Three KC, which compiles all the Kansas City craft beer information in one easy to find place. When she began her beer journey, Broyles says the craft beer community was small and male-dominated. “When I first started, I was meeting all these men, but now, I’m meeting so many women. And, these women have so much beer knowledge, way more than me. It’s just amazing,” Broyles stated.
Bri Burrows has amassed a good amount of beer knowledge herself. Starting as a bartender, Burrows worked her way up to head brewer at North Kansas City’s Big Rip Brewery. Burrows told me she’s never experienced discrimination in the brewing community, though she saw plenty when she was tending bar. “Guys would come into the bar, and I’d ask them what kind of beer they might be interested in. Often, they’d ignore me and ask a male bartender what he thought. Then he’d turn and ask me since I had more beer knowledge,” Burrows shared.
Burrows says her interest in craft beer started with the sharing of some ciders at a Thanksgiving dinner after she’d turned 21. That turned into each sibling bringing a mixed six pack of beer or cider to her father’s birthday celebration the next year, and finally, said six packs to all family gatherings. Craft beer was a family affair. “Both my dad and my oldest brother started home brewing. Then my dad bought me home brewing equipment and I started,” Burrows said. That was just four years ago, an amazing ascension for one of the youngest head brewers in town.
Across the state line you will find Courtney Servaes of Servaes Brewing Company. Servaes says she believes she’s the only female head brewer to own and operate a brewery in the state of Kansas, and she says it hasn’t been easy. “Shortly after I started brewing, I joined the Lawrence Brewer’s Guild Homebrew club. People weren’t taking me seriously, which was intimidating,” Servaes recalled. “Eventually people started noticing that I was putting out quality beer. And last year, I served as Vice President of the Lawrence Brewer’s Guild.”
Servaes says she encountered the same attitude when she started brewing professionally but says persistence and a quality product will eventually win out. “I know in my heart that this is a very big deal. People tell me all the time that it’s a big deal. But at the end of the day, I’m just trying to do what I love and do it well,” Servaes said. Cheers to that!