Cheers to the Wāhine – 3 of NZ’s Best Beer Brewers on Brews, Business and Being Female in Beer

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In anticipation for Wellington’s upcoming Beervana, we speak to three of New Zealand’s preeminent female head brewers – Emma Bell, Lead Brewer at Double Vision Brewing, Wellington; Jess Herman, Owner & Head Brewer at Rhyme & Reason, Wanaka; and Charlotte Feehan, Head Brewer at Abandoned Brewery, Wellington- about brews, business and being female in a rapidly changing industry.

First of all – why beer and why brewing?

Emma: I’ve been a beer enjoyer since my 20s, but getting into brewing was a bit of a happy accident. The first brewery I worked at was a small startup in coastal British Columbia, Canada. I ran tours and tastings, and did a bit of general brewery cleaning, part-time, around my other jobs. As a consequence, I learned a lot about the brewing process and found it fascinating, but at that stage, I had no idea it would become my career.

When I returned home to New Zealand in 2015, I initially wanted to get back into entertainment tech, but as an unknown, who’d been away for more than 10 years, I found it difficult. A craft brewery took a chance on me as an assistant brewer, based on my Canadian experience and a really, really enthusiastic letter. While I fell into the craft somewhat out of desperation, it very quickly became a passion and a lifestyle. Over the next five years I progressed through Assistant Brewer, to Brewer, and then to Lead Brewer, managing my own assistants.

Jess: I LOVE BEER!!!! The diversity of the products, the procedures, but mostly the people. It just seemed like an exciting industry. And it is. It allows us to travel, be creative and push our skills each day.

Charlotte: Why not? Honestly, after drunkenly stumbling into the industry, I found beer and brewing to be an incredible intersection between physical engagement and intellectual stimulation. In this industry, you really get the best of both worlds and a cold beer at the end of the day. 

Emma Bell, Double Vision Brewing

What’s your best memory that involves beer?

Emma: I absolutely love the community vibe of the brewing industry. After the New Zealand Brewers Guild Awards in 2019, I found myself on a crowded dance floor with a slew of other brewers and hospitality folk who have become my friends – all there to celebrate good beer, good times and good friendships. The high of a medal haul definitely helped the jubilant atmosphere. I’m very much looking forward to doing it again in 2021 in Dunedin.

Jess: Triple J Hottest 100 party in Nesca Parade, Newcastle with a keg in a wheelie bin, giant slip and slide with a jump and all of our mates.

Charlotte: I think it’s expected that as brewers we drink a lot, and our best memories might be slightly “hazy”. My beer career has led to some awesome experiences. But, my most recent best beer memory is my last night when I was living in Blenheim, after having worked in the wine industry during the grape harvest vintage, before going to live in Wellington. I was in Dodson’s Beer Bar surrounded by the people I’d spent 70 hours a week with for the last three months. After the emotional rollercoaster of the last year, to be surrounded by my new Latin family (many of whom make up the majority of harvest vintage workers), being back home in New Zealand, and heading into this new role. It felt good.

Jess Herman, Rhyme & Reason

What’s it like as a female head brewer now compared to what it was when you first started in the industry?

Emma: It doesn’t feel particularly different to me, as change happens very slowly. I think people take me a little more seriously now, although it still somewhat surprises me that they do! One of the first things I learned from a fellow female brewer was that if you’re not tall enough or strong enough to do something a man can do, well there’s a tool for that! I think there is less focus on being a musclebound hulk and more on working smarter, which is more inclusive. 

Jess: Not much has changed. I’ve grown from Assistant to Lead to Head Brewer over the past ten or so years. I had such a supportive environment at the Hunter Beer Co [in Nulkaba, Australia] that allowed me to grow into new roles, expand my skills and knowledge.Now I have the opportunity to share our brewery with the crew and encourage them and their careers.

Charlotte: Being a Head Brewer is still really new to me, and so is the status that comes with it. I also had a large gap in my New Zealand beer experience, having lived and worked in Aussie for the past few years. It’s hard, at this point, to separate the difference in experience between time and my role/experience shift. But I can say that I’m really enjoying being back in New Zealand, and back in the New Zealand beer industry.

Charlotte Feehan, Abandoned Brewery

Do you suffer from any sexism/anti-feminist sentiment in your job?

Emma: I’m very fortunate to have a strong and somewhat stroppy personality, so incidences of overt sexism to my face are quite rare – but they do happen. The vast majority tend to be from festival attendees and customers who may have, uh, lowered their inhibitions, rather than from other people in the industry. I’ve found that the majority of brewers I know are quite protective, so although I get hit on and receive inappropriate comments sometimes at festivals, there’s always a crew looking out for me.

Jess: No. Just one comment from an old guy who said, “Watch out, women driver” as I was pallet-jacketing, back-of-house. Don’t worry, that generation is dying out.

Charlotte: I have (for the most part) been very lucky in my experience as a woman in the beer industry. I think as a whole the New Zealand beer industry is better than in other parts of the world, however, that doesn’t mean it’s not problematic and can’t be improved. Every industry can and will benefit with increased inclusivity. If the beer industry wants to continue to pride itself on being progressive, then the inclusion of people from diverse backgrounds needs to be actively encouraged and supported, not just passively so. There are those in our community that let the entire industry down, and I have met some of them. As an industry, I want us to do more, to be better.

What’s your favourite drop?

Emma: One that is a) cold and b) free. Just kidding! It’s hard to pick one favourite among the hundreds of amazing beers that New Zealand has to offer. My top three in the last couple of years are: Liberty’s Knife Party IPA, Sawmill’s Baltic Porter, and Juicehead’s Mind Funk Tropical Sour.  All expertly crafted by nice people, and varied enough to cover a range of occasions. Happy drinking!

Jess: My favourite drop at the moment is our Stunt Girl IPA. Super silky, smooth that packs an intense, yet sweet hop punch.

Charlotte: The one in my glass? Always keen to try new things.

Double Vision Brewing, Rhyme & Reason and Abandoned Brewery will all be pouring beers at Beervana, New Zealand’s premiere celebration of Good Beer in Wellington on 13-14 August. Grab your tickets here!

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