Louisville women 
who brew: Three stories that reflect 
a shift in the industry

The two men were enjoying the hefeweizen beer that Maggie Bray had brewed as assistant brewer at Gordon-Biersch — and they had questions about it… but not for her.

They assumed her friend, a man who did not work at the brewery, had all of the answers, even though Bray was the only one wearing a shirt with the brewery logo.

When her friend directed them to 25-year-old Bray, the men looked shocked and changed the subject.

“It hurt my feelings,” said Bray, “but at the same time, they were complimenting the beer, so the joke’s on them.”

Friction for women in craft brewing has been typical in what has been a male-dominated industry, although women in brewing say that is changing as more women drink craft beer and they begin to fill the staffs at breweries.

“The more the merrier, obviously,” said Amelia Pillow, 36, head brewer at Against the Grain Brewery & Smokehouse on East Main Street. “The industry is becoming younger and younger with much more of an innate mindset that women can do any job. I’m surrounded by friends and colleagues and mentors and mentees, and it’s getting more and more diverse by the day.”

Why, then, has brewing been so male-centric? No one knows for sure.

Historically speaking, it’s a recent thing, because dating back as far as 1800 B.C., women were heavily involved in the creation of barley-based fermented beverages. In Colonial America, women often brewed beer for the family in a kitchen brewery found in most homes at the time. Until the Temperance movement and Prohibition changed the way society viewed drinking, doctors prescribed beer to women who were nursing as a way of encouraging milk production. Look at advertisements from the early 1900s, and you’re likely to see a regal-looking woman sipping a beer.

“What’s crazy is, historically, if you look back and go to Germany and Belgium, it was women that brewed the beer,” Tisha Gainey, a former craft beer rep and cofounder of Tailspin Ale Fest, said. The entryway at Spaten Brewery in Munich, for instance, is decorated with a depiction of women brewing beer, she said. “Women did that for the men who were working out in the fields.”

Women accounted for 31.5 percent of craft beer drinkers in 2018, according to Nielsen Harris On Demand, as cited by the Brewers Association. In 2015, the Harris Poll found craft drinkers were 29.1 percent female and 70.9 percent men. The Association finds good news in this shift, noting that the 2 percentage-point rise in women drinkers comes as total craft consumption rose by about 5 percentage points in the country.

Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, wrote that men and women are turning to craft beer at about the same percentages of their population in the U.S. “It’s not quite 50/50, and it will take decades of the same pattern to get closer to parity, but it’s a start,” wrote Watson in his June analysis, “Shifting Demographics Among Craft Drinkers.”

About 4.44 million women drank craft in last 30 days, he wrote. Yet around Louisville, the truth is that this is a bourbon place, not a craft beer place. Louisville has a ton of growing to do, and here are the stories of people who are pushing those changes.

THE VETERAN

Leah Dienes, co-owner and head brewer at Apocalypse Brew Works, remembers walking into her first Lagers Club meeting in 1989. She had begun brewing with her father, and she agreed to tag along to the homebrewers’ club event at her dad’s request.

What she saw when she arrived startled her — women! Lagers member Eileen Martin, who would go on to brew at Silo Microbrewery and Browning’s Brewery, and another homebrewer, Deneen Hooper, were there — and the beer was flowing.

“They’re smoking cigars, and Deneen is handing out homemade pickles,” Dienes said. “I thought, ‘What kind of a group is this? This is crazy.’”

Dienes had brewed at home for decades before she decided to move into the industry professionally. For years, she made her reputation by winning medals at the Kentucky State Fair and through homebrew competitions across the country, entering several per weekend at times.

Her collection of medals, trophies and other awards is impressive, to say the least.

She was working as a graphic designer for a small company but finally decided that going into brewing would be a way to make sure she was gainfully employed — the rise in craft brewing has assured that and then some.

She started out as a keg-washer and beer line cleaner at Bluegrass Brewing Co. in St. Matthews, working briefly with the current ownership group of Against the Grain. She learned the industry at the bottom and worked her way into opening Apocalypse with Bill Krauth and former partner Paul Grignon six and a half years ago.

Now 55, Dienes is a beer judge certified by the Beer Judge Certification Program and has judged beer competitions across the U.S. and beyond. This week, she is judging at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

She admitted that, even though the local brewing scene is welcoming to women, she said her welcome was not instantaneous.

“Everybody was always nice, but as a woman, it seems like you always have to overachieve to prove yourself,” she said. “A guy in brewing is automatically accepted.”

With a laugh, she explained that when she works at the Apocalypse booth during beer festivals, people who aren’t in the brewing scene usually assume she is “the beer girl,” just there to wear the logo shirt and pour samples. But she is well known and well respected among her peers. Sometimes customers come into her brewery’s taproom and ask if they can talk to the brewer.

“The gender is the first thing they see,” Dienes said. “But we’re all human. People start to see we’re just brewers.”

Amelia Pillow, head brewer at Against the Grain Brewery & Smokehouse | Photo By Kathryn Harrington

THE UP-AND-COMER

The art world was never going to be quite right for Pillow. Armed with a college degree, having studied painting and literature, the Louisville native was living in New York and not enjoying it.

“It wasn’t exactly the world I was going to fit into,” Pillow said. “A little uppity. I was led to believe the beer world is much more objective than that world.”

So, she moved to Portland, Oregon, land of many breweries, to get her start. At the time, there were 26 breweries within a five-mile radius in downtown; she applied at all of them and eventually landed a front-of-house job at Hopworks Urban Brewery, having had experience in serving and bookkeeping.

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“I just wanted to work in a brewery at that point,” Pillow said. But her efficiency at her job ended up working against her, as her employers ultimately deemed her indispensable to operations.

She eventually was promoted to office manager, but she still longed to get her hands dirty in the brewhouse. Two years in, she was assistant general manager and was expected to ultimately ascend to general manager. Instead, she decided to take a demotion — and a big pay cut — to work in the brewery.

She actually created the position for herself — that front-office job did help in a way — and began working in shipping and receiving and cleaning kegs. She learned her way around a brewery and then moved back to Louisville in December 2013 looking for a brewery job. She got an offer from West Sixth, but ultimately landed at Against the Grain, where she has worked since 2014.

Basically, if you’ve had a beer in the pub downtown in the last few years, there’s a good chance Pillow brewed it, with a little help from assistant brewer Sue Franklin.

“I decided I wanted to be a brewer because it was physical, creative, all those things,” Pillow said. And while her job has her doing her share of work on the computer, it’s the brewing she loves.

Her goal is to one day open her own brewery. She doesn’t see the male-dominated brewing world as an obstacle.

“My dad raised me to believe I could do anything he could do,” she said. “I picked this industry because I felt like I fit in here. I feel like a lot of people pose the image of it being very hard for women to be in the industry — I always bristled at that because I’m a woman who chose the industry. I never felt like I needed to be part of a group of women who are in solidarity being in the brewing industry.”

She theorizes that much of it is mere perception — boys generally are taught at an early age to be chivalrous toward girls, she said. Brewing is a physically demanding job at times, and men tend to default to observing the traditional perspective of physical dominance when it comes to the brewing profession. Even if the intentions are well-meaning, Pillow said, she isn’t buying the fairer sex myth.

“I’m 6-3 and 215 pounds,” she said with a smile, “and that’s on a good day. I’m big, I curse a lot, and I drink a lot … If I need help, I’ll ask.”

Maggie Bray of Gordon-Biersch  |  photo by Kathryn Harrington

THE ROOKIE

Coincidentally, it was Bray’s discovery of that aforementioned hefeweizen beer that led her to become a brewer. She was a server at Gordon-Biersch while still in college and asked her boss if she could do some marketing work for college credit. That led her to work at beer festivals, and then to assisting head Brewer Nicholas Landers.

“I went from going to Granville Inn and drinking $5 pitchers to realizing beer can be something more enjoyable than just a cheap way to get a buzz,” Bray said. “Our hefeweizen is one of my favorite beers. Nick said he was brewing it the following week and told me to bring some snow boots, and he would show me how it was made.”

The experience hooked her

She still works at festivals and helps with marketing, but a huge part of her job involves sweating it out in the Gordon-Biersch brewhouse alongside Landers. She also has brewed part-time at 3rd Turn Brewing in Jeffersontown for the past year or so.

And while marketing is what she studied in college, she knows she wants to stay in the brewing industry — maybe as a brewer or in another capacity. Despite the gender disparity, she doesn’t see any reason that won’t shift in time.

“When I go to a KGB [Kentucky Guild of Brewers] meeting, I’m sometimes the only girl there that’s not an affiliate or a lawyer,” she said. “But I’ve never felt intimidated or out of place; I feel like everyone is very accepting. There are people from all walks of life. I think it is open to everyone.”

For her, it’s more about those outside the beer industry, such as the two men she met at the festival. That’s where the education needs to come into play — where the perception seems to be off.

“Most people automatically assume that I just work for the restaurant and find it hard to believe that I actually know what I am talking about,” she said. “I think that getting the consumers to understand that women are knowledgeable in this area, too, is still a hurdle we have to get over.”

‘I think it’s gotten a lot better’

Bring it on. That seems to be the consensus among Louisville women who are brewing or work in the industry.

Everyone, really.

When people at beer festivals find out Dienes is an owner and head brewer at Apocalypse, they are “happy and amazed,” she said. That, she believes, is proof that there isn’t an underlying agenda. It’s just people being people.

“Once people realize who you are, they have a different mindset,” Dienes added. “You can learn something from everyone — everyone has got something to teach you. I think it’s gotten a lot better.”

Derek Selznick, executive director of the Kentucky Guild of Brewers, sees opportunity for women brewers in Kentucky, even though currently there are only two other head brewers besides Dienes and Pillow. He sees millennials as being a key in long-term growth and pointed out that there’s more balance in gender representation than previously at breweries on any given night.

A key sign that more and more women are not only embracing craft beer but getting involved in the industry is the Pink Boots Society, a group for women brewing professionals that has more than 80 chapters and 2,800 members worldwide. Kentucky doesn’t have a chapter — yet. But the organization’s president believes things look promising for women in brewing, particularly since younger women are interested in craft beer.

“I think the industry has been making great shifts to be more inclusive to women and bridge the diversity gap,” Laura Ulrich, who is a brewer at California’s Stone Brewing Co., said. “It is not taking place in leaps and bounds, but more and more women are becoming interested in the many different aspects of brewing and operations of running a brewery.”

Selznick admitted Kentucky’s brewing industry remains male-dominated. But change is coming.

“We have to call ourselves out sometimes,” he said. “Brewers can sometimes get caught up in a ‘bro’ mentality. I think part of that is us needing to educate the public and part of it is getting more visibility of women in the industry.”

Ultimately, beer is beer, and you don’t have to have a mustache or beard to enjoy it. It’s for everyone. •

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