Behind every good beer in metro Detroit, there's a great woman

Women in metro Detroit's brewing world are quietly, and rather effectively, securing their place in the craft beer industry.

While the brewing scene still remains a male-dominated space here in Michigan, women working in the industry are quick to point out that their numbers are growing. Though it may surprise readers, women in the field don't report rampant, or even very much, sexism. 

That's why we wanted to profile four women brewmasters in metro Detroit to find out how they got into field, what they appreciate most about it, and what challenges remain. 

Chelsea Piner, Traffic Jam and Snug

Piner is the head brewer at Traffic Jam and Snug, but earned her stripes in California working at the prestigious Stone Brewing Co.

She is the first to admit, making beer is not all fun and games. "Brewing is really hard work without a lot of glamour," she says.

Chelsea Piner

That said, there's also a lot to appreciate. "The people in the industry are probably what I love most about it," she says. "I also love the balance of science and artistry which I find really unique to craft beer."

When she's not brewing, she pitches in part-time at Ale Mary's in Royal Oak, which has nearly 30 beers on top and over three times as many in bottles and cans. "It's a great side job for a brewer because I am always tasting the best beers out there and can learn and get inspiration," Piner says.

Piner meets more women every day getting into professional beer-making. And while negative perceptions about women brewmasters still exist, that attitude comes mostly from patrons, not peers. 

"For me personally, most of the stigma I've felt hasn't come from people working in the industry," she says. "I have received snide comments that wouldn't have been said to a man, which is unfortunate, but my overall experience has been fantastic."

Annette May, Know Beer!

May burst into the craft beer scene in 2008 as the first female Certified Cicerone, a prestigious beer-making certification, and hasn't stopped educating people about beer since. She teaches at Schoolcraft College, runs Cicerone programs, and hosts classes through her own company, Know Beer!.

"Beer education is huge here," says May. "It's not surprising, given our thriving craft beer industry."

Annette May

May is also a founding member of Fermenta, a nonprofit collective for women in the industry. She says Fermenta is not so much about defending women's roles in brewing, but about connecting them with employment and scholarship opportunities, and providing mentorship. 

"There are good brewers in Michigan, being either male or female doesn't really factor into it. The only relevant thing here might be mentoring: more female brewers equals more role models, which equals more women attempting to become brewers or enter the profession."

But overall, May hasn't found a great deal of sexism in beer-making in Michigan. 

"I'm sure there are still pockets of the 'boys club' mentality, but overall I don't think it's nearly as bad as in some professions," she says. "And here in the Michigan craft beer industry, I don't see this a lot. As long as a woman can do the job, that is all that's important."

Pauline Knighton-Prueter, Short's Brewing

Knighton-Prueter’s love affair with the craft beer crowd started early. Her parents have a cottage in Central Lake, which gave her easy access to some of the best beer in Michigan. 

"Growing up we would visit Short's every weekend," she says. "I absolutely loved the environment and remember thinking, 'I want to meet the people who are behind this culture.'"

Now the sales manager (and formally a 'beer liberator') at Short's Brewing Company and vice-president at Fermenta, Pauline believes the respect women receive in brewing is partly because of the non-conforming attitude of the craft crew. 

"Due to the creative nature of the industry, people are open-minded and really appreciating the growing diversity and embracing it," she says. "There is no doubt that I am often the only women in the room, but I am respected and listened to."

Pauline Knighton-Prueter

Kinghton-Prueter agrees that it's tough work. "Yes it is fun," she says, "but we all work really hard, as there is a ton of competition and the market is difficult right now. You have to be a hustler."

She also believes women draw others to the craft beer club and are helping promote the industry. 

"The more women participate in the industry, the more female consumers will grow," she says. "When you have someone who you can relate to talking to you about the industry and about beer, it encourages you to try it, to take a chance and be a part of it. We need more women to be champions for other women."

Liz Crowe, author and former brewer

Crowe is another founding member, and now current president, of Fermenta, and approaches the industry from a slightly different perspective. With a background in marketing, Crowe's current project involves writing romance novels set in breweries.

"I have had a ton of fun teaching readers a bit about the craft beer scene by setting my books in breweries," Crowe says. 

Her last novel, "Tapped" (part of a 'Brewing Passion' series), explores the love/hate relationship between breweries and their distributors that Crowe herself has experienced working for breweries in the past. "I felt that its dynamic made for fascinating study," she says.

Liz Crowe

She believes the rapid expansion of the craft beer industry in the U.S. has contributed to the gender equality within it.

"If there is any stigma about women working in breweries, it's pretty much dissipated as more and more women prove themselves ready, willing, and more than capable of handling tasks."

She particularly enjoys seeing women at all levels of the brewing process.

"Every time I visit a new brewery or tap room, I'm gratified to find more and more women in charge," she says. "Women are opening up malting companies; hops farms, distribution companies, and other crucial, peripheral businesses—even as more women are taking over brew houses as both the assistant and head brewers."

All photos, except of Knighton-Prueter, by Joe Powers at Insitu Photography.

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