Sisterhood of the Suds

This was featured in the November/December 2011 issue of the Michigan Beer Guide, as part of a series I’m writing on Women & Craft Beer. This is the longer version of the article; you may read the published version at the Beer Guide website. It is reprinted with permission.

Stitch-n-bitch circles, scrapbooking sessions, the Red Hat Society, all-female book clubs, mommy-and-me groups, and the list goes on: clearly, women thrive on sharing experiences and maintaining close circles of like-minded companions. For any interest, hobby or passion, there is likely an all-female group devoted to enjoying it together. And with craft beer stealthily making its way onto the collective female radar, it makes sense that groups of women who gather to appreciate and learn about microbrews are popping up everywhere.

Across the board, women’s beer groups emphasize inclusion and shun snobbery. These clubs exist to promote beer enjoyment among experts and the uninitiated alike, and hinge on creating a friendly, encouraging environment.

On the national level, there are several all-woman, beer-centric groups, each with its own unique focus. Perhaps the most well known is the Pink Boots Society, whose mission is to “inspire, encourage and empower women to advance their careers in the Beer Industry through networking and education.” Members of this Society include any female who earns any portion of her income through the beer industry, whether she’s a brewery owner, bartender, or anything in between. There are about a dozen members of the Pink Boots Society residing in Michigan, ranging from Certified Cirerone Annette May to brewers, writers and owners.

For women not employed within the beer industry, but simply interested in enjoying craft beer, there is the affiliated Barley’s Angels. This group is designed to “foster beer appreciation in women, teach women’s role in beer history, encourage women to homebrew, and inspire the next generation of potential women beer professionals.” There are currently chapters in at least six states including Illinois and Minnesota, as well as in Canada, the UK, Australia and Argentina.

Christine Jump, producer and host of the audio interview program Craft Brew Cast, sponsored the very first Barley’s Angels group. “I thought that I didn’t like beer for three quarters of my life,” recalls Christine. “The idea that I could help other women discover the marvelous variety of craft brew was a very easy sell. My hope is that women will discover that craft beers are so widely varied; there is literally something for everyone.” Another “consumer-focused,” national group is Girls’ Pint Out, established to promote “solidarity between beer drinkers of the fairer sex;” they have chapters in at least five states.

Both consumers and professionals may join Women Enjoying Beer (WEB), “an education based company that develops and serves the female beer consumers … [and] works with professional beer community members to accurately and successfully market beer to women.”

Some groups are based more on face-to-face interaction, and feature monthly events like brewery visits and themed beer tastings. Others, such as Ladies of Craft Beer, are geared towards fostering online communities of women.

In addition to national groups, there are myriad local groups across the country. For example, there’s Women’s In Pursuit of Ale (IPA) Club of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, Beer for Babes in New Jersey and Ales 4 Females in Colorado. In Michigan – a state simply awash in superior craft beer – the female beer appreciation group scene is in its fledgling stages. However, we’re off to a respectable start.

Detroit has Detroit Draft Divas, which launched in the spring of 2011 under the direction of Copper Canyon Brewery head brewer Todd Parker, who identifies himself as “consultant, liaison, and mascot” for the club.

Todd set out to “establish a Metro Detroit area group for like-minded women interested in craft beer … women interested in learning more about beer and brewing in a more comfortable setting,” and the group has more than met this goal. “I am very happy with what we have done. We have created a group that has some dedicated members, and set up a communications structure to get the word out. It is not huge yet, but with time, it will only get bigger.”

The Divas meet at a different location each month; events may include a brewery tour, an informational gathering followed by lunch (and a few pints, of course), or a party at an area brewery. According to Cindy Hegenauer, a founding member of the group, there are currently about 25 regular attendees, representing “almost the whole spectrum of female craft beer drinkers.”

On the other side of the state, Grand Rapids is home to the PussyCat Beer Guild. Inspired by the Pink Boots Society and initiated by HopCat owner Michele Sellers and HopCat staff, the Guild dates to the summer 0f 2008. “We hoped to encourage women to be open and bold about their appreciation for good beer, whether they’re a brewer, an aficionado, or simply just interested in learning more,” explains Sheryl Rose Marshall, who is involved in running the club. “We’ve realized that goal in varying degrees over the years, and continue to attract new members and interest in what we do.”

Ladies of the PussyCat Beer Guild

Meeting attendance usually hovers below 10 women, although there were 20 females at the largest meeting and there are more than 50 “members” in the Facebook group. “Feedback has been excellent,” confides Sheryl. Sheryl admits that there is a certain amount of preaching to the choir, as “nearly every woman who has come to a meeting was already on the craft beer bandwagon in some way.”

But, all members ultimately benefit from the enthusiasm and combined knowledge of the group. “We’ve had a few women who had never homebrewed and were excited to attend our off-site group brew days to learn how. Once in awhile, someone will come in and say she only likes a certain type of beer, but we’ve been successful in encouraging her to try new things by evaluating what it is that she likes about the beer she does drink, then finding a beer in a different style with the attributes she expressed as desirable.”

On a side note, “men often comment that they wish the woman in their life would get involved with us,” says Sheryl.

Also in Grand Rapids is the Ladies Ale Society at Schmohz Brewery, where 50 to 80 ladies attend meetings. Begun with a beer tasting event in October 2010 and scheduled for a meeting in early November 2011, this Society centers on encouraging women “to try beers that they normally might be steered away from,” says Schmohz “Beer Engineer” Chas Thompson. “Too many times, I see ladies being overly influenced by male companions and not getting the opportunity to try very many things,” Chas says.

Although not the brewery-home of a structured club, Wolverine State Brewing Company in Ann Arbor hosted their first “Real Women Drink Beer” event in June 2011. The female-centric night was such a success that similar events are now in the works on a twice-yearly basis, with the next get-together scheduled for February 2012.

As director of sales and marketing E.T. Crowe (also known as The Beer Wench) explains, “I know the traditional ‘Ladies’ Night’ is a ploy to get women in by offering them drink specials. I wanted this to be a true Ladies Only Night where we could gather, meet, drink, learn and relax with a little pampering action.” Notice how she just slipped the “learning” right in there? Perhaps lured by free massages, munchies and henna tattoos, it was the first visit to a “beer bar” for many of the ladies who attended.

"The Beer Wench" leads a tour at Wolverine

“I worried a little that I’d get my regular crowd,” continues E.T. “Nothing wrong with regulars mind you! But I really wanted to offer this as something new for women who would never in a million years consider coming to a “tap room” to meet their friends to enjoy a craft beer. I would guess the crowd was split 20/80, with a solid 80 percent either completely new to the place or to craft beer generally.”

Women living far from the bustle of Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids or Detroit should not count themselves out. It only takes a handful of members to create a successful women’s beer appreciation group. Starting a group can be as easy as visiting a local brewery and talking with a brewer, bartender or female mug club member about when an inaugural meeting could occur, and how to get the word out. Social web sites like Facebook, Meetup and Google and Yahoo Groups also make ascertaining interest, building membership and inter-group communication simple and quick, whether or not there’s a brewery nearby. And, already-established national or international groups are yet another option for finding a female beer clan.

Women and craft brews are a perfect match, and women flourish within groups of “sisters;” female clubs devoted to the enjoyment of craft beer are a natural culmination. Michigan, as The Great Beer State, has a bright future ahead of her, full of passionate groups of ladies who appreciate, evaluate and enthusiastically quaff our outstanding brews.

Ann Arbor’s Zingerman’s

One freezing afternoon in February, my cousin, her boyfriend and I were discussing where to go for lunch. My cousin Tracy recently moved to Ann Arbor, and everyone told her that she “had” to go to Zingerman’s Deli. I’d heard good things myself, so we loaded in the car and headed downtown.

With blue skies above, the windchill was hovering around 10 degrees, which made standing in the line-out-the-door less than enjoyable. Even though it was nearly 2 p.m., this place was still hoppin’ on an otherwise lazy Saturday afternoon.

Once we were able to wait in line indoors, we were treated to a visual and olfactory smorgasbord. Fresh, homemade breads lined one wall, and an extensive deli counter that included a mind-boggling array of cheeses lined another. The very friendly staff shouted over the din to talk about the delectable spread and offer samples.

I was delighted by the large selection of both vegetarian and fish sandwiches, but I wasn’t so thrilled with the prices. I’ll get this out of the way up-front: I don’t gripe about paying for quality, but I’d rather not pay a premium just because that’s what the local market will tolerate. Yes, this is Ann Arbor, but it ain’t NYC. Nearly $20 for a sandwich, pickle, brownie and a “free” cup of water kind of blew me away.

However, Zingerman’s is the sort of place I want to patronize. Selections like local organic eggs, housemade bread and BBQ sauce and cheeses from Zingerman’s own Creamery harmonize with my own desire to choose local, sustainable foods. Likeminded carnivores will doubtlessly enjoy the organic Berkshire pork shoulder from Apple Schram Organic Orchard in Charlotte, free-range chicken, “all natural” turkey and applewood-smoked bacon from Wisconsin’s Nueske’s; the housemade corned beef is supposed to be incredible.

For $13.99, I decided on the #33, “Benny & Zach’s Bagel Over Tokyo,” a sandwich consisting of “Stonington, Maine smoked salmon, wasabi (Japanese horseradish) cream cheese spread, tomato & mixed greens on a toasted sesame bagel from Zingerman’s Bakehouse.” (I ordered it on grilled pumpernickel, however, because I’m an incorrigible menu-changer-upper.)

We ordered with one employee, waited in another line to pay, then braved the cold again to try and find a seat in the building next door. We had to wait for a picnic table in a large, heated tent; once we sat down, we were amused by the busy servers who buzzed between the three main dining areas, trying to locate the patrons whose food they were holding. Since you seat yourself, it’s the staff’s job to find you in the cramped maze of seating once your food is ready.

The sandwich? It was good. Not be-still-my-beating-heart-I’m-in-love good, but really good. The intense crunchiness of the bread made the fillings fall out everywhere whenever I took a bite, but everything in there was top-notch. As for size, they’re not gigantic; all three of us easily polished off our sandwiches (and my cousin is teeny!). The $4.75 prepackaged Zingerman’s Black Magic Brownie that I took home with me was rich and fudgy, but rather stale.

Around since 1982 and now an Ann Arbor institution, I think it’s safe to say that Zingerman’s isn’t going anywhere. I would most certainly go back again, especially if a generous friend offered to pay! (Yet if I was driving east on I-94 and a yen for a delicious deli sandwich hit, I would probably veer off the highway before AA, and happily visit Mike’s Deli in Chelsea. The sandwiches are delicious. Their bread is Zingerman’s, their prices are not.)

If you go to Zingerman’s, be prepared to pay twice what you’d expect elsewhere; that way, you’ll leave feeling happy rather than robbed. But if you’re so inclined, certainly do visit Zingerman’s for the experience, for the chance to ogle the impressive selection of cheeses, olive oils, spreads, coffee, breads, meats, salads and more, to interact with the cheerful staff, to satisfy an East Coast craving for some “Jewish foods” like knish or latke or, of course, for a tasty sandwich.

Seva in Ann Arbor

I’ve been a vegetarian (to varying degrees) for over half my life, so when I go out to eat, I’m no stranger to the cheese sandwich or the basket of fried food. Although most restaurants do have a few non-meat offerings, there’s often not much variation from menu to menu between the vegetarian selections. So, going to an all-vegetarian restaurant is a like wandering through a lush garden of food delights; the whole menu is fair game! It’s very liberating. I got to experience this food nirvana last night when my husband Steve and I dined at Seva in Ann Arbor.

A downtown Ann Arbor institution since 1973, Seva’s varied vegetarian menu is influenced by culinary traditions from around the globe, including Italian, Mexican, Indian, Asian and Caribbean. They also have a full bar, a fresh juice bar, and a range of other thirst-quenchers. The menu is rounded out by dessert selections. Across the board, the emphasis is on house-made selections, and there are many choices for vegans, too.

Set in a former VFW hall, the space now has an eclectic, cozy feel that is characterized by wooden booths, hanging plants and twinkling strands of lights. The quirky, laid back wait staff completes Seva’s casual appeal.

Being pregnant, I sadly could not join my husband in a Short’s Pandemonium Pale Ale. But, I absolutely loved Seva’s homemade lemonade with homemade strawberry syrup.

Arriving quite hungry, we ordered a range of menu selections. For an appetizer, we chose warm goat cheese topped with pistachios and Michigan honey, served with multigrain crackers. This appetizer arrived beautifully presented with garnishes of rosemary and red grapes, but the goat cheese portion was surprisingly small. We enjoyed it, but speculated upon the size of our entrées.

The side salad I ordered with my entrée represented one of the best $2 salads I’ve ever had. The greens were actually green, and were topped with grated carrot, cucumber rounds, grape tomatoes and rye croutons.

My entrée of spinach enchiladas was delicious and was indeed filling. Steve also enjoyed his cilantro-peanut stir fry, and actually ended up not eating every bite because he was too full. We had sourdough garlic bread on the side, which I probably wouldn’t order again; it wasn’t bad, just unremarkable.

If we weren’t stuffed, we would’ve been tempted by the chocolate cheesecake.

I would certainly go to Seva again, considering that I had such a hard time actually deciding what to order. The atmosphere is great, the food is delicious and the menu is expansive.

We capped off the evening with a comedy show at the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase, located directly downstairs from Seva. In all, it was a perfect date night in Ann Arbor.