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.

A brewery for Jackson (again)

Since moving south of Jackson, Michigan about two years ago, I’ve direly missed easy access to the craft beer scene. OK, so I was completely spoiled in Grand Rapids. Although I despaired when I first moved to West Michigan in 1995, I’m amazed to reflect on how cool, hip and desirable this region now is, due in large part (for me) to the booming brewing scene there. There’s my “brewery home,” the Hideout, where I also worked; Founders, with great beer, food, music, parties and atmosphere; and Grand Rapids Brewing Company, where I’m a “lifetime” mug member. HopCat (where I also worked) draws beer aficionados from all over, and the BOB also has a brewery. New Holland recently opened Brewery Vivant near Eastown, where I used to live, and Schmohz holds down the eastern fringe. More breweries are less than a 45 minute drive away from the city center, and Grand Rapids itself holds other establishments that don’t brew but that are outstanding places to enjoy craft beers from Michigan and across the world.

And then, there’s Jackson. Jackson’s got … bars. Sure, Ann Arbor (and her beer scene) is just down I-94, but it’s a full hour from my house. Not very feasible for a pint after work or a nightcap after dinner. Some joints here serve a seasonal Bell’s, if I’m lucky (and more often than not, servers will tell me they’ve got “Bell’s” on tap; when asked what kind, they give me a quizzical look, as if I’d asked them which kind of Bud Lite they carry). I’m just stating the facts here, and I understand why all this is. The social atmosphere in Jackson just doesn’t nurture or attract lovers of craft beer. This is the land of NASCAR and Budweiser — not that I’m knocking these things, and not to say these are mutually exclusive with microbrews, but there are definite, demonstrable demographic trends behind these generalizations.

However, microbrew lovers do exist here, just not in critical mass. Proving this point is the fact that a brewery’s been tried before: There is a brewery building that’s languished just east of downtown Jackson, the gleaming brewing equipment it contains earning an almost fabled spot within the brewing culture of Michigan. This is the site of at least two former breweries, but the darkened edifice has taunted local lovers of local beer for seven years now.

Wilcox's homebrew club: they brew to escape

Enter Phil Wilcox, a founding member of Jackson’s homebrew club, Prison City Brewers. Thanks to him, we have some good news: this building will soon open its doors once again. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Jackson’s Citizen Patriot ran an article on this budding business; the comments posted by local readers reveal the overall current in Jackson, which is not overwhelmingly positive. This proves my former point, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Breweries are big business these days, and many Michiganders are willing to travel a bit for good craft beer. So, although the new brewery may be called “The Local Pub & Brewery,” if this venture succeeds, my guess is that it won’t be thanks to local patrons. It will be the craft beer lovers from Dexter, Chelsea, Ann Arbor, Lansing and Kalamazoo, or from even farther away, who will keep this dream alive. Or maybe I’m wrong; prove me wrong, Jacksonians! Hey, I’m local, and I’ll be there.

*UPDATE: Brewery is currently set to open in June!*

Spent grains, spent wisely

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For about five years, I’ve enjoyed the privilege of contributing to the Michigan Beer Guide. Recently, the publisher allowed me to unite two of my passions, great beer and living sustainably, in a series of columns. What follows is the first installment of this series, reprinted with the permission of the Michigan Beer Guide. Cheers!

In nature, everything that’s produced is eventually utilized; there is no “waste.” Yet depending on the methods employed and the handling of the by-products, the brewing process can be very wasteful. A large portion of the waste produced by brewing is spent grain, but spent grain is actually not garbage: it’s a resource.

After mashing and lautering, that grain may be “spent,” but it’s certainly not useless. This soggy mass, consisting mostly of the celluloid grain husks and unconverted compounds, can benefit commercial breweries, homebrewers, and every one in between.

Hopefully, if the brewing process is successful, most of the starch in the original malted grains is broken down into sugars. However, the spent grains retain valuable protein and fiber, making them a useful addition to livestock feed.

On a large scale, breweries may give away, trade or sell their grain for use as feed. Whether or not the brewery makes a profit, it’s better than paying for it to be hauled away and dumped into a landfill. Across Michigan, many breweries enjoy agreements with local farmers who raise livestock such as cattle, pigs, chickens and goats.

For example, Frankenmuth Brewery gives away their spent grain to a local dairy and sheep farmer. The farmer reports that his herds are fat and happy, and that they literally run along the fence after the truck as it pulls up, laden with spent grain. Grizzly Peak BC in Ann Arbor works with a farmer in Dundee who feeds it to his livestock.

“Zero spent grain goes to the dump at Schmohz,” explains Chas Thompson, brewer at Schmohz Brewery in Grand Rapids. “We have a relationship with a dairy farmer with a large herd. They come pick up the spent grain and bring back the barrels clean. For me, that’s enough.” This is just a small sampling of the numerous Michigan breweries that make use of their spent grains in this way.

On a smaller scale, homebrewers and homebrew clubs can employ this method of spent grain recycling. Various Michigan homebrew clubs dedicate their spent grains throughout the year to feeding one specific pig; the animal is later the main attraction at a club barbeque.

However, there are other uses of spent grain that are more efficient, both economically and ecologically. Of course, if your goal is to live as sustainably as possible, beef and pork won’t factor into your everyday diet, since it takes anywhere between five and 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of animal flesh. But the case for making frequent vegetarian choices is another topic for another day (or another publication), so I’ll step off that soapbox for the moment and focus on the nutritional value of spent grain.

Spent grains can be difficult for animals to digest, resulting in indigestion and flatulence, which adds methane gas to the atmosphere. Yet spent grain remains a valuable feed additive. A nutritional evaluation of spent grains used for animal feed, published in the journal “Plant Foods for Human Nutrition,” found that assorted spent grains contained roughly 20 percent crude protein and 50 percent dietary fiber. The grain contains essential amino acids, and some minerals such as magnesium, calcium, zinc and iron. However, a diet consisting solely of spent grains was not recommended; the study found that a diet of up to 25 percent spent grains is ideal for livestock.

So, outside of animal feed, how else to use all that spent grain? One way is to create delicious baked goods. Although recipes often call for only a fraction of the spent grain you’ll have on hand after brewing a batch of beer, there are recipes out there for everything from bread to crackers to pizza dough. Many recipes are available online.

This is an option for both homebrewers and commercial brewers. Look for spent grain as an ingredient next time you’re dining at a Michigan brewpub: The chefs at Frankenmuth are currently experimenting with a spent grain pizza crust, and the HopCat in Grand Rapids offers a house made spent grain flat bread.

Spent grain can be a key ingredient in great homemade treats for dogs and horses. One word of caution: do not use grain that came in contact with hops, as hops may be fatal to dogs.

Although it doesn’t have quite the mouth-watering allure of livestock feed or a baking ingredient, composting spent grain is an excellent option. Composting spent grain not only prevents organic solid waste from entering landfills, it also creates a product that helps restore depleted soil. If you have a compost pile, throw in your spent grain and your garden will love it! If you don’t have a compost heap, you can amend your garden’s soil directly with small amounts of spent grain. However, be prepared in this case for some strong aromatics.

How about some ‘shrooms? Spent grain may be used as a medium for growing organic shiitake and oyster mushrooms. One brewery already taking advantage of this fact is Great Lakes Brewing Company in our neighboring state of Ohio. They send spent grains to a local mushroom farm, and the resulting mushrooms feature in entrees at Great Lakes’ restaurant. You can find directions for cultivating your own mushrooms with spent grains at vermontmushrooms.com. As an added bonus, growing mushrooms on spent grains makes the grains more digestible to livestock and increases their protein content.

Worms also love spent grains. Thompson says a local vermiculturist loves giving Schmohz’s spent grains to his worms. Great Lakes is also on the forefront of this movement: their vermiculture compost bins produce natural fertilizer that’s used to nourish herbs and vegetables found on their menu.

In the commercial brewing world, putting spent grains to good use represents a bold move towards sustainable energy and self-sufficiency. The Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI) put forth an innovate approach for commercial breweries. ZERI confirms the potential uses for spent grains in livestock feed, baked goods and growing mushrooms, then takes it a few steps further.

Waste from the spent grain-fed livestock may be mixed in a digester with brewery wastewater to generate biogas and a nutrient solution. The biogas can be used in the brewery or sold, and the nutrient solution feeds algae that in turn feed fish. The result is the utilization of all the nutrients, protein and fiber from the spent grains. If this sounds farfetched, consider the fact that a brewery in Tsumeb, Namibia already functions this way.

Breweries in the UK are also making strides toward sustainability. Scottish & Newcastle (S&N UK), the UK’s largest beer and cider company, is installing biomass plants in two of their breweries that will burn spent grain and locally-sourced woodchips. The steam and electricity generated by these combined heat and power (CHP) plants will be used for the breweries’ processes.

One of these CHP plants is at S&N UK’s Royal Brewery in Manchester, which produces many internationally known beers, including Foster’s Lager and Kronenbourg 1664. According to a Greenpeace UK case study, burning the 42,000 tons of spent grain this brewery produces each year will supply 60 percent of the site’s steam and almost all of their electricity. The result is an 87 percent reduction in fossil fuel emissions. S&N UK reports that the plant could reduce Foster’s entire carbon footprint by as much as 15 percent.

Homebrewing and choosing local craft brews are two very eco-conscious ways of enjoying your favorite beverage. And using spent grains is one more step toward living more sustainably. If you’re into social media, there’s an “I Use Spent Grain” group on Facebook where you can connect with others, share recipes and more. If you don’t homebrew, any local brewery will likely be happy to supply you with spent grain for your own endeavors. Drink local beer, use spent grains wisely, and be kind to the planet.