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Happy hour: the women that are brewing successful careers in beer

Guardian Professional
Despite the physical demands and relatively low pay, more women are discovering the brewing industry's career rewards

When she quit her job as an executive PA to set up her own microbrewery in Lincolnshire, Kathy Britton wasn't ready for it. It took two months with a personal trainer before she could even lift a sack of malt up a ladder.

"I had to get very fit, very fast," she remembers. "It's very physical – I joined a gym to build my upper body strength."

Kathy was drawn to brewing by a love of beer, a desire to find a more family-friendly job and the creativity involved in designing and marketing a product. "I am a 'doing' sort of person. I love writing recipes. This is an incredibly friendly business – there's no glass ceiling or resentment if you're a woman."

She bought Oldershaw brewery with her husband in 2010; he still works in London while she oversees the business. With a team of three full-time and one part-time staff, she's had to learn the nuts and bolts of the trade – she might be found tipping malt into the brew, sticking labels on beer pumps, delivering barrels to pubs or borrowing a bag of hops from her neighbour. Kathy also oversees the marketing and business development of her dozen or more beers. Her efforts have paid off too: the brewery has won a silver award from the Society of Independent Brewers and she's just put the finishing touches to a bespoke beer commissioned by the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London.

Kathy and her colleagues are happy to remind customers that long ago before the industrial revolution, women brewed beer. Today, even afterdeclining sales in the industry in recent years, it's not a bad place for women to be, says Kathy. There are more than 1,000 breweries in the UK, from back-room operations to regional and national businesses, producing some 4,000 individual beers. Although just 13% of beer in the UK is drunk by women – and despite a few ill-judged attempts to market women-only beers – the industry is making intelligent attempts to attract more female drinkers. So it's a good time for women to get involved at the sharp end, be it retail, marketing or brewing itself.

Sophie Atherton, a beer blogger and one of seven female beersommeliers in the UK, says: "For a woman who wants to work in a creative industry and get involved in making a crafted product, it's a really good time. There's so much going on, even if it won't make you a millionaire."

As well as food and beer tastings and talks promoting beer to female consumers, there are initiatives within the industry to boost women brewers' numbers and skills. One initiative, Project Venus, was founded by Sara Barton, who was voted Brewer of the Year in December by theGuild of British Brewer Writers. Together members chip in via Facebook to create a beer recipe, which the host goes on to produce. Later they all meet to sample the brew. A recent product of this collaboration was the Venus Seren – "a sumptuous chocolatey porter with beetroot, cardamom and green chilli".

While Sara Barton has an MBA and a biochemistry degree, you don't need either of these to get into brewing – in fact learning on the job is recommended. That said, several universities, such as Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh, Nottingham and Sunderland offer a range of courses for brewers, from the basics up to masters level. "I sent myself on every course going," says Kathy, who plunged in the industry armed with only a love of beer.

Be warned, however, salaries in many areas of the beer industry aren't high and the climate as tough as it's ever been; expect nothing but hard work on the brewing side. That said, real ale has managed to buck the trend and become the only beer to show growth in the past year, according to Annabel Smith, national account and training manager atCask Marque. And any hard-pressed small or regional brewery might leap at the chance to accept volunteers. Sara says: "It's physically tough but you don't have to be some sort of female gorilla to cope." She advises contacting local and regional brewers rather than nationals, whose production processes are more mechanised.

That's just what Jaime Clowes did after becoming disenchanted with her work in project support and inspired by her love of beer and experience as a home brewer. She's now working full-time at London's Sambrook's brewery as an assistant brewer after volunteering part-time for three months. "Initially I thought really hard about it and decided money wasn't making me happy – this was an emotional decision. Work at this brewery is really rewarding. I love coming to work in a way I haven't felt for quite a while. The camaraderie is superb and the beer is delicious."

And it's not just the social side of brewing that appeals to the likes of Sara and Kathy: they enjoy the direct and immediate feedback from customers on the other side of the bar. "It's thrilling," says Kathy.

Sara adds: "It's a real boost to find out someone loves what you are making. That's what it's about at the end of the day."

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