SubscribeCurrent Magazine Cover
From left: Lady Justice founders Kate Power, Jen Cuesta, and Betsy Lay. Photo by Sarah Banks

The Untold Story of Women in Craft Brewing

This past spring’s reckoning over discrimination and harassment in the craft brewing industry brought newfound attention to females working in the scene—but Colorado women want you to know they’ve been here since the very beginning.

On a warm Friday afternoon in mid-August, beer drinkers begin trickling into Lady Justice Brewing Company’s small, light-filled taproom on East Colfax Avenue in Aurora. On their way to the bar, they’re greeted by a life-size cardboard cutout of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, clad in her black U.S. Supreme Court robe and white lace collar—and a tie-dyed, flat-billed hat bearing the Lady Justice logo. Behind her, colorful “Summer of Queer” T-shirts hang on a wall. As 1980s pop rock plays overhead, customers sip their Sandra Day IPAs next to a floor-to-ceiling mural of Ginsburg, Black gay rights activist Marsha P. Johnson, and Latina labor leader Dolores Huerta.

The piece, painted by Denver artist Chelsea Lewinski, is a symbol of the work being done at Lady Justice. “People love it,” says Betsy Lay, who co-founded the brewery in 2014 with friends and fellow AmeriCorps volunteers Kate Power and Jen Cuesta but is the sole owner today. “It signals to people, ‘Hey, we love trailblazing women.’ We want people to know that women are doing a lot to pave roads and make ways for the rest of us to keep going.”

It’s easy to feel optimistic about a more inclusive future for craft brewing after visiting Lady Justice, a queer- and female-owned brewery that donates space, time, and profits to Colorado organizations empowering women and girls. And yet, less than six months ago, Lady Justice hosted a meeting attended by about 100 people to discuss the stories of assault, sexism, and racism in the American beer industry that bubbled up on Instagram and made national headlines in May 2021.

The event is a reminder that Colorado is far from an equitable utopia; like their counterparts across the country, women who work in brewing here have experienced discrimination and harassment. Some worry, however, that the prevailing narrative of craft brewing as a bearded, flannel-wearing boys’ club can obscure the contributions females have made—and continue to make—to the Centennial State’s status as a craft brewing powerhouse, says Shawnee Adelson, executive director of the Colorado Brewers Guild. “We, as women in the industry, feel like it’s important for everybody to be treated fairly and equally, and it’s good that people are having these hard conversations and that [these incidents] are being brought to light,” Adelson says. “We need to broaden our expectations of where women fit into this industry. But it’s also important to celebrate the women who are already here.”

Whether they know it or not, women in craft brewing are following in the female footsteps of thousands who came (way) before them. For much of human history, women—not men—have been associated with beer-making. Researchers have traced the drink’s origins back more than 5,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq and Syria), where women were the first brewers. That’s likely because they were responsible for grinding grain to make bread and, eventually, beer.

During the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century, however, men rose to the forefront of the beer industry in America (and elsewhere) when homebrewing alone wasn’t enough to satisfy demand. Large manufacturing facilities, like the one founded by Adolph Coors in Golden in the 1870s, effectively shut women out of the world of beer. “Men were more involved in the brewing process because of the industrialization of beer,” says Travis Rupp, a self-described beer archaeologist and lecturer at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Once it became something that was produced on a mass scale, the general presumption was that it required more physical activity, and men then became more dominant in the field.”

Two of the earliest craft suds pioneers to prove that notion wrong were Corkie and Wynne Odell, who co-founded Fort Collins’ Odell Brewing Company in 1989 with Doug Odell (Corkie’s brother and Wynne’s husband). The pair served in various influential and highly visible roles: Wynne managed the brewery’s finances, Corkie helped in the brewhouse and took charge of human resources, and the duo shared the title of CEO for many years, a fact they say set the tone for diversity and inclusion at the company. “We have recognized over the arc of our 32 years that having two women in leadership positions at the brewery created a more welcoming environment right from the start,” Wynne says. “Corkie and I weren’t going to put up with bullshit if we heard about it.”

When the Odell women established their business, they were in good, albeit sparse, company. In the early 1990s, women helped launch several Colorado breweries, using their expertise in everything from finance and operations to marketing, sensory science, and beer-making to grow them into beloved brands you likely know today: Kim Jordan at New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Amanda Bristol at Colorado Springs’ Bristol Brewing Company, Tara Dunn at Great Divide Brewing Company in Denver. (Dunn also co-founded the Colorado Brewers Guild in 1995.) While the list may seem small, so too was the industry as a whole. In 1993, there were fewer than 450 craft breweries in the United States.

Today, because of societal shifts, social media pressure, increasing competition (the United States now has nearly 9,000 craft breweries), or all of the above, the industry is attempting to expand the definition of who makes and drinks craft beer—and that involves trying to bring more women and people of color into the brewhouse. Despite scholarships for brewing courses (funded by breweries, trade groups, and other national organizations) for underrepresented communities; internship and mentorship programs; and awareness-raising by nonprofits like the Pink Boots Society (which has five chapters in Colorado), progress has been slow.

In 2015, women made up 29.1 percent of people who reported drinking craft beer at least several times a year, according to national poll data analyzed by the Brewers Association, a U.S. trade group based in Boulder. In 2018, that number had increased by about two percentage points. Meanwhile, the Brewers Association only first began tracking the demographics of craft beer employees and ownership in 2018, when it reported that 77.4 percent of brewery owners in the United States were men and 22.6 percent were women, and just two percent of breweries were owned entirely by women. (In comparison, only one percent of owners were Black.) When it comes to actually making the beer, the numbers were even more skewed: 7.5 percent of brewers and 8.9 percent of production managers were women.

Unsurprisingly, the pioneering females in Colorado’s scene aren’t resting on their lagers. With Holidaily Brewing Company in Golden, founder and CEO Karen Hertz has built the nation’s largest dedicated gluten-free brewery. Founder and head brewer Jess Fierro is diversifying the craft at Colorado Springs’ Atrevida Beer Company, where the majority of employees are Latina. Brewability Lab owner Tiffany Fixter provides jobs for individuals with developmental disabilities in Englewood. Queer-owned Goldspot Brewing Co. in northwest Denver and Lady Justice are determined to create welcoming spaces for LGBTQ communities. But women in the industry can’t do it alone, says Lady Justice’s Lay. She believes the path forward for the craft beer industry requires more inclusivity training, better human resources systems, greater accountability for suppliers that breweries work with, and men calling each other out for inappropriate behavior.

“We have many opportunities ahead of us to make some very good, real change that will only make craft beer better,” Lay says. “It’s the responsibility of all of us in the industry to just keep pressing on this.”

Sign Up For Our Newsletters

All things Colorado delivered straight to your inbox.

Sign Up