Women Who Brew, Changing the Face of Beer

A growing number of determined, multitasking females are making their mark on the traditionally male-dominated beer scene.

Backward Flag co-founder Torie Fisher.
Backward Flag co-founder Torie Fisher.
Photo by Jauhien Sasnou

Torie Fisher turned 19 in the Iraqi desert. Deployed twice as an Army combat soldier, the daughter and granddaughter of military men volunteered to spend her young-adult years doing the life-threatening things most of us only watch on the news.

During her second tour in Iraq, Fisher served as a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter crew chief. “My primary mission was to be a door gunner on the aircraft to protect us and our sister aircraft,” says Fisher. “We also worked with Special Forces to train Iraqi units, and we would also recon the areas outside of our post from the air, looking for mortar tubes that could be potentially used to fire rockets into our base.”

Now safely back home in New Jersey, the 30-year-old staff sergeant works full-time at Fort Dix, training aviators on flight equipment and teaching soldiers how to survive in unforeseen circumstances.

In the narrow margins between her active-duty military career and her family life (she is married and has a 3-year-old daughter), Fisher works a second, equally consuming job as co-founder and fermentation specialist at Backward Flag Brewing Company in Forked River, which she owns with two other veterans.

“It’s a juggling act,” she says. “None of us have ever worked retail or in a bar, yet we’re all able to take a step back and focus and stay calm and cool. Plus, nobody here is afraid to take the lead and make things happen.”

Fisher is likely Jersey’s only female brewer to earn an Air Medal, but all eight of the state’s professional female brewers can rightfully claim to be bad-asses. Though their backgrounds and training vary, they are determined, intellectually curious, multitasking women who work a physically demanding job. And they share three of the chief qualities that portend success in brewing: a deep love of beer, a willingness to do manual labor, and a passion for mastering complex scientific and mechanical processes.

Each of Jersey’s female brewers is also an agent for change on the state’s male-dominated brewing scene. Until about five years ago, most women in the beer business filled traditionally female roles in the sales, marketing and human resources departments. Others used their food-science, biology or chemistry backgrounds to slip into brewing through the lab door, filling quality-control departments in disproportionate numbers.

While some of New Jersey’s brewing women are highly trained, most learned their craft on the job. “You go through this step-by-step process, and at the end you have this product that everybody can enjoy,” says Gayle D’Abate, 47, an electrical engineer for the Federal Aviation Administration who spends her days performing maintenance on air-traffic control software. Her nights and weekends are spent brewing and debugging at Tomfoolery Brewing Company, the brewery she opened with her husband in Hammonton last year. She’s also raising two pre-adolescent kids.

When Amanda Cardinali landed her brewing job at Tuckahoe Brewing Company, she was a recent college graduate with no professional brewing experience. But at least her application was free of grammatical errors, which alone impressed Tuckahoe’s original owners, three schoolteachers and an architect—all former home brewers.

“When I first started, we’d brew together,” says Cardinali, 27. In time, she learned to brew without help from her bosses. “They initially got 100 phone calls from me a day.”

Cardinali and D’Abate learned fast that they had to commit to a lot of dirty work. In brewing, cleaning is a constant. Start-up brewer/owners do everything from bleaching toilets to coaxing maximum performance out of yeast cells, and brewers for hire can spend years doing the grunt work of hauling sacks of grain and climbing into steel tanks before they get the sexy assignments, like developing recipes or blending barrel-aged vintages.

“There’s a lot of plumbing and piping that I wasn’t necessarily prepared for,” says Claudia Confoy, a 25-year-old who assists the brewing team at Triumph Brewing Company’s two brew-pub locations in Princeton and New Hope, Pennsylvania. “I’ve become very aware of drainage.”

Among New Jersey’s commercial brewers—male and female—Fisher alone has passed the grueling exam to become a certified cicerone, the beer world’s equivalent of a wine sommelier.

Bars and restaurants in Ocean County ask to sell her product, but she won’t do business with them unless they are trained to her exacting standards. “It’s kind of letting your children go off to play without supervision,” she says. “We take so much care with our beer, then you send it out the door to be abused.”

To combat this, Fisher offers free training for bar and restaurant staff and sells style-specific glassware to promote proper serving. She’s also gearing up to launch drop-in classes for women that will cover tasting, beer styles, ingredients and beer history. And regulars at her tasting room know they can usually coax her into a spontaneous after-hours lecture on the subject, complete with free samples.

Like Fisher, Lea Ann Wood, a brewer at Flying Fish Brewing Company in Somerdale, takes beer education seriously. Wood, 43, wanted to brew in the early 1990s, but she opted for an MBA and business career. A few years ago, she’d had enough. She spent three months’ worth of Fridays observing in the quality-control lab at Philadelphia’s Yards Brewing Company, then attended the prestigious American Brewers Guild (ABG) Craft Brewers’ Apprenticeship program. After graduation, she landed her job at Flying Fish, but kept her weekend gig in the brewery’s tasting room, as well as her full-time job as a project manager for a global software company. Now, she’s hoping to phase out her day job and credits her guild training for helping her get ahead.

“The market is flooded with home brewers who want a job,” says Wood. “The education really differentiates you.”

The trailblazer for New Jersey’s new generation of brewing women is Gretchen Schmidhausler, 56, who graduated from ABG in 1999, brewed at three places in Central Jersey, and last year opened Little Dog Brewing Co. as a solo venture in Neptune City.

“I’ve always kind of had an entrepreneurial spirit,” says Schmidhausler. “This is a physical job, but so is waitressing.”

Triumph’s Confoy actually was a waitress when she started brewing. “My first week I was scrubbing floors, but I didn’t care. I loved it,” she says. “This job is scientific and challenging.”

Science led Heide Hassing to brewing. She could easily have turned her culinary degree and her two degrees in biology/chemistry and biochemistry into a lucrative lab position at a large craft brewery or a national giant like MillerCoors. But Hassing, 40, chose to open Angry Erik Brewing Company in Lafayette Township with her husband, Erik. She brews and runs the Sussex County business while Erik practices law. Even though she’s veered away from her original goal—to advance health care—Hassing says she’s still fulfilling an important mission. “I’m trying to cure the world with beer instead of medicine,” she jokes.

Indeed, beer has long been linked to nourishment and health. For centuries, adults and children drank low-alcohol beer as a substitute for bread and potentially impure water. Unsurprisingly, women often brewed beer as part of their household chores, with their daughters assisting. Similarly, some modern female brewers have gone from the kitchen to the brewery.

Five years ago, Lea Rumbolo left a career as a chef to teach cooking. At the same time, she began brewing at the Ship Inn in Milford, the state’s original brewpub. Rumbolo, 33, brews mostly English-style ales, which she pairs with Ship Inn’s hearty fare.

Rumbolo extols the transformative powers of food and drink.

“Great and amazing things have happened over a pint of good beer,” she says. “Wars have started and ended. Friendships made and broken. Adventures begin and end with a pint of good bitter. And I get to be a part of that.”

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