JACKSON — Forty hours a week Cat Wright stares down a microscope, preparing petri dishes and performing tests in a lab fit for one person.
Wright, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry, wouldn’t exactly say she was aiming for this profession all along when she started studying biochemistry as an undergrad at the University of New Mexico. But lab manager at Roadhouse Brewing Co. fits her well.
She didn’t set up this lab — that was done by the first lab manager, Mara Miller — but she’s since tweaked it to fit her needs. She gets time off when she wants it, powder days are a real thing, and part of being a lab manager for a brewery is keeping a beer library. Her job requires her to taste beer.
“I love it,” Wright said. “That role is very powerful. You’re saying, ‘Yes, that beer is ready’ or ‘No, dump that batch.’ There’s a lot of responsibility there.”
There’s also a lot of camaraderie in brewing, and a growing population of female employees, both in the front of house and in the back. Wright is one of a group of female scientists who run quality control for local breweries — in fact, women have started and run the QC labs at three of the four local breweries: Roadhouse, Snake River Brewing and Melvin Brewing. StillWest doesn’t yet have an established quality control lab.
While the number of female employees has been growing in the industry, quite possibly it’s more appropriate to say the number of female employees has been growing back. Beer was a female-dominated industry when it first began, said Laura Ulrich, president of the Pink Boots Society, an organization that promotes women in the beer industry.
Along with cooking and household chores, women were tasked with brewing beer, she said. The Sumerians, who are credited with discovering beer, even looked to a female to bless their brews, the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi. The Industrial Revolution changed the game, Ulrich said, shifting women to the front of the house, where many still work, and men to the back.
“It’s been in the last 40 years or so that as more people have gotten into beer and more independent brewers have opened up that women have come to the forefront,” she said.
And have moved back to the back.
In Jackson women aren’t just running the quality control labs, they’re also brewers, owners and part of the team that runs the show. Like Kelley “Rocky” Romines, who’s both a scientist and brewer at Snake River, or Jody Valenta, who holds a job in the c-suite at Roadhouse Brewing.
A recent study by the U.S. Census Bureau showed what many already knew to be true: The beer industry is booming. And in Wyoming the gender split is near even: 48.9 percent female, 51.1 percent male.
The data is admittedly limited — it examined breweries by county from 2005 to 2016, but some notable local breweries are not on the map. Like all of them. No breweries are listed for Teton County.
Still, looking big picture, the numbers and demographics at local breweries suggest more women are entering the industry.
“I think women are starting to see other women do it,” Ulrich said. “If you see other women doing it, you get an interest for it.”
Part of what draws women to the craft brewing industry is the number of jobs up for grabs, said Salene Freeman, who works with Romines in the lab at Snake River Brewing while also tackling other tasks like managing retail and brewing.
“There’s so many jobs available, so it does give women more of an opportunity to get into this industry, even with no experience,” she said. “If you have a love for beer, you should be more than welcome.”
While in other science-focused jobs — positions in large labs, for example — employees are logging 80 to 100 hours a week in a highly competitive environment, the beer industry has the opposite vibe. Employees still log a 40 hours or more weekly, but also shift hours to take advantage of a powder day.
“It’s really well-suited to me. I’ve always been a wild and crazy scientist,” Wright said. “All of my co-workers understand me well because I’m a big kid.”
She also finds that her work in the lab, a one-woman show by all accounts, has given her the ability to put her degree and love for science to use while still being able to enjoy the reason she came to Jackson: the snow.
Many who are science-minded have gravitated toward beer, for similar reasons, like Romines, who worked in large labs before landing at Snake River.
But it’s not just scientists who found a home in the beer industry. Ulrich, for example, has an English degree. She’s now a brewer at Stone Brewing Co. in San Diego. She worked her way into the position, starting by working in a bar, then moving to the production line at Odell’s Brewery.
Ulrich eventually landed at Stone, though when she started she was one of a small (but growing) group of female brewers in the country.
“I didn’t have any other women to look to,” she said. “If I had anything to discuss there wasn’t anybody to connect with. At that time, it was a novelty to be a female in the industry.”
The Pink Boots Society launched in 2007 with a little over a dozen members. It now has about 2,800. The Wyoming Chapter, led by Romines, has organized group events on International Women’s Brew Day, inviting women in the industry and those who just like beer to brew together.
This year’s beer, Moxxie, was released in mid April.
George Romines has been a frequent face at Snake River Brewing, despite being too young to imbibe.
Since Romines had George, her first child, she’s faced the challenge many new moms tackle: balancing life with a newborn and easing back into a full-time position. She knew she wanted to work again, but it was the flexibility of her job — she gets to set her own schedule — as well as the brew pub’s culture that made her transition possible.
“They’re super flexible here — that’s definitely a perk and benefit to it,” she said.
The U.S. Census noted the average age of Wyoming brewers is 38.6 years, a time when women are often having kids or raising young children. For many women, like Wright — “a person who would like to someday be a mom” — the industry offers her the opportunity to pursue both paths without compromise.
“We really are a huge family,” Freeman said. “We work our asses off just like anybody else. We’re paid the same as men here — that’s huge for us.”
Women have also said the strong female presence — and guys who respect and value their female counterparts — makes craft breweries a great place to work.
“It’s not like walking into a boys club, even though you are walking into a sausage fest anytime you walk into a brewery,” Wright said. “It’s a comfortable environment where people are happy to have girls.”
“Brewing is just naturally inclusive,” said Valenta, who found her way to the industry by a natural curiosity that has her shifting studies (though not careers) every few years.
Valenta has degrees in biology and chemistry, and a master’s in international business. She’s working on a Ph.D. in philosophy, and then, who knows. She’s been in brewing for over 10 years, first working at Twisted Pine in Boulder before moving to president and chief operating officer of Roadhouse Brewing.
The industry seems to attract similar personalities — those who seek to learn something new or change careers, Ulrich said.
Romines has an undergraduate degree in geology (hence the nickname “Rocky”) and a master’s in water chemistry — the latter a well-suited course of study for the lab. But she also wanted to brew, and she was given that opportunity at Snake River.
“It’s fun and it’s science,” Romines said. “People always say it’s a blend of science and art when you’re brewing beer.”
Women have generally found they’re able to advance as Romines has, shifting to different parts of the company that better match their interests, be it brewing, quality control or marketing.
Ulrich said the flexibility is a testament to the industry.
“There are no glass ceilings in brewing,” she said. “Only educational ceilings.”
And love of beer doesn’t mean expert, Ulrich said. A lot of female potential beer drinkers are intimidated by beer, but find after a good tasting they like the product more than they thought — or know more about it than they thought.
“A lot of people say they don’t like beer but they’re coffee drinkers,” Ulrich said. Such a palate makes someone primed for a porter or a stout.