The substantial craft brewing industry in Grand Rapids seemingly has something to offer for every beer drinker. Yet despite ranking 13th in the nation for breweries per capita, the local industry has one glaring omission: gender representation.
Of 36 Grand Rapids breweries surveyed, just 2 percent are wholly-women owned. And the lack of representation is a challenge larger than Grand Rapids. Last year, the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association released an updated demographic audit of brewery owners in the United States that showed 2.9 percent of breweries nationwide are wholly owned by women.
The BA disclosed that it gathered the data using a methodology to reduce response bias, which skewed past results.
In spite of their small numbers, women are making their mark on the Grand Rapids brewing scene.
Jess Stricklen is part of Grand Rapids’ 2 percent of women brewery owners. Last year, she opened Brewery Nyx, Michigan’s first and so far only gluten-free brewery.
Stricklen’s path to the industry didn’t start with a homebrew kit, but rather a desire to fill a massive hole in Michigan’s craft beer market. After years of drinking Two Hearted Ale from Bell’s Brewery as her go-to beer of choice, she developed an intolerance to gluten, which is in nearly all beer. While living in Oregon and working as the CFO of a winery, she discovered a gluten-free brewery.
“I was just totally blown away,” Stricklen said. “When I moved back to Grand Rapids, there were no gluten-free breweries.”
Stricklen and her brewer have worked to create gluten-free beer that they believe contends with the best of what the city has to offer.
“Gluten-free beer typically has a metallic taste, but ours doesn’t because we use premium cereal grains,” Stricklen said. “Our beer tastes like real beer. Our double IPA is our bestseller.”
Stricklen stands alone as the only wholly woman-owned brewery in the city. She emphasizes that the more women become involved in the industry, the more innovation can blossom.
“I’m not saying that you can’t be innovative and creative if you have a very non-diverse group,” Stricklen said. “But when you have that diversity, it opens the door for evolution. It’s important to have more diverse leadership, including women, to spark innovation. Women need to believe they are capable. This can be difficult to do when you rarely see it.”
At the table
Heather Van Dyke, co-owner of Harmony Brewing Co., opened the Grand Rapids brewery in 2012 with her two brothers, Barry and Jason Van Dyke, and later expanded to the city’s west side with Harmony Hall in 2015. (The company announced last week that it planned to close Harmony Hall after ArtPrize.)
To Van Dyke, including women in the industry is simply good for the bottom line.
“In a purely practical sense, women have a lot of buying power in the home," Van Dyke told MiBiz. “Not including women can be a total loss. We try to create a culture where women are at the table and be thoughtful about putting women in management positions.”
Van Dyke emphasizes that while she is often the only woman in the room, the Grand Rapids’ brewing community remains highly collaborative.
“It’s an incredibly supportive community,” Van Dyke said. “People have been known to run bags of grain over to each other when someone runs out.”
She encourages women who want to get involved in the industry to connect to their peers and ask questions.
“Make connections and introduce yourself,” Van Dyke said. “Become a regular, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.”
‘Bumping the needle’
In 2018, the Journal of Archaeological Science reported the oldest known evidence of humans brewing with the discovery of trace amounts of barley-based beer on 13,000-year-old stone mortars.
For most working class families during the Middle Ages, beer was a household nutritional staple that women brewed at home for their families. Then, business-savvy women took their brews to market, and an industry was born.
Some sources report that a medieval smear campaign to paint women brewers as witches pushed them out of the market.
Tara Nurin, official historian of the Pink Boots Society, wrote for Beer and Brewing Magazine that German brewing purity laws in the 1600s led to the formation of production breweries and international trade guilds, shutting women out of the industry altogether.
Pink Boots Society is a national organization that supports women in brewing through scholarships, networking, seminars and events. Abbie Groff-Blaszak, the head brewer at Creston Brewery, serves as the leader of the Pink Boots Grand Rapids chapter.
Groff-Blaszak is a recent addition to the city’s brewing scene. She earned a craft brewing, packaging and service operations certificate from Grand Rapids Community College in 2021. She says she was excited to be taught by women, including certified cicerone Allison Hoekstra, an assistant professor, and Railtown Brewing Co.’s Molly Daniels, an adjunct professor.
Groff-Blaszak notes that programs like the one at GRCC can create formalized pathways for women to get into the brewhouse.
“Access points to brewing for a long time have been through personal connections or informal apprenticeships,” Groff-Blaszak said. “These organizations and programs and education are a way to attract women to the industry as they can visualize themselves in it.”
Given the city’s passionate brewing market and continually rising industry profile, West Michigan has an opportunity to elevate women in brewing nationwide. To that end, Kris Spaulding, president of Brewery Vivant and Broad Leaf Brewery & Spirits, was elected co-chair of the Brewers Association Technical Committee this year, while Executive Vice President Carrie Yunker leads the day-to-day operations at Bell’s Brewery Inc., the 16th largest brewery in the country.
“I think we have an opportunity here to bump the needle on women in leadership in brewing,” Groff-Blaszak said. “If we bring the community together, with programs and mentorship and opportunities, if we really focus, we can do that.”
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