Of the Oregon Beer Growler
Had the professional world of vocal performance been less pretentious and the craft beer community been more elitist, Cecilia French might be singing opera right now instead of brewing at Lompoc in North Portland. But her switch in majors at the University of Oregon was one step that put her on the path toward a career in beer making. French, who has been at Lompoc for a year now, ended up graduating in 2012 having majored in molecular biology with a minor in organic chemistry. The science background she gained in college has certainly been put to good use, as French joins the small yet growing number of female brewers in the state. And she’s already worked to make connections with other women in beer by helping organize a brewing session for International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day earlier this year.
French possesses a spirit of inquiry and found herself intrigued by the different styles of beer before she was even old enough to legally order a pint. Her mother encouraged this interest by surprising her with a homebrewing kit for Christmas one year. French took to it immediately and described it as one of the most rewarding hobbies she’s ever done. She then decided to gear her degree toward areas in science that would help her with brewing. Although French enjoyed vocal performance, she found the culture wasn’t always welcoming.
“I didn’t like that kind of competition. I am the type of person who likes to be like, ‘Hey, good job!’ So I liked that about the beer industry,” explained French. “It’s very competitive, yes. But everybody’s like, ‘Hey, you made a good beer. I made a good beer. Let’s make good beer together!’”
Like all homebrewers, mistakes were made and lessons were learned in the early days. For her very first batch, French produced a beer that was much higher in alcohol content than she expected. And while that’s certainly not the worst error one could encounter with a debut brew, it wasn’t discovered until she’d downed several beers along with her friends who wanted to try what she’d made. Needless to say, the buzz hit them hard and fast. French contends that it didn’t taste pungent and had good body.
“I don’t really know exactly what I did wrong, but I definitely didn’t read the hydrometer correctly,” laughed French. “And I think it’s easy to make that mistake with a 5-gallon system considering that there’s so little grain and so much room for error. But that was a fun party!”
In 2013, French took a break from homebrewing and started focusing on getting into a brewhouse at an actual business. She continued learning about beer as the daytime bar manager at Plank Town Brewing Company in Springfield. It had just opened and even though the owners planned to eventually expand and bring on more people to work in the brewery, French couldn’t get a definite answer about if or when that would happen. But she soon got a definite offer from Rogue Ales to join its international sales department and moved to Newport to take the position. It was there where she managed the documentation for sending the company’s beer to 42 countries. Although it wasn’t brewing, French was gaining more experience in the industry. She became intimately familiar with trade and customs agreements. She also learned about some of the quirks of international shipping, such as the inability to send a Frisbee to the World Cup because toys have a particular Harmonized Tariff Code that wasn’t allowed at the event. But the beer had no problem getting in. French was also somewhat surprised by what styles of beer would be popular in different parts of the world. For example, Rogue’s dark beers would sell well in South America. But French now suspects that consumers there wanted an American beer that wasn’t the typical, mass-produced lager. While her time in international sales proved to be invaluable, French was glad to finally get an opportunity to become a brewer at Lompoc.
“I love the hands-on. I love the creativity of it. I think the business side and the sales side is very important, obviously. You can’t have any of this without that understanding,” she said. “But I’m a science nerd, and I like to be artistic and creative and I like to be a part of the process itself. And so that’s why I love being able to be in the brewery and be here, create my recipes, you know, be able to pay attention to consistency and take pride in that.”
French’s first few weeks at Lompoc were both nerve wracking and exhilarating. She credits her understanding of theory and experience with application as a homebrewer with preparing her for the new role. But it was still a challenge.
“Everything was brand new. I’d never brewed on a system like this when I first started, so it was kind of a ‘sink or swim’ at first,” French recalled. “I started here and, well, there was a lot of helpful training, obviously. I was supposed to be cellaring for the first several months and the guy who had been here for a year ended up putting in his two weeks’ notice right when I got hired, so I pretty much racked some kegs for a couple days and then started on the brew system.”
Within a few weeks, French was brewing on her own. Since then, she’s developed several recipes, including the first in Lompoc’s Spy Series of beers. Smoking Gun IPA included rauch beechwood-smoked malt and, in a unique move, smoked hops. French said no one at Lompoc had tried that before, so she hydrated whole hops, threw them on the brewery’s Traeger grill and added them to the brite tank. She said it gave the beer a floral-smoky aroma.
French also helped develop the recipe for the International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day beer. The event takes place annually on International Women’s Day, now held March 8. Brew Day participants adhere to the same style, which was a sessionable red this year. But French and brewer Natalie Baldwin from Burnside Brewing wanted to make something a bit different. They decided to use cherrywood-smoked malt and whole cherries that were smoked on the Traeger just like the hops. French described the beer as having some tartness to it, but smoking the cherries seemed to caramelize the sugars in the fruit, adding some sweetness to the concoction. At least five other women joined in to brew 15 barrels worth of what would come to be called Cherry Bomb. French said the experience was important because working together with women from the beer industry can be empowering.
“Just to reinforce that there’s, you know, there is a female brewing community. I mean, I don’t think that we’re ousted in any way. But, you know, it’s kind of — there aren’t that many women in the brewing community,” she explained.
French said she hasn’t experienced any challenges being a female in the male-dominated field — except, perhaps, working with equipment that tends to be designed for taller individuals. It wouldn’t be uncommon, then, to find her standing on a bucket in the brewery. And she’s surely not the only woman in beer finding solutions to problems so that they can pursue their passion. When asked what might be driving more women to be interested in craft beer, French credits the growing culture and variety.
“If you don’t like an IPA or you generally are somebody who’s going to have a fruity pink drink, you can find that in a beer here. You could probably find it at every brewery. And then, you know, your friend can have an IPA, your other friend can have a stout,” she said. “I don’t think you can really make it unless you offer variety, especially in this town. And I think that leads a lot more people to be more willing to give it a try.”
French doesn’t have plans to leave Lompoc anytime soon, but she would like to continue to learn and grow. She envisions attending the Siebel Institute of Technology and going through the International Diploma course offered by the World Brewing Academy. And like many brewers, she dreams of opening her own brewery and perhaps consulting others. At this point, French doesn’t think it’s intimidating for women to get into the industry. It just takes genuine interest. And she thinks she could play a small role in encouraging more women to become involved with craft beer.
“I think just being present and putting my work out there and, you know, saying that anybody — I don’t think it matters whether you’re a man or a woman — if you’re making good beer, you deserve good recognition for it. And I intend to keep making good beer,” she explained. “So the more women that see me out there, hopefully that motivates them.”