By Gail Oberst
There’s something unique about Lee Hedgmon, and it’s not only that she’s a tall black woman in a state that is historically pasty. More notable is her status as a long-time woman homebrewer, with a passion for brewing that she hopes to pass on to other women.
You’ll pick her out at the brewfests and at the gatherings of brewers and beer drinkers. And she’s not likely to take offense at your double take. In fact, she hopes the attention she gets will draw more women into the brewing community.
“Beer has been marketed a certain way and sometimes, people can’t see themselves in the industry. I want to let people see me at events, and I want to encourage women in general, to be more involved,” Lee said.
Lee is an active member of Oregon’s Brew Crew, and the Ladies of Lagers and Ales, to name a few Portland-based groups. But her job at Portland U-Brew puts her squarely in the public eye. Lee is often the first person a new brewer would meet when he or she walks in to ask: “How do I make my own beer?” Lee said she draws on her initial feelings of intimidation when she first took the step to visit a homebrew shop. The homebrew shop she visited was staffed with warm and friendly people who fostered her love for brewing. “I try to keep that in mind when a new person comes in,” she said.
She is a third-generation Portlander – her grandparents moved here from Chicago and Louisiana. Her mom worked for the state as a social worker and her dad worked for the telephone company. Lee grew up in the Woodlawn neighborhood, attending All Saints Catholic School and then Lincoln High School. When she graduated from high school in 1991, she had no clear direction, so she attended Portland Community College for a few years and then joined the Job Corps at Tongue Point, picking up skills in building and apartment maintenance. She worked for Red Lion (now Doubletree Inn) Lloyd Center and downtown, working her way up from maintenance to sales and catering before finishing a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies at Portland State University. Transferring to the University of Minnesota, Lee was aiming for her PhD and an academic career when the brewing bug bit, somewhere around 2003. She had helped friends brew in Oregon, but in Minnesota, she decided to try it on her own. She started out making mead and wine.
“But I got tired of waiting. I could make five or six batches of beer while I waited for my wine,” Lee said.
By 2010, she moved back to Portland to finish her dissertation and work.
“And by then, I was thinking about improving my brewing. I was becoming a little obsessed.”
Here is where Lee Hedgmon’s story merges with the stories of thousands of other pilgrims who come to Portland drawn to the explosion that is craft beer in Oregon. Her passion for brewing has made her a social beer butterfly. Obviously, people notice her race and gender, she said. But they quickly move on to their favorite subject: beer. Oregon’s brewing community is a warm and welcoming one, she said.
Still, she said she hopes for the day when more women, including black women, join her.
That dissertation? Still on hold. Studies that might have lead to a career in academics have been replaced with a passion for craft beer and her work at Portland U-Brew. “This doesn’t feel like work. It’s a dream job.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.