Walking the aisles of a big box store. Looking over rafter-high stacks of food, drink and colorful clothes. Buying giant packages of toilet paper that’ll last until the next presidential election.
Making way through a wave of cart-pushing shoppers. A bearded man wearing a Vietnam veteran hat. A woman in brightly colored athletic wear. A young couple; he, African-American, she, Asian-American. A diverse crowd queuing up at checkout. It’s easy to see superficial differences. It’s harder to know the differences that matter. Having a beer and a talk is a good place to start.
The late December night was a blustery Portland cliche. It was a good night to sit in a warm home and talk beer and diversity. The home belongs to Jenn McPoland, she finished third in the People’s Choice portion of the 2017 SheBrew. At one end of the table just off the kitchen was Stef-Anie Wells Koty. She came up with the idea for SheBrew four years ago.
“My wife is really involved with the Oregon Brew Crew and LOLA (the Ladies of Lagers and Ales), so it obviously could not happen without women brewers. It seemed like a good marriage to make a fundraiser for women and brewing.”
At the other end of the table was Shannon Scott, with the Portland office of the Human Rights Campaign. “I think what has made SheBrew so successful is the amazing team we have — the amazing connections that are made by people who are passionate about beer; who are passionate about equality. So joining those two forces together, we’ve been able to create something really fantastic.”
SheBrew, by Oregon standards, is small. The homebrew competition drew about 100 entries from 22 states last year. It makes its mark in who the brewers are; all are women, but until this year the commercial brewers were a mixed-gender bag. This year every single beer will have been brewed by a woman. Scott likes the way it has become something unique. “It’s very much designed to feature, embolden and empower the women of our community.” The women of that community are like the shoppers in the big box store. You have to go beyond appearances.
Between Wells Koty at one end the table and Scott at the other there are women who, pardon the stereotyping, look typical: maybe a housewife, or a businesswoman, or a teacher, or a Portland hipster. Maybe. But certainly beer is the foundation for their coming together.
Lisa Hinson is a homebrewer who is meeting her role models. “The thing I discovered is the folks who are involved in pro brewing, at large, have come from a homebrewing background; so are very hospitable and welcoming and not inaccessible. The first time I met a professional, it was like — ‘Oh my gosh, this is so awesome.’ And it is still awesome because they are awesome people. But it also just reflects, for me, the people I have found who are beer people are people who tend to appreciate people.”
Another homebrewer, Tracy Hensley, adds that it’s not just brewers, but also other members of the industry she has met. For instance, she encountered a representative from Great Western Malting who was “talking about my use of an experimental hop in an IPA and what she thought about it was fantastic. That’s what I got out of the experience. There are so many leaders of the homebrewing and professional brewing scene at this event.”
Natalie Baldwin is the professional at the table. If you didn’t know that at first, you might guess it. There is something challenging in the way she looks at you when you sit down. This is fun for the others. It’s business for her as she supports “anything having to do with women’s empowerment.” And as a brewer at Portland’s top-tier Breakside Brewery, she can use “this really cool, visible platform to empower other women and teach my peers who are men that we’re just like everybody else. I just think it’s really cool to watch other people be inspired by the fact that me and other female brewers, and whether it’s brewers or makers or engineers or whatever it is, it’s just a really cool platform to be a badass woman.”
And Baldwin thinks it says a lot about her attitude toward her profession, her generation and a purpose of SheBrew. She’s not “accepting of bullshit” or anyone treating a woman in the industry differently because of gender. “It’s the Portland bubble,” she says. “There are women elsewhere who struggle. People here value me for my work and not my gender.”
Gender brings us back to the Human Rights Campaign. It’s the reason for SheBrew and what makes the festival different from those others that are, as one woman put it, “90 percent white dudes.” Scott explains the ticket you buy gets you in the door and about 30 tastings, but also “That money goes to make sure we are fighting for LGBTQ equality across the United States, whether that means ensuring that Roy Moore doesn’t get elected or unseating a governor in North Carolina or taking back the House in 2018. We just released our greatest grassroots effort to take back the House. We also do a lot of work in the local community, in community engagement events — things like the MLK Day service event where we collect clothing and food the LGBTQ homeless community needs.”
After listening to the conversation about beer and diversity and human rights, Jenn McPoland’s partner, Jeremie Landers, was reminded of something once said to him by the late Don Younger, owner of the Horse Brass Pub. The quote may not be exact but it goes something like this: “It’s not what the beer is about, it’s what is about the beer.’’ It is about how beer brings people together, people from different backgrounds with different stories, and gives them a time to share and learn and grow. Beer can celebrate it all. That is what SheBrew celebrates. •