Nexus’ McKnight seeks a balance between being a trail blazer and a top-notch brewer

Posted: July 24, 2015 by cjax33 in NM Women in Brewing
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Kaylynn said we could reuse this somewhat ridiculous photo of her, so, we did.

Kaylynn said we could reuse this somewhat ridiculous photo of her, so, we did.

Many, many moons ago when we were in the midst of our NM Women in Brewing Series, I was asked by one of the Brew Crew writers when I was going to do a story on Nexus’ Kaylynn McKnight, the only current woman to hold the title of head brewer anywhere in the state. “I’m saving her for last,” I said before I went to interview her near the end of May. Fast forward two months and Kaylynn asked me if the story was ever going to run, or if it had already and she somehow missed it.

Well, I had been waiting to see if we had any additional stories in the series, and then life got in the way, and other beer news and events happened and, well, um, uh … Sorry it took so long. Here you go, Kaylynn. Our interview from long, long ago, in all of its glory.

(And as a side note, this is not necessarily the end of the series; if other stories pop up about women working in key roles in the craft brewing scene in New Mexico, we will still run them. As of now, however, none are planned. If you know of someone we should feature, drop us a line at nmdarksidebrewcrew@gmail.com).

NMDSBC: You’re unique in your position this state, which kind of has you caught between wanting to be seen as a brewer first, but at the same time there are a lot of women who look to you as a trail blazer of sorts. How do you balance that?

Kaylynn: It’s been kind of a hard balance between the two of them. I think it’s wonderful that I’ve gotten the opportunity and gotten to work so hard in being a head brewer. That’s hard enough as it is these days. There is a lot of attention focused on the fact I am a woman. It’s kind of novel because it’s so rare. But I really think that’s it hard for anybody to work their way up into this position. I don’t know, I just feel really lucky, but I was trained so well and supported by my parents, my fellow brewers, my friends. It kind of helped with that support.

NMDSBC: You ask people to judge a beer you made just on its quality, not as a beer made by a woman. What kind of feedback do you get from people in the beer community and the general public? Does it differ at all?

Kaylynn: That’s why I love sending off my beer to competitions. You get honest, brutal advice and feedback. It’s really nice, they don’t know who brewed it, they don’t necessarily know where it came from. Which is really cool, from GABF I got comment cards back. I haven’t entered anything in the State Fair, but I might next time it comes around. People that I know, when they come in, they’re just, ‘Oh, you’re doing a great job!’ They tend to be a little bit biased. I think that tends to be anybody’s friends, ‘Oh, I know the brewer, you gotta try this beer it’s so great!’ I think they tend to be a little biased for anybody whose buddy is brewing the beer.

I’ve actually heard some really good, what I think is unbiased feedback, when I’ve had a couple friends report to me that they’re sitting at another local brewery and they’ll overhear somebody else’s conversation saying, ‘Oh, man, the beer at Nexus has gotten so much better. This beer is awesome over there!’ It’s been really nice to hear things like that.

I love my friends, it’s nice to hear things back. I’ve run into groups of women that have come in here and had the beers and they’ll have a couple pints or flights and they’ll say, ‘We heard there’s a woman (brewing) and we came here to try your beer!’ That’s cool, I don’t mind. Getting more women to come in and drink, that’s always a good thing. It doesn’t have to be all about that.

NMDSBC: Do you ever find other women in the industry or those who want to get into the industry come to you more now for advice? Or are they still kind of shy about it? How has it worked since you’ve taken over here?

Kaylynn: Well, the women I know in the industry have all been good friends for a while. It hasn’t changed too much. The bartenders are always fun to talk to, go out and drink beers with and that. The other female brewers in town, we’ve been pretty close. There hasn’t been much change in going to each other and helping each other out.

NMDSBC: I know Santa Fe’s Monica Mondragon has started a Pink Boots Society chapter here in New Mexico. When you see something like that, is it a positive in your mind, is it something you’re interested in, or just how do you view it?

Kaylynn: I think it’s a positive. I think it’s a very cool thing. I would be really interested in going to one of her chapter meetings. I didn’t last time because it was after an event … it was after the Albuquerque brewing conference. I couldn’t make it out that day, but I’d be very interested in going to one some day.

I think it’s just great, Pink Boots Society gives women scholarship opportunities and more. When I was in the airport in Oakland, coming back from the Craft Brewers Conference, I ran into a lady sitting at a Gordon Biersch bar at the airport, and I happened to be sitting next to her and we started talking about the Draft Tower. She ended up being one of the founders of Pink Boots Society. We were talking about glycol lines, some really technical stuff. She gave me her card, said call me anytime. It was just wonderful to have that kind of community and meet another member of the Pink Boots Society in a random airport bar.

NMDSBC: I’ve actually been to that bar in the Oakland airport. I was so happy to find good beer.

Kaylynn: Oh, it’s great, right next to the terminal. They had Racer 5 on tap.

NMDSBC: Anyway, the question we’ve asked everyone to get their different viewpoints, sort of a nice way of saying it is what took so long for women to move back into brewing? Luke did the historical research that said women were the original brewers before men took over. It’s been a slow and steady growth, moving women out of the front-of-house where they have long been to the back-of-house, plus we’re seeing more and more women as customers of craft beer. So in your opinion, what took so long?

Kaylynn: That’s a good question. My first thought was maybe the demand for beer growing? … Lack of technology, heavier lifting, not a lot of women being able to lift them? I don’t know. That’s the first thing I can think of.

NMDSBC: Yeah, there is that perception, which is being proven wrong that women aren’t strong enough to do the heavy lifting. We joked once that Anna (Kornke) is ‘strong like bull’ at Marble, but the truth is she really is stronger than a lot of men.

Kaylynn: I finally can lift a keg by myself. I couldn’t when I first started. The first thing I think about, technology was pretty rough back then. Then the demand boomed, so they had to do something about transporting and packaging the beer, and technology is getting better now. I don’t know, I have no idea.

NMDSBC: Yeah, it’s a tough one. I think everyone has a different view. As for the increase in female customers, men are willing to go by themselves. Women used to always travel in groups for the fear that being a single woman in a bar leaves you vulnerable or something. And then there used to be this stereotype that women didn’t drink beer, they drank wine or mixed drinks and left the beer for the guys. That’s changing now, too.

Kaylynn: I think that’s another thing, too, more women start drinking beer or start knowing good, craft beer. It’s not just yellow, fizzy beer. Maybe they go and try a stout and love it. So then they home brew. Then they want to brew it on a bigger scale. All the different styles might be attracting more women to it.

NMDSBC: When you went up to the CBC, did you see more women present? Or was it hard to tell who was who in terms of what their jobs were and the sheer overwhelming number of all the people there?

Kaylynn: It’s so overwhelming, especially on the trade show floor, looking at all the shiny equipment. But, there was definitely a good ratio of women. The percentage around was higher. I know Anna went up there from Marble. Other than that, all the women I know from New Mexico that went up are taproom managers, bartenders, social media.

NMDSBC: If an aspiring female brewer came to you and asked for some advice as to what paths she should take to eventually became a head brewer, what would you tell her and how it would it differ now than when you were starting out?

Kaylynn: Depending on where they were coming from, whether it’s someone with no experience at all …

NMDSBC: Let’s say a college grad, cap and gown in hand.

Kaylynn: I would tell them, depending on their degree, a biology degree go Anna’s route and get into it. That would be an automatic foot in the door. But for me, there was no real degree starting out, be ready to do all the grunt work, be ready to get your hands dirty, be ready to spend your day in a warehouse that gets really, really hot and really cold, get sweaty and get covered in grain and yeast and hops and scrub the floors. Then, eventually, you might learn to transfer a beer, eventually brew it. You can’t (not) be ready to do hard work. That’s what the job is. If you go in expecting it to be glorious, it’s not that. That’s what I would tell somebody trying to get into the industry.

NMDSBC: The industry as a whole has exploded. There are probably a lot more people wanting jobs in it right now than are available. Do you ever sit back and go, ‘Phew, I’m lucky to get in it when I did’?

Kaylynn: Definitely. I can’t believe, when I go back to La Cumbre now and look around at their expansions and their new brewhouse, I think about when it was just me and Jeff back there and there were three fermenters and space for days. I’m just blown away by how fast this industry has blown up. Even when I used to go to Marble, that place has just blown up. I met all the guys working back there when there were five people. Now there’s 20 at any given time. I feel very lucky to have gotten in when I did and where I did. La Cumbre was a great place to learn.

NMDSBC: We’re starting to see a lot places becoming more serious about actual brewing degrees. Oregon State has a four-year program now. Do you see the industry going in favor of that way or still going more with the people starting as packaging technicians and working their way up the ladder? Will it differ between the bigger and smaller breweries?

Kaylynn: I think it could differ between the bigger and smaller places. I know UC Davis has the internship program. I think it’s a really good tool for people to learn. They know they have the book smarts, but they don’t necessarily have the hands-on experience, even when they go to intern at the brewery. Are they ready to work full-time in a brewery or open a brewery after completing that program? Personally, I don’t think so. But if you get hired in a brewery and get some experience, that’s a wonderful option. You should learn as much as you can. Knowledge is power, but experience is also (important).

* * * * *

Thank you again to Kaylynn for the interview and being patient while waiting for me to finally sit down and transcribe the recording. It also makes me realize that I am overdue for a Nexus trip to try some of her new beers and, of course, wolf down some chicken and waffles.

As I said above, if any of you out there know of a woman working in the industry who you think deserves a feature, drop us a line. I will be swamped with Isotopes coverage (17 home games in the next 22 days), but I have a whole army of writers. Right, Brew Crew?

Cheers!

— Stoutmeister

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