As the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg wisely said, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”
And that, of course, includes breweries, where countless decisions are made every single day. Thousands of years ago brewing was a female-dominated craft, but the widespread industrialization of brewing over the past few centuries caused it to shift to a male-dominated trade. The boom of craft brewing in recent decades has created more opportunities for women to jump back into the brewer role, with many women in our state of New Mexico leading the way.
We sat down with Marita Weil, a brewer at Steel Bender Brewyard, to talk about her brewing career, what it is like being a woman in the back of house, and what advice she has for others who may be looking for a career in the industry.
What sparked your interest in brewing?
I was in Atlanta for about eight years and moved back to Albuquerque in 2013, and had never really had a ‘real’ craft beer. My first real craft beer was a Marble Red. My partner at the time, we were like, “What is this? They make this here? I don’t quite understand how this works.” I went to all these different breweries trying to get a job, they kept asking if I had my Cicerone (certification) and I had no idea what that was. So I started researching and going to more breweries and I took a few classes at CNM to get my Cicerone.
What brought you to Steel Bender in particular?
I actually live right down the street and I found it really interesting that they were building a brewery here in Los Ranchos. I drove up on the dirt road and there was nothing. The bridge wasn’t here, the patio wasn’t here. I walked up with my resumé and a cover letter and saw Bill Heimann. I knew him from Boxing Bear, so I went up to him said, “I’m interested in brewing and maybe working in the taproom.” I ended up being the second person hired here. I started at the taproom serving tables, then moved up to the bar, and then I was invited to sit on the sensory program we have here, tasting all the beers and making sure everything is up to standards.
What is your favorite part of working at Steel Bender?
I love my crew, I love the people I work with. Bob Haggerty is probably one of the smartest, most talented brewers here in Albuquerque. He’s like a mad scientist. The Chant family are just awesome to work for. They’re really good people and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. We offer a great product … Bob has creative control over a lot of the beers, and he’s kind of a perfectionist in that way, so you’re always on your toes. In Atlanta, I was working as a wedding photographer and post-production specialist, which was just sitting in the dark at a desk with your headphones on, which is completely the polar opposite of what I’m doing now. That’s what I like about my job, having to use my brain, and coming from editing bulk images or working in retail, now I have to problem solve, “How are we going to fix this?”
Have you worked on some of the barrel-aged, small-batch beer here as well?
I’ve done some barrel-aged stuff. I did all the peaches in The Judy, which was, uh … interesting. Trying to stuff fruit into a barrel is not as glamorous as it might sound. It’s an interesting process, definitely messy and this magic just kind of happens. It’s patience, it’s an art, it’s a craft. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. We’ve definitely had some barrel-aged beers that don’t turn out, and that’s OK because it’s a learning process, and next time we’ll just do it better.
Why do you think there are fewer women who work in back of house at breweries?
I think it’s definitely getting better. There are a lot of women out there who are learning, and who are putting their best foot forward. There might still be some intimidation, like how do you just walk into a brewery with your resumé and try to convince somebody that you belong? It shouldn’t be so intimidating, and my experiences have always been pretty warm and inviting. I haven’t had any issues being a woman working in the back of house. Why more women aren’t doing it? I’m not sure, but there’s nothing to fear.
Sometimes there’s some confusion, too, about what my place is here in the brewery, but I think its just an educational moment. ‘Here is my perception, what I was taught to think, but now that I see you, now that I’m talking to you, then that makes sense.’ Regardless of gender, it takes a certain person to be a brewer. You’ve gotta work, you’ve gotta use your brain, and you’ve gotta push yourself, you’ve gotta be uncomfortable. I’ve cried, (and) I’ve seen my coworkers cry, too. It’s a tough job. It’s not for everybody, but if you can hang in there and earn your stripes, then it’s very rewarding.
Are you close with your coworkers?
This pandemic has been interesting. In lockdown, we went from 100 MPH to 0 MPH. There was nobody working in the brewery or taproom, the Chants were gone, so there were five employees and we were just … brimming. You could literally film it. There was bickering, there was fighting, then there was hugging, and everyone was happy. We’re like roommates, but we all care about each other and we’re here to help each other. I would consider every single person I work with to be my friend and, I don’t wanna sound cheesy, but they’re like brothers to me. You have to be comfortable asking for help; you can’t be a loner and work in a brewery. If you don’t know something and you do it anyway, there will be a point where someone has to stop you and say, “What you’re doing is dangerous,” and you have to be receptive to that kind of thing.
What other advice do you have for anyone who is looking to get into brewing as a profession?
Do your research. You’re going to have to put in some man hours to really learn what beer is. If you want to go the school route, go the school route, but if you’re looking to just get into it, start working in a taproom. It takes time; no one is just going to hand you a brewing job. I started by scrubbing floors and washing kegs. I washed kegs for six months, and at the end of the day I’d ask, “OK, Bob, what else?” and he’d say, “That’s it, you can go home.” But, one day, he said, “OK, we’re going to get you on a transfer and you’re gonna need to learn how to do a CIP and all this stuff.”
So that’s my advice. Either go to school, or get a job in a taproom, and introduce yourself to the brewers. Do they need some help on the canning line? Do they need help moving some boxes? It’s always that extra step. If you can get the people in the brewery to know your name, then there you go. I was telling Weslie, the lady I’m training, about kegs, just washing kegs. If you don’t know what your final product goes into, and if that vessel isn’t clean, and you spend all the time on the beer and then you put it into a dirty keg, what’s the point?
What is your favorite style of beer to brew?
Brewing our (Village) Wit is pretty interesting. We use coriander that we grind by hand, and we put all the orange peel in there and throw it into the boil. When we do the can conditioning, we’ll get some dextrose, get the sugar going, and can-condition it in the tank. So I think that process is really neat, and that’s brought our wit to the next level. Doing kettle sours is interesting because it’s a two-day process. They might as well call us scientists instead of brewers, because there is so much that goes into this. We have the new 8-barrel pilot system so we can do some specialty beers on there.
How do you feel abut the brewing community here as a whole?
It’s definitely supportive. We’re in competition for shelf space and things like that, but when it comes down to it, we’re all still people. So when a brewer comes by and says, “Hey, I’m out of this hop, can I borrow some hops?” if we are able to spare some, then why not? Bob’s big thing is whenever a brewer asks for some yeast, and we can afford to give it to them, why not? Then later on, after they’ve grown up that yeast and we’ve run out, we can ask for a crop off that yeast and get one of our house yeasts back. So it’s this nice give and take. When other brewers come by the brewery, we all say hello and everybody’s on a first name basis, so it is fun. When you go to a brewery and people recognize you, it’s a nice thing. It’s a nice community. I don’t know that it’s like in other states, but I think Albuquerque is special in that way.
As a member of the New Mexico chapter of the Pink Boots Society, Marita is just one of dozens of women currently involved with our incredible brewing community, with more joining the ranks all the time. As we mentioned in our article earlier this month, the Golden Girls collaboration beer recently released by Pink Boots is a testament to the skill level of these craftswomen. If you haven’t picked any up yet, we highly recommend it, and encourage you to continue supporting brewers of all gender identities as we continue to grow and diversify our amazing NM beer culture.
May the beer be with you, always.