Felicia “Fee” Gonzales is on the move these days. Oh, she is not leaving Boxing Bear Brewing, but as the director of people operations for the brewery, she is putting some miles on her car these days thanks to the expansion into three new locations over the last few years.
“One of the most challenging parts about my job is not being able to be in multiple taprooms at the same time,” Gonzales said. “I, alongside Jay Knigge, one of the owners and operating director for Boxing Bear Brewing Company, oversee four locations now here in Albuquerque. Three of those locations we opened in the last three years, two which were opened and operating during a global pandemic.”
As part of our ongoing series of highlighting women in craft beer in New Mexico, I sat down with Gonzales at the newest location, the Firestone Taproom, last week to learn more about her and her role with one of the stalwart breweries in our local scene.
Gonzales got into drinking craft beer at a time when technically she was not allowed, all the way back in high school. At that time, her boyfriend worked at an auto repair shop, and one of his co-workers was a prolific homebrewer.
“At 5 o’clock when the day was over, the doors would come down, and the bottle caps would get popped,” she said. “At that time, still being very young, I really didn’t know how to drink. So really what it came down to, the mechanic, his name was Brian, he taught me how to visually see the beer, and to sniff the beer, and to drink the beer. So my first taste of craft beer was an American-style lager that he had brewed.”
Many people in the shop also participated, in one way or another, in the races held at the Sandia Speedway. Afterwards, everyone would head back to the homebrewer’s house for the after party, where Gonzales said her early education in beer went up a level or two.
“It was at that time I got to see what a home-brewing system looked like,” she said. “I was completely mind-blown at the whole chemistry was very time consuming, and the cleanliness factor was so immensely important to this craft and to brew beer. He educated me verbally. I got to help with one bottling project with him. It just kind of went from there.”
Once she was 21, Gonzales got a job as a bartender at the old Fox and Hound (now Craft Republic), and right around the corner from the tavern on Jefferson was Chama River.
“I would work at Fox and Hound and on my days off I would go to Chama River Brewing Company,” Gonzales said. “Little did I know that I was sitting at a bar drinking beer brewed from some of the most exclusive names here in New Mexico, in the brewing industry. Having that knowledge now, I feel that also I could not only appreciate more so the time and expertise that these breweries put in at that time, but also it’s very overwhelming to see their success within New Mexico, and to see how the craft beer industry has grown.”
Gonzales said her favorite beer was Bock to the Future, and only years later did she realize that some of those Chama River beers were created by her now-colleague Justin Hamilton, the head brewer and co-owner of Boxing Bear.
After a couple other stints with different craft breweries, Gonzales has found a home at Boxing Bear.
“I feel it’s almost a dream,” she said. “Time went by so quickly, and I am so appreciative and happy to be within the company that I am and in the place that I am in the company.”
Gonzales is now in charge of every front-of-house employee at all four Boxing Bear taprooms.
“One of the best parts about my job as the director of people operations, is to not only strive to my fullest for success for myself, but to also lead, encourage, and coach every team member to reach their highest potential for themselves and for their families,” she said.
Developing relationships with her colleagues and customers has been a career highlight for Gonzales.
“One of the (other) best parts about my job in the craft beer industry is the relationships I’ve made over the years,” she said. “Relationships that turned into lifelong friendships, my support team, and my personal therapists, at times. I love getting to know someone over a pint or two. Developing these relationships is one of the best parts about being in the craft beer industry.”
Gonzales said she has drawn inspiration from many of the other women in the New Mexico craft beer scene, though sometimes it is more subtle than direct.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with many women in the craft beer industry that have offered advice in a non-verbal way, if that makes sense,” Gonzales said. “But, I’ll elaborate. What it really takes for one to offer advice without sharing an anecdote, and/or having a one-on-one engagement, is to be kind — kind-hearted and kind-willed. The power of kindness shines more powerful than anyone who holds a seat of prestige, but, by all means, do not take my kindness for weakness, as that is not the case. We give advice to one another by lifting each other up, and by being supportive that we are doing a kick-ass job.”
Gonzales added that she would love to work with more women outside the walls of Boxing Bear.
“Would I like to be involved in more women-based events and brew collabs?” she said. “Of course, without a doubt in my mind. Now that life is getting back to normal, I would be willing, and I’d like to help coordinate in any way that I can to help support women in this ever-growing industry, to be able to share time on more than one occasion together would be absolutely stellar.”
On a national level, however, recent revelations have come to light that have exposed an often toxic culture towards women in the craft beer industry. Gonzales said she has been dismayed by what she has read, but she did note that her own personal experience has been positive in terms of interactions with the men at Boxing Bear.
“Within my time at Boxing Bear Brewing Company, I have always been treated with immense respect, appreciation of my work ethic, and of my opinions,” she said. “I feel my owners definitely extend a sense of belonging and make it very well known to myself of how appreciative they are to have me on the Boxing Bear team and to grow within the company. I have been in the hospitality industry for 16 years, seven of those in the craft brewing industry. Within decades of serving and managing, yes, there have been countless occasions where inappropriate comments were made by people. And, at times, where the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ takes on a whole new meaning.”
Dealing with customers has, at times, been difficult.
“As a hospitality professional you learn to engage in those situations, where you either brush it off and keep doing your job, or you eventually learn how to set boundaries for yourself,” she said. “Just because servers work for tips does not mean that they get to be treated and judged to each individual’s standards of acceptance due to personal perception.
“I feel that in light of recent events of what’s going on in our community, all over the nation, it is very overwhelming and very disheartening in many ways. For those that were brave enough to stand up for themselves and share their story, I feel we have to be brave enough to listen, brave enough to evolve, not only for those hurt, but to prevent this escalation to continue in our community, and as a being of a race.”
Sexism is something that runs deep throughout America, and the world, Gonzales said.
“In my opinion, there is in each and every subcategory of culture (a form of) sexism,” she said. “Unfortunately there has always been sexism in our society with women in male-dominated industries. There has also been, unfortunately, sexism in our society with women in women-dominated industries. Nor that it exists is that a reasoning for it to be acceptable in any way, shape or form. Awareness starts for someone’s story who speaks out.
“I myself have been able to overcome adversity to become a thriving professional female in the craft beer industry, even with people defining me by how I dress, how I speak, how I look, what my previous position was, and where I stand on the hierarchy ladder for success. I am a woman that will stand up for what I believe in my heart to be right and true. I am a woman that will not only continue to rise above adversity, but will uplift all the women and men along the way. I am a woman that will continue to strive to my entirety for the happiness and success for myself, for my husband, and for my craft.”
As to what can be done going forward, Gonzales said it starts with something simple, yet challenging for many people.
“We need to strive to listen, really listen, and observe,” she said. “It’s always easier to react and comment than to intake all information given. As far as equal opportunities, while it played out clear and straight forward in the question, equal means balanced, parallel and matched. You first have to know what equal means to embrace putting the action into helping growth in any aspect of your life or business. The same goes for respect, you have to understand what respect means to truly give and receive from one human being to another. The key words are human being.”
We all can strive to be better people in our interactions with one another, to grant people the respect that they deserve in every industry, including craft beer.
A huge thanks to Fee for sitting down to talk about all of this, some of which is not easy to talk about these days. Creating true equality in our world is a constant work in progress, so we very much appreciate her perspective, and that of all the women in our local industry. They all have our support, and hopefully that of the rest of the general public, going forward.
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