“Being a Female Craft Brewer is Not Unusual Here”

Tom Ayres, interviews one of the brewers from
Deviant Wolfe Brewing in Sanford, Florida. Together they explore the role that women have in shaping the ever growing world of craft beer.

I was visiting family in Sanford, Florida recently. Being a craft beer nut, I had to sample some of the local craft beer. During my visit to Deviant Wolfe Brewing, I met brewer, Heather Opheim. During our chat, I learned there were a lot of brewers and owners in the area that were women. This was a pleasant surprise since a recent survey showed women account for just 4% of headbrewers or brewmasters.[1] Also, only 17% of breweries have female owners; of those only 3% have a solo female owner.[2]  So why the concentration of female brewers and owners in this part of Florida? I sat down with Heather to learn more.

Sommbeer: What’s your brewing history, how did you get into this?

Heather: I started out by finding out there was a brewery opening up in my hometown, which was very exciting at the time considering Orlando had less than 5 breweries total. I had zero experience in craft beer, but I knew I wanted to learn. I had several years of experience in hospitality, so I decided to take a chance and apply for a bartending position. From then on my knowledge started to grow exponentially over the course of 2 years. Eventually, we purchased a canning line, and from there I was helping out with packaging and bottling from time to time. This ended up sparking my interest in wanting to learn more when it came to brewing. I worked many beer fests, and I had seen Deviant Wolfe Brewing (which was still in the planning phase) around. I really liked the beer they were producing, and I liked that they were more on the experimental side. One of the owners was also a bar regular, and he would come in from time to time to show us beer he was making. It was never disappointing. Rumors started floating around that Deviant Wolfe Brewing was locked in on a location and they were hiring. I knew this would was going to be my chance to get into the brewing side. I was hired on as a bartender. Currently, I bartend and I am the Assistant Brewer.

Sommbeer: What sparked your interest in brewing?

Heather: Initially my interest was sales until I started getting into it. Then I realized very quickly that I do not like sales at all. As I started doing packaging and seeing how all that went down, I became more interested in learning about recipe development. I was really big on cooking so I wanted to translate that to beer, but never really had the opportunity to do so. Once I started talking to Deviant Wolfe, and started doing more hands on stuff I fell in love with it immediately. I love putting forth all the hard work and hard efforts, and then you create this beautiful beer that everyone else can enjoy.

Sommbeer: Where do you draw your brewing inspiration from?

Heather: I like to try to think of things that haven’t been done yet or what is not trending at the moment. For instance, more recent trends have been the New England Style IPA, and I noticed there weren’t really many West Coast IPAs. I suggested we make one, and it has been selling like crazy. It’s different from what most beer drinkers are used to at the moment. I have had some guests at the bar tell me it’s a nice change of pace. As far as other inspirations, I have always really enjoyed cooking from scratch. I like to improvise when it comes to spices and herbs. With that being said, I want to learn how to incorporate more herbs and spices into beer. Almost like a modern take on historical beer styles.

Sommbeer: At this point in your brewing, what do you think you do really well?

Heather: Honestly my favorite is cleaning out the mash tun (laughing). That is my absolute, hands down favorite part of the process. It’s almost meditative in a way. I like the challenge aspect of it.  I try to do everything on my own.  Sometimes our head brewer has to help me because I’m just not physically strong enough to do certain things. But I still try to do it all.    

Sommbeer: So what do you think you need to work on?

Heather:  I’m pretty good with transferring beer, kegging beer, cleaning out fermenters, mash tun, and boil kettle. I am still learning the full process of brewing. These next months are geared toward me taking over the entire brewhouse and hopefully run a whole brew day by myself. Physically, I also need help dumping our milled grain into the mash tun. We don’t have an auger that funnels it in for you. Our brewer can dump the bins into the mill with no problems, whereas I definitely struggle. I don’t think that makes me any less of a brewer though. I am still going to keep working towards being able to do it on my own. I like the struggle, because it makes accomplishing something that much more exciting.

Sommbeer: Why do you think there’s such a concentration of women involved in brewing in this area?

Heather: I feel like the interest in it is rising. The more other women see women getting involved, the more people want to get involved. I feel like roughly 3 or 4 years ago when I first started out, there was maybe two that I really knew of, that were pretty prominent. Since then it’s probably grown closer to 15. We’ve had enough ladies to put together a calendar, which is pretty cool. We called it the “City Brewtiful” project.  All of us got to take pictures of us in our brewing attire. Other girls dressed in whatever they were comfortable in. All the proceeds went back to Harbor House, which is for abuse victims. We raised closed to $3,000 dollars. It’s really nice, even when we were all getting our pictures taken, how everyone is super supportive. All the girls are standing around cheering you on as you’re getting your pictures done, making sure to build up your confidence. Overall everyone is super supportive. I definitely have a few lady brewers contacting me, asking me to do “collabs” (collaborations) with them. And then of course the Pink Boots Society does International Women’s Day where we do a brew day dedicated to that, so we usually collaborate with a bunch of other girls. 

Sommbeer: But why do you think there’s such a concentration here?

Heather: Historically, women were the first brewers, and now that almost seems lost (but not for long).  I feel like with us having two strong female brewers in Central Florida to start, that kind of set the tone overall. Women see other women accomplishing things in a male dominated industry and it becomes empowering. If they can do it, I can also do it. I have watched so many awesome females grow from bartending to becoming awesome brewers over the last few years and it’s incredible.

Sommbeer: What are the challenges of being a female brewer?

Heather: I would say just the physical aspect of not being strong enough to lift certain things, but again that doesn’t stop me. I still work just as hard. As far as being socially accepted, female brewers are welcomed with open arms. No one tells you that you are incapable of doing something because of your gender. The beer scene here is growing, but we are still small enough to where I am friendly with everyone involved and everyone knows each other. I have received nothing but support for being a female brewer, and I have even been offered to go to other breweries to shadow their brewer for a day. No one here tries to hinder your growth.

Sommbeer: Do you think that’s a Craft Beer thing or a Sanford thing?

Heather: I am not sure the support other women receive in other cities, states, or even countries. I know it’s a Central Florida thing as a whole, not just limited to Sanford… although; Sanford is truly unique in itself. We are still welcoming new businesses, restaurants, bars and breweries. Everything here is pretty much independently own. Everyone here knows each other and we all work very hard to continue the growth of Sanford and make a good name for the town.

Sommbeer: So would you recommend this to other women, getting into this industry?

Heather: Absolutely! I feel like a few years ago it seemed more intimidating, especially in Central Florida because it was so rare overall. But now it’s growing, I feel like it becomes less intimidating, especially if there are other lady brewers to look up to. If making beer is what you’re passionate about then do it.

Sommbeer: Do you think you brew differently than your male counterparts?

Heather:  No, I don’t think gender has anything to do with it. I think it’s more about who you are as a person. What type of creative feel do you have? I know brewers who prefer to brew beers with traditional styles that are clean, to the point, with zero adjuncts. I also know brewers who like to get crazy and throw every ingredient they can think of into a beer. I feel like brewing mostly comes down to your techniques and processes.

Sommbeer: Tell me about your competition?

Heather: The breweries in the area range from all different sizes. We have smaller breweries that brew on a 3 barrel brewing system and some that brew on a 15 barrel brewing system. Everyone tends to have a different theme to offer. For instance, we focus on the outdoors, being active outside, and being environmentally friendly. Some breweries started out with distribution right away and some started out with a taproom that could hold only 5 people at the bar. There is a lot of diversity.

Sommbeer: How do you think your beers are different than your competitors?

Heather: We are more known for brewing our kettle sours. The sour we are particularly known for is “Sourmanjaro,” which is a coffee sour blonde. It is conditioned on African coffee beans for a lemony tartness and coffee aroma/flavor. It’s one of our more complex tasting beers. The description of the beer alone is already an attention grabber, and the complexity of the appearance, flavor, and aroma is unreal. Another crowd favorite we have had on in the past is our “Pineapple Troll Cake,” which is a sour blonde with pineapple, coconut, lactose, and oak chips soaked in rum. A local craft beer bar in downtown Sanford showcased that beer during their Sour Outage event and it was their second top selling beer that night.

Sommbeer: Who’s your target audience?

Heather:  Anyone who likes beer! We do like to brew kettle sours. However, we do try our hardest to have a beer on tap that’s appealing to everyone’s palette. For instance, we currently have anything from a pilsner on draft to a robust porter. Our taproom is family friendly and we love the outdoors!

Sommbeer: What are your long-term brewing goals?

Heather: I don’t want to be the person that says, “I want to own my own brewery one day,” because I kind of do but I am also undecided. There is a lot of work that goes into running your own business, and I am not sure if I am ready to face those challenges yet. Right now my goals are just to build my brewing foundation up enough to where I can run a whole brew day by myself. At some point in my life, I would also like to win a medal for a beer I created. 2019 is going to be my year of even more growth within the beer industry, and I am very excited to see what I accomplish.

Sommbeer: What advice would you give to other women who want to get into the craft beer industry?

Heather:  Just do it! I have a habit of talking myself out of things…even in brewing. Don’t let yourself talk yourself down or talk yourself out of it. If you feel like this is something you want to do, just go for it.

Sommbeer: As a customer, what would you want me to say about this place to my friends (Deviant Wolfe)?

Heather: Our taproom is very welcoming, and our staff is friendly and knowledgeable. We have a really awesome mountain mural painted on our wall. We love the mountains, and since there aren’t any in Florida, why not bring them to us? We are located in Historic Downtown Sanford, and there is a lot of culture here. Our building used to be an old bank from the early 1900s, and our office door is the original bank vault door. We are constantly making efforts of staying involved with the community, and most importantly we really enjoy talking to you about beer.

Sommbeer: Which of the beers are you most proud of?

Heather: I would have to say Sourmanjaro, because it’s so unique and unlike any beer I have ever tried before. Another one I am also a huge fan of right now is “On Brew Days We Wear Black,” which is our Cascadian Dark Ale.

[1] 2Sources: Auburn University 2014 study, Stanford University 2014 study.

One thought on ““Being a Female Craft Brewer is Not Unusual Here””

  1. Start collecting barrels(borbon, wine, tequila,etc) and and age fermented sours. And keep on keeping on!

Leave a Reply