A customer walked into the Monhegan Brewing tasting room and started chatting with Mary Weber, who was working behind the counter.

Weber talked about their brews, talked about the brewing process and answered the customer’s questions.

Then Weber’s husband, Matt, walked into the tasting room and the customer said, “Oh, the brewer’s here.”

Weber smiled wide and informed the customer: “Actually, you were talking to the brewer the whole time.”

As Weber told the story, her sister, Elizabeth Johnston, an apprentice brewer at Lake St. George Brewing in Liberty, chimed in: “That happened to me yesterday.”

People aren’t used to seeing women at the forefront of the beer industry. Out of more than 100 breweries in the state of Maine, only Weber and Austin Street’s Lisa Kellndorfer are head brewers. That parallels national trends. A 2014 Stanford University study on female brewers found that out of 1,717 breweries nationwide, only 4 percent had a female head brewer.

The industry has been thriving in Maine without female brewers. An economic study produced earlier this year by the University of Maine and the Maine Brewers’ Guild found that breweries added $228 million to the Maine economy in 2016. Production was forecast to grow 41 percent in the next three years.

Some Maine brewers say the lack of women as lead brewers is a missed chance to appeal to female consumers, whose numbers are growing. Nearly 30 percent of beer drinkers are women.

“We’re seeing a change in the demographic that is appreciating beer,” said Carla Jean Lauter, who has been writing about the Maine beer scene for a decade as “The Beer Babe.” “It’s no longer a boys’ club. It’s no longer a man cave. It’s opening up quite significantly. You don’t have to be a specific gender to have good taste.”

Soon the ranks of Maine’s female head brewers could swell by another two female brewers. Johnston is training to become a head brewer, which would give Maine three female head brewers.

And Shonee Strickland is in line to be the head brewer at Brickyard Hollow in Yarmouth when it opens next year. That makes four.

She and other female brewers say they know they are in the vanguard of something new. Strickland got her start three years ago at Run of the Mill brewpub in Saco and later worked at Banded Horn in Biddeford.

She fell in love with the physical labor at small breweries, which can involve lugging heavy bags of grain or climbing into brew tanks to clean them by hand. But she did not love the comments she heard from people who found out she was working in production at a brewery.

“I was taken aback that people were coming up to me and saying, ‘Wow, you’re a woman brewer. That’s so weird.’ And I was always like, ‘Why does it have to be weird? Why do you even have to say that? Can’t I just do my job?” Strickland said.

STEREOTYPES NEED TO BE BROKEN DOWN

Kellndorfer can relate. As the head brewer at Austin Street in Portland, Kellndorfer says the only time her gender matters while she’s at work is when she can’t reach something because she’s too short. But while she was visiting a brewery in California, the staff kept asking her boyfriend questions about brewing. People just don’t expect women to be the brewers.

“I think that’s what needs to get broken down in everyone,” Kellndorfer said of the stereotype.

Weber was the only schoolteacher on Monhegan Island and Johnston a teacher in Cape Elizabeth before they moved into brewing. The transition could have been in their genes. Their father, Danny McGovern, is a renowned pioneer in Maine’s brewing scene.

While most brewers in Maine were content making English-style ales in the 1990s, McGovern developed the recipe for Cant Dog, a hoppy double IPA that bucked convention.

He co-founded Monhegan Brewing with Weber in 2007 and now he’s working closely with Johnston at Lake St. George Brewing.

McGovern prefers to crawl into the mash tun – the big metal tub where brewers steep grains in hot water – to do the grunt work of cleaning up after a brew session. That way, Johnston and Weber can focus on the technical details of making good beer.

“That’s work anybody can do. I would rather they were working on wrapping everything up, making sure everything’s just right,” McGovern said of his daughters. “Anybody can clean a mash tun out. It’s a learning experience for them, so they should be learning.”

Danny McGovern, center, is passing along his knowledge of brewing to his daughters, Elizabeth Johnston, left, and Mary Weber, who is brewmaster at Monhegan Brewing Co., which she founded with her dad. McGovern also founded Lake St. George Brewing in Liberty, above, where Johnston is learning the ropes. Photo by Jim Patrick

WOMEN ON THE RISE

There are a couple of female brewers with a national profile that could serve as role models for women in Maine. Megan Parisi is the head brewer at Sam Adams. Kim Jordan drove New Belgium Brewing Co. to national prominence before selling it to her employees in 2013. But those examples are few and far between.

As consumers, women have been the minority of beer drinkers since the industry started keeping statistics. With fewer female drinkers, it makes sense to McGovern and his daughters that there would be fewer female brewers.

But there’s anecdotal evidence of a change in the Maine beer scene. Lauter says when she started going to beer festivals in 2008, it was almost entirely men in attendance. Women were there to offer rides home for the drinkers.

Now, Lauter says, groups of women are going to events together. There are at least as many women as men at some events, she says.

Lauter points out there are a lot of female co-owners at breweries. It’s common to see women working in the marketing of beer, working behind the scenes at the brewery or running a tap room and giving tours. Maine’s first craft brewery, Geary’s, was run by the husband-and-wife team of D.L. and Karen Geary.

“We have a lot of female owners and workers, and I think it’s just a matter of time before a woman opens a brewery on her own, or as the primary proprietor,” said Lauter. “I think that’s just inevitable. Especially because people are seeing that as a possibility.”

CHANGING TASTES

As more women enter the industry and the number of beer-savvy female consumers swells, they will likely exert their own influence.

Both Strickland and Kellndorfer are loath to say all women like certain types of beer. Strickland fell in love with stouts at an early age while Kellndorfer is a fan of hoppy New England-style IPAs.

But they see a trend.

“I’ve noticed, just among my friends, a lot of them enjoy drinking wine, and I think brewers are now offering more sours and saisons – those lighter and fruitier, more acidic flavors that compare well with drinking a glass of wine,” Kellndorfer said. “And I’ve noticed my friends enjoy those varieties. Whenever I open up my fridge to them, they always go for whatever sour beer I have from whatever brewer.”

Strickland says she’s happy to see more women at beer festivals and in tasting rooms and hopes the scene continues to evolve.

“There are groups of women who used to just drink wine or go out for cocktails with their girlfriends, and now they are finding something that they like in beer. And I like that,” Strickland said. “It’s the same for groups of guys, but guys have always drank beer and now they’re just drinking better beer.”

AN INTEREST IN EXPERIMENTATION

Weber, who enjoys attending beer festivals with her parents and sister, says female brewers might be more interested in experimentation. She talked excitedly about a female brewer she met in California who makes a “glitter” beer, which has shiny particles floating in it.

Experimentation and learning are all part of the development of the craft brew industry, she said. Her sister, who has a 6-year-old daughter, is passionate about the hands-on learning opportunities that await women in the beer industry.

“(If she wants to work in the brewery) she’s going to learn about problem solving and engineering and science. She’s going to know that things don’t go right the first time and mistakes are good,” Johnston said. “It’s all those things we try to teach artificially in school. Open a business and you can learn them all.”

“Quickly,” quipped McGovern.

Perhaps by then, people will stop assuming the brewer is always the boy, but Weber is unconvinced.

“It probably bothers Matt more than me (when he’s mistaken for the brewer). I don’t think it’s intentional. We all do it,” Weber said. “I take a little bit of satisfaction in saying, ‘Actually, it’s me. I’m the brewer.'”

James Patrick can be contacted at 791-6382 or at:

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