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Susan Axelrod

Susan Axelrod's food writing career began in the kitchen; she owned a restaurant and catering business for 15 years before turning to journalism. By day, she is the social media editor for Portland Press Herald. To relax, she bakes, gardens and hikes with her husband and their two dogs, preferably followed by a cocktail or a Maine beer. Susan can be contacted at 791-6310 or On Twitter: @susansaxelrod

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Posted: March 26, 2014

Ale women on the rise: Brewer Shonee Strickland breaks new Maine ground

Written by: Susan Axelrod

Shonee Strickland cleans conditioning tanks at Run of the Mill Public House and Brewery in Saco, where she is working until opening up her own brewery this summer in Biddeford. Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Press Herald Staff Photographer

An alewife wasn’t always a fish, known to Mainers for its salmon-like spawning habits and for its pungent odor when smoked. In the 17th century, the word referred to a woman who ran an alehouse and in most cases, brewed the beer consumed there. Thousands of years earlier, in ancient Babylon and Sumeria, women were the only ones allowed to make beer; they even had their own goddesses.

It is only in relatively recent times that the brewing world has been dominated by men. That is slowly starting to change.

When Shonee Strickland opens her yet-unnamed brewery in Biddeford this summer, she will be the first woman to be both brewer and brewery owner in Maine. Adding her to the ranks of women in similar positions in New England, however, means they can still be counted on one hand. She joins Annette Lee and Nicole Carrier, founders of Throwback Brewery in Hampton, N.H., Martha Paquette, the co-owner with her husband, Dann, and assistant brewer at Massachusetts-based Pretty Things  and Christine Heaton, a master brewer who owns Big Elm Brewing in Sheffield, Mass. with her husband Bill: just five women in six states.

There are other women working in Maine’s booming craft beer industry, either as brewery owners or brewers, but their numbers are still tiny. Among the most notable: Heather Sanborn co-owns Portland’s Rising Tide Brewing; she handles the business side of things while her husband Nathan makes the beer. Ashley Fendler does some brewing at Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland, while her primary job is to lead tours and educate customers in the brewery’s tasting room. Stasia Brewczynski holds a similar position at Rising Tide. And in November 2013, the Maine beer community mourned the loss of the first woman in the state to own a brewery, Karen Geary, who opened Portland’s D.L. Geary Brewing in 1983 with her husband, David.

The increasing involvement of women in brewing, however slow, can be attributed to the rise in craft brewing, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association, which estimates that 98 percent of the 2,800 breweries in operation nationwide are craft breweries.

“We don’t track brewer gender, but anecdotally I would say the number of female brewers is increasing as craft beer continues to advance as a beverage category and the localization of beer movement also grows,” said Julia Herz, the association’s craft beer program director, in an email.

Shonee Strickland studies a sample of Alewife Ale during a quality-control check at Run of the Mill. She will open her brewery in Biddeford sometime this summer. Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Press Herald Staff Photographer

On a personal level, Strickland doesn’t focus on the distinction of being Maine’s first woman brewery owner and brewmaster. Although she favors comfortable dresses and skirts with leggings underneath as her brewing uniform, she says she’s “always been a tomboy.” The manual labor involved in brewing – lifting 50-pound sacks of grain and scrubbing out huge steel tanks is part of the routine – doesn’t faze her either.

“I have had many jobs in ‘male-dominated industries,’ like when I was the first female snowboard instructor for a local ski mountain in New York or when I was the night manager for a ski rental shop and worked as a ski tuner.”

A sense of adventure has clearly driven Strickland’s education and career choices. A graduate of the State University of New York-College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, her first job was as an AmeriCorps intern at a wildlife refuge in Arizona, where she worked with an endangered fish species in lower Lake Mead.

She landed in Maine after getting a call from the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, where she became a salt marsh technician, living in a cabin on an island in the marsh. With government cutbacks, money for the position dried up and Strickland turned to teaching high school.

“That was the time in my life where I thought I had to get a real job,” she said. But after a year, she left, hoping she could eventually “teach in a different capacity.”

By then, Strickland and the man she calls her “forever boyfriend” were well into home brewing. A regular at the Run of the Mill brewpub in Saco, she asked head brewer Nate Duston for a job and ended up cleaning kegs a few hours a week. That was two years ago. “Nate is a very patient teacher and very knowledgeable, and I was very inquisitive and asked a lot of questions. He answered me and eventually, he taught me.”

Bolstered with her new knowledge, Strickland started “upping her game” at home. She wrote the operations manual for the brewpub and brewed Duston’s beer recipes under his supervision. By last summer, she was brewing on her own.

“When I was brewing more at home people were saying, ‘You should open a brewery,’ and I was like, yeah, yeah, everybody says that,” Strickland said. “I started researching last July and got into it far enough I thought maybe I could get a loan for $50,000 …”

She entered a small-business contest sponsored by the Heart of Biddeford community organization and the city of Biddeford – the Main Street Challenge Encore – and started writing her business plan. In January, she was chosen as one of three winners, receiving a $10,000 forgivable loan, low bank loan rates and other financial incentives.

“If I hadn’t entered the contest I wouldn’t have been pushed to do it,” Strickland said. “I was like ‘I guess I’m going to make my dream happen.’ You get to a certain point where you keep dreaming about it or you can just do it.”

Strickland is quick to cite the generosity of other Maine brewers. Direct, funny and kind, she is the sort of person it is easy to like immediately.

“I’m friends with a lot of male brewers,” she said. “I had made it a point to integrate myself into the brewing community.… From the first time I let slip my fantasy to open a brewery, I have had the most amazing people show me support. I know that if I approached this any differently, and tried to do it more or less behind closed doors, the situation would be much, much different. I have even had professionals who are complete strangers contact me and offer to help me in some way.”

Strickland still has an uphill climb to get her brewery up and running by June – her anticipated opening. Whether she ends up in an old mill building or somewhere else in downtown Biddeford, she says she plans to have a “lovely tasting area” and that she wants education – of herself and others – to be part of her concept.

She won’t reveal the kinds of beer she’ll be brewing, but says they may be inspired by her love of gardening.

“It’s a huge passion of mine brought on by years of slave labor for my mom’s landscape company.… I would like to play around with garden-inspired beers – seasonal one-offs” (single batches that the brewer doesn’t intend to brew again.)

She’s also drawn to lower-alcohol beers, a growing trend, especially with women. “I’m a lightweight but I love the taste of beer; I’d love to make beers where I can have a couple and drive home.”

Ellen Bonney’s hops growing in Strong, Maine. Photo courtesy of Ellen Bonney.

Gardening also figures into the beers Ellen Bonney and her husband have brewed for six years in Strong. In addition to helping with bottling the beers and “scrubbing out donated bottles,” she grows all the hops for their beers on her parents’ nearby farm.

“The hardest part is getting them established,” she said. “They grow like a weed; the only problem is when you get rain you get mold and mildew – otherwise they’re easy to grow.”

The Bonneys were among a number of homebrewers who attended a rally earlier this month hosted by the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) at Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland. The group included a smattering of women, most of them, like Ellen Bonney, there with a male partner.

Homebrewing remains the way most brewers of either gender get into the business, although many, including the Bonneys, brew simply for their own consumption.

Like its parent organization, the Brewers Association, the AHA doesn’t track homebrewers by gender. However, in 2013 Annie Johnson of Sacramento, Calif., won the organization’s Homebrewer of the Year Award – the first time a woman was so honored in the competition’s 10-year history.

The Bonneys have also made beers flavored with raspberries and blueberries. They have a watermelon beer in the works, “a request from my daughter,” Bonney said.

“I prefer wine to beer, but after he started into the beer brewing I discovered that it tastes totally different than the run of the mill beers you get in the grocery store.… My favorite is his Pirate Ale; we soak rum in oak chips to get another kind of flavor to add in. And it has pineapple. At first it didn’t taste very good at all. But we aged it for a year and we were surprised how much better it was.”

Ellen Bonney hopes to one day make a fruit lambic, a type of beer fermented with wild airborne yeast and incorporating berries, cherries or peaches. But attempts to market “fruity” beers to women have historically not been successful.

“We don’t think that there is a type of beer that appeals to women,” said Rising Tide’s Heather Sanborn. “Some people love stouts and some people like really hoppy IPAs and some people like something in between. I get really offended when there’s something like “beer with fruit” to appeal to women.”

Rising Tide co-owner Heather Sanborn at the brewery in Portland. Press Herald file photo

Unlike, say, Coors or Budweiser, which are associated with professional sports and largely male activities via their advertising campaigns, craft beer breweries like Rising Tide don’t target their beers to one gender.

“Every brewery makes choices about how they want to portray beer to their audience,” said Sanborn. “For our beer we would never market it in such a way that it is marketed to men instead of women. Whether it’s a titillating picture on the label or a name of a beer … that’s designed to be appealing to them – we’ve made the choice not to do that.”

Sanborn, who founded Rising Tide with her husband in 2010, is a key player in Maine’s craft brewing industry because of legislation she helped pass. Acting on behalf of the Maine Brewers Guild, the Maine Restaurant Association and other groups, she wrote the bill that allows breweries to charge for samples in their tasting rooms, increasing local exposure.

“It’s been a game-changer for us,” she said. “What that lets us do is to have lots of people here; it expands our ability to be part of the community and make sure there is an opportunity for locals to come back.”

Sanborn explained that gratis tastings are still part of brewery tours at Rising Tide, but for locals who aren’t necessarily interested in a tour, “you can’t make it part of your Saturday routine to go and get free samples. That has really transformed the tasting room culture not just for us, but for everyone in the business.”

Ashley Fendler leads tours and educates customers in the tasting room, and does some brewing at Allagash Brewing in Portland. Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Press Herald Staff Photographer

Most if not all of Maine’s breweries have tasting rooms, where visitors can try beers for free or for a nominal fee and learn about them, often directly from the brewer.

Ashley Fendler worked at beer bars in Burlington, Vt., before coming to Maine and getting a job at Allagash, where she calls herself a “professional storyteller.”

She leads tours, pours beers and answers questions in the brewery’s large tasting room. She also brews beer, both at home and on Allagash’s 10-gallon homebrew set-up – available to anyone who works at the brewery.

“I’m most comfortable fostering great connections with folks. Nobody’s cranky about getting free beer,” said Fendler, who was the only woman who worked on making beer at Allagash when she started two years ago. Now there are several.

Asked if women bring a different perspective from men to brewing, Fendler thinks for a minute.

“Women are very thoughtful, in terms of thinking about the steps that go into things and what your end game is … women are less afraid to try something – what do we have to lose? Women get less frustrated. If at first it doesn’t work – try another way. There’s more than one path to an end.”

Sanborn, who left practicing law to devote herself to Rising Tide full time in 2012, calls today’s beer environment “less-gendered.”

“I think we’ve definitely moved to a stage where women are just a normal part of the beer culture in Maine; it’s no longer a men’s only beverage – if it ever was. Women are part of the group that’s growing that enjoys drinking flavorful craft beer. I see it as a trend across the country.”

Anne Bryant’s decorated chalice cubby at Novare Res in Portland. Bryant is a member of the Uprising, the beer bar’s extended version of a mug club. Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Press Herald Staff Photographer

As a member of Novare Res’ the Uprising, Anne Bryant has consumed more flavorful craft beer than many women – and men. The occasional Blue Hill resident, who lives for much of the year on a sailboat, is one of a select group of beer aficionados to have consumed the 230 beers necessary to join the Portland beer bar’s version of a mug club.

Completing the challenge entitles you to a 20-ounce chalice, to engrave as you wish, stored in a numbered cubby behind a locked gate at the bar. You can fill your chalice for the price of a 16-ounce draft.

“At first glance it looks like a dare, but it ends up being way different than any other mug club you could be a part of,” said Bryant. “It’s an extremely organized approach to sampling all of these different beers; at the end of it you have a beer education and you are forever changed.”

According to Novare, about 30 percent of the Uprising’s membership is women, but Bryant’s cubby stands out because it’s the only one that’s decorated. Wallpaper, an armchair and a miniature framed painting, along with a ceramic likeness of her French bulldog, Maye, provide a dollhouse-like environment for her chalice, which rests on a tiny oriental rug. “I want to install a little light in there,” she said.

Novare Res has “always been a super egalitarian beer environment,” according to Bryant. “And likewise the ladies who are on staff have always been super well educated. They are well respected.”

She seeks out beer on her extensive travels, “tasting the place through beer” and finding “50-50 women and men” in most beer bars she visits.

“If I knew a brewer was a lady, I’d go out of the way to try their beer. It’s great to see yourself reflected in the beer industry.… More women beer bloggers, more women in the bars, more women influencing brewing. I’m glad to be a part of it. You kind of feel like you’re part of a movement.”

While the ranks of women-owned and -operated breweries may be small, the women-only beer groups that have sprung up in cities around the country are a testament to the rapidly growing number of women excited about craft beer. When Lora Burns moved to Portland in 2012, having been active in such a group in Philadelphia, she was surprised there wasn’t one in Maine.

Burns teamed up with Sanborn and co-founder Carolyn Tesini to get Maine Beer Mavens off the ground during Portland Beer Week in November 2012.

“Sixty-five women came to the open house at Rising Tide,” she said. “We had people put down on a piece of paper what they wanted to call it and we started an email list and a Facebook group.”

More on the Mavens content producer Heather Steeves tagged along with the Maine Beer Mavens when they visited Banded Horn Brewery in Biddeford last month. Read her take on the group:

For Women Who Love Maine Brews

Maine Beer Mavens now has about 300 members, 15 to 20 of whom regularly show up at the monthly events. “We do it out of love for the industry, so we’re not making any money off it,” Burns said.

They arrange a price with the hosting venue, which participants pay directly. Events have included a beer and oyster pairing with a female oyster farmer, a beer and chocolate truffle pairing, and a Bunker Brewing tour with barbecue from Salvage BBQ. Coming up: a coffee beer and doughnut tasting with doughnuts from Frosty’s in Brunswick and The Holy Donut in Portland.

For the Maine Beer Mavens’ one year anniversary last November, Fendler and Brewczynski, who are close friends, helped the group brew a tribute beer – a saison – at Rising Tide.

“The girls there got to learn about the brewing process and we were actually weighing out the hops and malts that go into it and taking temperature readings,” Burns said.

Her partner is a brewer at Oxbow Brewing in Newcastle, but Burns says she hesitates to disclose that because people assume her interest in beer came from him. It actually originated with her mother, in her hometown of Haddon Heights, N.J.

“We had a really great beer store down the street and my mom would go in and talk to them. At holiday time she’d go in and get some holiday beers and we would have a tasting. And that’s become a tradition in my family,” Burns said. “She comes to all the beer events and if she’s visiting Maine, she wants to check out the beer scene.”

Burns said the group has a long list of events extending well into the summer. “It’s not a trend,” she said of women’s interest in craft beer. “It just makes so much sense here in Maine and it’s about supporting local business owners, and why wouldn’t women be on board for that?”

Soon enough, the Mavens will be adding Strickland’s brewery to their schedule. And while she doesn’t dwell on her status as a groundbreaker, Strickland acknowledges its importance to others.

They include “leaders in the industry, the other hard-working women who are in the industry (or who want to be), the state of Maine, the city of Biddeford, etc. To shrug this off and say ‘I don’t care’ is an incredibly blind notion,” Strickland said. “If I am an important representative of a woman in the beer industry to at least one person, then my only job is to be the best representative that I can be, and I do take that seriously.”

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