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Growing number of women drawn to WV craft beer careers

By MARIA YOUNG, Charleston Gazette-Mail undefined

MAXWELTON, W.Va. (AP) — At the height of COVID-19, when much of the world was stir crazy for something — anything — to do, Samantha Fox’s imagination latched onto an idea that wouldn’t let go.

“I was losing my mind … and so I started thinking. I was like, ‘Well, what hobbies do I have that I could turn into a career?’ “ said Fox, 32.

She wanted it to be fun. And she really liked making beer — “I had been homebrewing for about five years. I was like, I wish I could get into actually working at a brewery.”

A few years ago, she said, she’d even won third place in the Appalachian Brew Club’s IPA Throw Down competition, hosted at the Big Timber Brewing Co., in Elkins.

“It’s fun coming up with your own recipes. It’s kind of like baking a cake. You put a lot of love and care into each batch and you really get a sense of enjoyment of watching other people enjoy it,” said Fox.

She’d already studied criminal justice and psychology, and had a master’s degree in counseling — arguably a wealth of knowledge that might serve her well in a bar.

But she had no idea how to get started. And in the years since graduating, she’d had a series of what she calls “cushy desk jobs.”

So trading in all that comfort might’ve made it seem as if she’d been sampling her own brew.

And yet, the idea just wouldn’t go away.

In fact, it started taking shape.

“I was at a family cookout. And my cousin works for the Department of Labor. And he was like, ‘Hey, I think that this is coming down the pipeline. You might want to check it out,’ “ she said.

It was a brand-new, 2-year associate’s degree in brewing operations from BridgeValley Community & Technical College, coupled with a brand-new, 2,000-hour hands-on brewing apprenticeship program only available to students in the brewing program. It requires six-to-12 hours each semester, and roughly a year’s worth of full-time, paid work.

Fox is now the only woman in the very first, tiny cohort of brewing students at BridgeValley. There’s a brewing lab coming to the Montgomery campus, and a mix of online and in-person classes with a heavy concentration in science, math and chemistry — learning how the ingredients all work together.

“This program came about because the craft brewing industry in West Virginia is rapidly growing. The beverage manufacturing industry in the state is the second fastest-growing manufacturing industry that we have, so craft breweries are needing a qualified and trained work force,” said Michael Parsons, the instructor and program coordinator for the brewing operations program.

With the second cohort preparing to launch in August, Parsons said the number of women applicants is slightly above the industry average for women employees in craft beer.

“It’s really picking up. It’s gaining a lot of attention from both men and women and I’m excited to see that,” he said.

Based in Huntington, Fox started classes in August and then packed up and moved to Lewisburg in December, when she landed a paid apprenticeship at the nearby Greenbrier Valley Brewing Co.

It’s part of a registered apprenticeship program validated by the U.S. Department of Labor and created last November in partnership with BridgeValley and the West Virginia Development Office’s Apprenticeship in Motion program.

“Actually, the Department of Labor has organized it really well to where we were able to get some grant funding for my salary … so it’s kind of a win-win. So I get my opportunity here, and then they get a little assistance to help pay for me to be here,” she said.

Roughly half of the staff at her new job are women.

“We have our tavern manager, Annie. We have Kandyce, who is our canning line manager. We have two other females that work on the marketing and packaging side. And then Kara is in our sales team,” said Fox.

She admitted it is unusual.

“I think, because it is so physically labor intensive, that people don’t expect women to be able to do it. Even in the homebrew, you know, the competitors are primarily men. And then there would be a few women or they would do it with their husbands,” she said.

In fact, “Whenever I was thinking about actually doing it at a real brewery, I was kind of intimidated because I’m like, ‘Hmm, 65-pound bags of grain and they have to get up there to the mill and you have to load them,'” she said.

But just because it’s challenging doesn’t mean it’s impossible. And Fox wants to spread that word to other potential brewers, whatever their gender.

She’s even spearheading the effort to start a West Virginia chapter of the Pink Boots Society, a national organization for the “female movers and shakers in the fermented/alcoholic beverage industry,” according to their website.

“I just think it’s important that they know that it’s an option. There are people who do this, and you can do it. And as long as you’re doing things properly, you’re not going to hurt yourself,” Fox said.

“The whole thing is empowering,” she added.

The massive bags of grain are poured into a kettle — “It’s a good workout” — and mixed with water where the grains soak at different temperatures and then get pumped out to the press.

“And the purpose of this is to get as much of that good, sugary liquid out of those grains as we can. So this condenses everything and squeezes it and then it goes into the boil kettle,” Fox said.

The mixture spins slowly, allowing sediment to land on the bottom, where it’s siphoned out.

“We transfer that clean wort to the fermenters in the back. Then we add yeast, and it does its thing for a couple of weeks,” she said.

She finds joy in experimenting with different grains, yeast and hops to create different flavors.

And those heavy bags of grain that start it all? Those were part of her very first lesson on the job.

“You learn that you’re a lot stronger than what you think you are,” she said.

As for where she might go when the official lessons are done?

With the apprenticeship certification, “I can go anywhere in the United States. So that’s definitely a door that’s open to me now that wasn’t available before. And, you know, a lot of people want to open their own brewery,” Fox said.

“A lot of different options, but I don’t know where the wind is going to take me yet.”

For more information on the Department of Labor Apprenticeship Program, visit www.apprenticeship.gov/. For more information on the West Virginia Development Office’s Apprenticeship in Motion program visit westvirginia.gov/incentives-and-programs/apprenticeship-in-motion. For more information on the Bridge Valley Brewing Operations Program, contact Michael Parsons at Michael.Parsons@bridgevalley.edu. For more information on the formation of a West Virginia Pink Boots Society chapter, contact Samantha Fox at samanthafox@gvbc.beer.