- Tonya Cornett of 10 Barrel is at home among the fermenters.
It is no longer a great novelty to see women in professional brewing—especially in Oregon, where the sheer size of the scene dictates that at least a few must be involved, statistically speaking. Among Bend's breweries, though, women still stand out, thanks to the roles they've taken as brewmasters focused on research and development.
"I was the unenthused assistant to my husband for a few homebrew batches," says Tonya Cornett, head of R&D brewing at the 10 Barrel production facility in northeast Bend. "I later read the advanced section of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing (a pioneering book on the subject by Charlie Papazian.) I made a mash-tun that night, brewed my first all grain-batch within a week, and two months later I was working at a brewery."
That was the H.C. Berger Brewing Company in Colorado (now called the Fort Collins Brewery). Cornett would later put Bend Brewing Company on the map with one of the city's first standout sour beer programs. She now has her own brew space at 10 Barrel to play with, including a rack full of ciders being aged in assorted types of barrels. (They'll see the light of day either at the Galveston brewpub or the new one opening later this spring, next to the big brewery.)
"When designing a new recipe," she says, "inspiration can come from anywhere. Sometimes it starts with an interesting ingredient like an exotic fruit, or I may create an entire concept from something I already have churning in my mind, like a beer based on Mexican mole sauce."
Within her company, Cornett is joined by another prominent female brewer: Whitney Burnside, brewmaster at 10 Barrel's Portland pub and a veteran of places including Pelican, Elysian and Upright Brewing. Across town, meanwhile, Veronica Vega joined Deschutes Brewery as a tour guide in 2006 and is now their R&D brewmaster, after having contributed to well-known beers such as Fresh Squeezed while working the brewpub's pilot system.
Women have been involved with brewing since ancient Sumerian and Egyptian times, when baking and brewing (often done with the same ingredients) were considered part of a housewife's daily workload. The last name "Brewster" literally means "female brewer" and in medieval England, usually referred to the head of a tavern. The rise of larger brew businesses, and the men who wielded the money and authority to lead them, relegated many women to selling beer instead of making it—but craft beer, as well as groups including the Pink Boots Society, do much to even the playing field again.
"I believe that women just need to be shown that this is a very realistic career option for them," Burnside notes. "The fact that I got into beer via food"—she began her career as a cheesemaker outside Seattle—"just goes to show you that it can happen organically."
Vega agrees: "Deschutes is a big company, and they do a lot to encourage diversity across all of its departments. That's always been the case in my career, and in events like the Craft Brewers Conference, you see lots of women getting involved these days. It's still rapidly expanding."