Bend is a beer town. With eight breweries, many of them award winning, our little city rivals any on the West Coast in terms of quality beer production. And one of the smallest breweries, Bend Brewing Company, is producing some of our region's most well-received beers out of a studio-apartment-sized space above its brewpub on Brooks Street. The brewer behind these creations is Tonya Cornett.
At 41 years old, Cornett looks closer to 30. She has a bubbly personality and fire-red hair, which is often pulled back into pigtails. If it weren't for the knee-high rubber boots she wears over her jeans, there's nothing about Cornett's appearance that suggests she's a brewmaster - arguably one of the best in Bend. Cornett was the 2008 World Beer Cup Small Brewpub Brewer of the Year - the first woman to ever take the title.
Cornett started brewing in the mid-90s - the heyday of wine coolers and Budweiser, especially in Marion, Indiana, where Cornett grew up. Few women actually drank beer. Even fewer were involved in the brewing process.
Cornett became interested in brewing when she and her husband moved to Fort Collins, Colorado. At the time, the West Coast was starting to latch on to the microbrewery revolution, with the then-tiny Fort Collins brewery of New Belgium leading the way.
"Everyone was excited about it," Cornett says about microbrewing. "I came from the Midwest and was like, 'What is this beer thing?'"
Although there were no small breweries where she came from, the idea of brewing was fascinating to her. After visiting a homebrew shop in downtown Fort Collins, Cornett invested in the materials needed for homebrewing. Cornett picked up the Joy of Homebrewing by Charles Papazian, which is somewhat of a bare-bones bible for brewers.
She remembers thinking, "I can do this. It's not that big of a deal."
But, especially for a woman, becoming a head brewer isn't an accomplishment that's attained easily. Determined to become a brewer, Cornett took a job at a local brewery giving tours and volunteering in the brew house, learning as much as she could about the process. After working in the industry for three years, Cornett enrolled at the World Brewing Academy in Germany. Armed with a degree and experience, Cornett finally felt she had the resume to apply for head brewer positions. So while she was in Germany, Cornett's husband, Mark, began scouting towns on the West Coast.
"It was kind of a weird coincidence," says Cornett. When Mark stopped in Bend, he met up with a friend from high school, who worked for the owner of BBC's cousin at the Southside Pub. "[The owner of BBC] came in one day and was like, 'Oh my god, my brewer's leaving, I don't know what to do.' He said, 'Sorry for eavesdropping, but I know this girl who just got back from Germany, she's a brewmaster,'" Cornett recalls. "It was so weird. I don't think they interviewed anybody else for the position."
Cornett has been at BBC for eight years now and although she's only been entering competitions for less than five, she's racked up a wall full of awards, including gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival, and the World Beer Awards, the latter of which secured her the title of 2008 Best Small Brewpub Brewer of the Year.
"It was so crazy," she says of the night she won. "I was literally I think floating up to the podium. I can recall it being so loud - I thought it was in my head, it was so loud. At the dinner there's like 2,000 people where they announce the winners. I didn't realize I had a chance because I only had two medals. But since they were gold medals, it gave me more points than anyone else.
"People were standing up on their chairs, everyone was crying. Tears were streaming down my face. The guy who was giving out all the awards was crying. People were totally tearing up since it was the first time [a woman won]. It was really cool. Then I go back to the hotel room and call everybody and nobody answers! I was like, oh my god, this is the biggest night of my life, and nobody's answering!"
But people sure noticed. "She's an expert at what she does," says Wendi Day, owner of BBC. "She has this attention to detail and is always striving for the next level in her beers, perfecting each and every one of them."
Among the eight brewpubs in Bend, BBC has earned a reputation as a connoisseur's brew house. "Our customers are knowledgeable about beer," says Cornett. "That doesn't let you get away with much."
But Cornett doesn't feel that there's a competition among the other breweries. She credits Deschutes with being the first to educate Central Oregon on microbrews, which has spawned quality breweries - and beer drinkers - in Bend. "Everyone has stepped up their game," she says. "If someone's coming to Bend to drink beer, they're going to go to all the breweries."
Cornett has also noticed many more women becoming interested in craft beer. A member of the Pink Boots Society, a nationwide group of women in the industry, Cornett has noticed an increase in women interested in beer. Eventually she believes more women will pursue careers as brewers.
"Now that there are more women exposed to [craft beer], they're more knowledgeable," Cornett says. "That transfers over into making it as well. I think that the more women that are drinking it, the more women are interested in it, the more women are going try to get a job doing it."