A Conversation with Bend Brewing’s Tonya Cornett

[Women in Beer week continues today with another guest writer/interviewe,r Jamie Floyd, co-owner and brewer at Ninkasi Brewing. Jamie interviews one of the main subjects of “The Love of Beer”, Tonya Cornett, the Brewmaster at Bend Brewing and role model for brewers everywhere. – Samurai Artist]

By Jamie Floyd
I want to start by saying thanks to Ezra for asking me to be a part of this. I am interviewed a lot and it has been not only enjoyable for me to get to ask a friend of mine questions I might not ever ask when we get moments to hang out, but it has also given me a new perspective on the questions asked of me. This entire series is very inspiring to me and I think it is a great exercise for our industry. I also want to again say thanks to Ezra for allowing others to do this when those of us that know him know he wants to be the one to do it. Hats off to you. Good form! All right now, let’s get to the nitty gritty, shall we?
When Tonya moved to Oregon, a mutual friend , Jim Parker, told me that she was moving to Bend to take the helm at Bend Brewing Company and that she was an incredible person and someone who would make a mark. She took on the job and dug right in. For the first couple of years Tonya hid under the radar, as she says, to a lot of folks and I tried to help her meet people in the industry. She came across as shy, but I always felt she was still just getting her feet wet, so to speak, in the industry. From the start her beers were great. Not just good, or first batch good, as we say sometimes, but really good beer. I was not the only one to notice or to encourage her, and soon Bend embraced her beers and BBC became the go-to place for locals and beer geeks when they weren’t just down the road at Deschutes. Having a brewery of the caliber of Deschutes in the hood would be very intimidating for almost anyone. Well, Tonya may have been intimidated, but she pursued her dream and, though she might not have felt that way at the time, she handled it like great brewers do, with passion, dedication, and a belief in oneself. All of us have to tackle insecurities as brewers. One of the first lessons I was taught by my peers was we are only as good as our worst beers. We wear our passion on our sleeves and we are our own worst critics.
Fast forward a few years later and we see the fully realized Tonya. She is making great beer in a town that is quickly popping up breweries left and right. Medals have blessed her shoulders and plaques awarded the brewery walls. Breweries everywhere want to brew collaboration beers with her. All of the rock stars in the industry know her by name and want to associate themselves with her, and rightly so, because she is full of “Knowledge Nuggets” as you will see from this interview. She is one of many role models to brewers female and male, and yet Tonya remains the Tonya I met years ago. She gets up and works hard, can out beer geek most people on the spot, has a great sense of humor, and can even be found at a Dead show at the Gorge (as I did a couple of summers ago) dancing off all that responsibility. She is perfectly positioned to do whatever her passions lead her to do.
But Tonya has also found her voice. She is the embodiment of a brewer in a Post-Male Dominated Industry worldview. As you will see in this interview and in the documentary, Tonya transcends gender in brewing and is a perfect example of what I have felt for a long time. Brewers are a rare ilk. Hang out in a room of us for a few hours and you will get the drift. We are passionate, creative, social, introverted, and nerdy with a Type A attitude toward neatness. We love what we do and will work hard to give the best we’ve got. At times we are a bit loud as a crowd. But all of this is more important to us as brewers than gender, and Tonya is a great brewer, simple and as human as it sounds. Because we as humans are brewers. For millennia women and men have brewed beer and we will for millennia more. So stop asking Tonya what it’s like to brew in a male dominated industry and ask yourself why it matters!

World Beer Cup win – Photo by Abram Goldman-Armstrong – The Oregonian
Jamie Floyd: To start with, I would like to get some background information about you Tonya. Where did you grow up?

Tonya Cornett: I grew up in Marion, a small Indiana town, directly between Indianapolis and Ft. Wayne. In high school we won our State Basketball title three years in a row. That’s a big deal in Indiana.

JF: While growing up we all had ideas about what we wanted to be when we grew up. For me, I wanted to be a commercial pilot and then a marine biologist, and then a journalist. What did you want to be during your childhood?

TC: I was intrigued with the ocean growing up even, though I hadn’t actually seen it. I loved to look at picture books of the fish and coral reefs. I thought I wanted to be an oceanographer. I’m not sure I really knew exactly what that was. Many years later I took a diving certification class. I hated it. Go figure.

JF: What are your earliest memories about beer?

TC: My earliest memories of beer… the smell. My first beer was a Little Kings. I didn’t like it.

JF: When did you first brew a batch of beer?

TC: I was the unenthused assistant to my husband for a few batches. I later read the Joy of Homebrewing advanced section. I made a mash-tun that night and within a week I brewed my first all grain batch. It was a brown.

Don Younger and Tonya in a scene from “The Love of Beer”

JF: Can you think of one incident in your past that, when you look back at it, you would say lead you towards later becoming a brewer, but was unrelated at the time?

TC: If I hadn’t moved to Fort Collins in 1996 I definitely would never, ever, no way, no how, have become a brewer.

JF: Who hired you for your first brewing job and where?

TC: The first brewery to actually hire me for a brewing position was Oaken Barrel Brewing in Indiana. I had just enough experience between H.C Berger packaging and volunteering at Dimmer’s in Fortcollins to take over the assistant brewer position at the pub.

JF: I remember when Jim Parker ,who was the Executive Director for the Oregon Brewers Guild at the time, called me to tell me that a woman named Tonya was moving to Bend to take over at BBC and that she was awesome. He of course was right : ) What was the impetus for this move and how did you feel about your accomplishments back then?

TC: After I graduated from Siebel I was preparred to flood the market with resumes when a friend told me about the Bend job. I had been planning my target search for breweries in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and California. After making the commiittment to a formal education, I thought I would work for one of the larger breweries. I had done the small brewery thing. When Bend Brewing offered me the Brewmaster position I reconsidered pub brewing and took the job.

JF: How was that first year in Bend? I remember you were pretty intimidated by the amazing brewing history of Bend and its brewers. Did you feel it was hard to meet the other brewers around? Bend is pretty small town. How long did it take to meet the others in town and how long did it take for you to feel like a connected part of the brewing community and Bend as a home?

TC: Up to this point, compliments were hard won from the brewers in Indiana. About the best you could expect was “it’s clean”. I felt like I needed a moment to work on the beers and learn the brewery before introducing myself to Deschutes. About a year later, Loren Lancaster, aka LO LO, took a position with Deschutes. We met at Siebel. He began bringing brewers to the pub. They were complimentary, but more importantly they were honest about what worked and what didn’t work in a beer. This was my first experience with objectively dissecting a beer for the purpose of making it better.

I probably didn’t really really feel the stamp of approval until I won my first Gold at GABF in the IPA category.

Tonya Brewing, a scene from “The Love of Beer”

JF: What is it about Bend that you love? Is Oregon your home for good?

TF: I love the people, the lifestyle, the beer, and the food. I could go on and on. I wish it were closer to Portland. I have no plans of leaving Oregon. You are stuck with me.

JF: As I alluded before, you went through a process of becoming a part of the brewing scene. When did you feel like it went from an outsider to being a leader in your community? I have had the pleasure of watching you go from being in some respects even timid in the brewing world to becoming one of the rock stars of the industry. What was it like to go from watching others in the industry to being the one watched? In my opinion you have handled it really well. Was it a hidden part of your personality or did you learn this about yourself during this experience?

TC: I remember the first World Beer Cup I attended. There were a few breweries that were killing it. I secretly harbored a wish that someday that would be me. Four years later it was. All of the media attention revolved around me being a female in a male dominated industry. Two weeks ago I did my first interview that didn’t ask me a question regarding my gender. I think because I have answered the same questions over and over with basically the same answer, it was hard to take any of the publicity seriously. I don’t consider myself a leader, I think I’m just persistent.

JF: How does it feel to be a role model? I know the movie has a focus of women in brewing, but you have transcended that to being a role model for all brewers. I remember when I was homebrewing I had brewing heroes. You would not have been able to convince me back then that I would even meet people like John Harris or John Maier, Ken Grossman or Gary Fish, let alone compete with them in the market. Who were your early heroes? What was it like to meet them later on in life?

TC: It wasn’t until I began going to events such as the Craft Brewers Conference and the Great American Beerfest that I realized this “Rockstar” aspect of the industry existed. The breweries I had worked for had become dissillusioned with competitions long before I started with them. I remember seeing Carol Stoudt at one of the first CBCs I went to. She was supremely confident. I could tell from the body language of the brewers around her that they held her in high regards. In 2007 I won a silver medal at GABF for Outback X. One of the judges had said there had been a long debate between the Gold and Silver medals. I attended the 1st Pink Boots meeting at the CBC in 2008. Carol Stoudt sat next to me and introduced herself (like I needed an intoduction). I had brought a bottle of Outback X to the meeting. Carol leaned over and said this beer has aged nicely since GABF. I think you will do well with it. WOW Carol stoudt remembered my beer! I was on cloud nine.

JF: Can you share with us a few people who inspire you that are not brewers?

TC: One of the most inspirational people I have met on this journey is Sean Paxton, The Homebrewed Chef on the Brewing Network. The first time I met him he was a flurry of suggestions. To this day I have a notebook handy when I talk to him. I have had the pleasure of brewing 2 beers with him and hope to do more in the future. Through Sean I have learned that the right beer paired with food can make for an exceptional experience.

JF: What was it like to be a part of the documentary? What surprised you about the experience? And was there anything you learned about yourself in the process?

TC: Alison shadowed me for about a year and a half while filming for the documentary. I think during this time I was, and still am, comming to terms with my success. I was also beginning to view myself as an artist. I think you can be an excellent brewer but not necessarily an artist. In my mind I underwent a change when I started visualizing the beer I wanted to make and forming a complete concept before writing the recipe. As I have said, I like to fly under the radar, which is just about impossible to do with a camera on you. It was a bit unnerving to have so many eyes on me. It has been even harder to watch myself on film. I think while trying to be insightful in answering Alison’s questions, I might have come across more serious than I actually am.

Untitled from Lingering Illocutions on Vimeo.

JF: All right, here are some general fun questions; What do you love to do when you are not brewing? We are all so busy as brewers, are there hobbies or other interests you wish you still had time for? Do you home brew still?

TC: I feel like I home brew every day, it just happens to be my job. One of the coolest parts of home brewing is tasting that first batch of a new recipe. Did it hit the mark? If not, where do I go from here? What will make it better, or what can I take away from this beer that would work for something else?

When not brewing or thinking about brewing, I like to hike, garden, camp, snowshoe, watch movies, and occasionally have dinner parties. I wish I had more time for travel and reading.

JF: Music is super important to me in the brewery. What music do you love brewing to?

TC: The most listened to Pandora stations in the brewery are Jack White, Beck, Radiohead, and, as of late, Mumford and Son. I hope to someday have a beer with Jack White. Of course, we will only talk about beer.

JF: What is your favorite food and beer pairing?

TC: I have been on a dessert beer kick for a while. I like to have a rich, slow sipper after dinner that unfolds layers of flavor as it warms. Sometimes I add ice cream.

JF: What brewery or brewing city do you really want to go visit? You know a pilgrimage type of experience?

TC: I have been to Brussels to visit Cantillon. I would love to visit some of the more obscure breweries in Belgium.

JF: Is there a beer that you really look forward to making or a process in brewing that makes the geek in you happy? What excites you in brewing right now? What annoys you, if anything, about an aspect in brewing right now? Styles, trends, or aspects of the business?

TC: I am excited to begin blending beers like sours, aged beers, barrel aged beers, etc. When you work on a small system you have one shot to get it right. Blending offers a level of control over the finished product that I haven’t had.

What annoys me? The trend of huge, resinious IPAs. Only because consumers have began equating the most bitter, tongue scraping beer as being the best. I would much rather enjoy a well balanced flavorful IPA that leaves my taste buds in tact.

JF: You have done a fair number of collaborations with other breweries. Why do you do so many and what is your favorite part of the process? What are the challenges with doing them that enthusiasts might not think about?

TF: I love doing collaboration beers. They give me the chance to work with very talented and like-minded brewers. Collabs have been one way for me to work creatively, as well as get a different perspective on recipe development, process, or ingredients. Every time I have worked with another brewer I learn something new. I call these little tidbits of information “knowledge nuggets.”

There are always challenges that come up while working with other brewers. I am headed to England to brew for my 3rd time. The first hurdle is jargon. We use differnt terminology, we have different equipment, we may use a different process. Money can also be a hurdle. Who pays? Who gets the profits? Who gets the acclaim?

At the World Beer Cup – a scene from “The Love of Beer”
JF: I am sure you are asked all the time by hopeful young brewers,what it takes to get into the industry, and there are some somewhat obvious responses. What is something you would tell them that is not so obvious? For example, I try to really spell out the fact that being brewer is a very regulated industry. That by being a professional brewer you have to be politically active. People see brewing as a supremely creative form of expression, but in reality it is very controlled and is used for political fodder between parties. What not so apparent aspect of brewing would you want to share with someone who thinks they want to brew as a job?

TC: I always stress the fact that brewing is very physical. Generally, the smaller the brewery, the harder the work it is. Making up recipes is a very small part of what I do. Mostly it’s a glorified janitor position.

JF: What is one of the more surprising aspects of being in the business? Or, I guess, what aspect did you have a vision of before brewing as a job that was totally different once you were in the position?

TC: When I became brewmaster at Bend Brewing Co. I underestimated the pressure and stress of the position. Something happened when it was my name on the door. For the good, the bad, the ugly, all eyes are on you to perform. Your regulars don’t care if your glycol went down, or the new yeast strain isn’t fermenting all the way out. They only want their IPA to taste the same as it did yesterday. When you work by yourself it’s no longer your schedule, it’s the beer’s schedule. Your life revolves around the busy times of the year. In order to take a vacation you must make all the beer you would have made before you leave, then play catch up when you get back. I never expected this position to be all-consuming. The more success I have achieved, the hungrier this little monster has become.

JF: Many people may not know that, in addition to winning medals at the GABF and WBC, you are also a judge. It is one of my favorite aspects of my career to be a part of this process. How was it to judge for the first time? What is like now that you have been doing it for a bit? Do you have advice for people who want to hone their palates?

TC: I was asked to be a judge long before I said yes. I have felt in the past my beers were judged fairly and I wanted to make sure I was capable of doing the same. I think it goes back to how women and men learn differently. Women have to be 110% sure they can do a job, while men hit the ground running and learn as they go. I had to be 110% sure. My first time judging I sat next to Charlie Papazian. Yikes! I had been reading about this dude since the day I picked up his book, and now I am judging beside him. It turned out to be a great experience. I have found my palate to be just as good as others. If anything, judging has given me more confidence than winning medals. The best part of judging is the medal round. You have the best examples of a beer style right in front of you, all at their peak. You get to determine what makes one better than the others. It just doesn’t get any better. My advice to others is the same advice you gave to me–“taste every beer you can get your hands on.”

Jamie Floyd: Well, this has been super fun for me, and I feel like I have asked you enough questions, but I have just one more. When do I get to have a beer with you next? GABF? I can’t wait to share one with you. For those of you out there reading this with a beer nearby, raise a glass and toast to Tonya! She is truly an inspiration to me and I look forward to many more years of inspiration!!!
[Meet Tonya Cornett in person and see her speak on a panel of pioneers of the craft beer industry at the premiere of The Love of Beer this Saturday 8/20 at the Bagdad Theater.
Pre-purchase tickets here or at the door for only $6]
Samurai Artist
Samurai Artist

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com


  • CJtheDJ
    Thu Aug 18, 2011 8:31 PM

    Kickass! A great story..and its all for the love of beer.

    I applaud women who love, drink, create, and imagine beer. Its about time 🙂

    • Have you enjoyed the outdoors today?
      Have you enjoyed the outdoors today?
      Fri Aug 19, 2011 7:32 AM

      Great Q & A, Jamie! Thanks for sharing.

      • David Ivey
        David Ivey
        Fri Apr 27, 2012 9:56 PM

        It’s great to read about women in craft beer. Obviously Tonya is at the apex in her field of either men or women. There shouldn’t be a difference in abilities between either men or women as Brewmasters. Some of the greatest chefs are from either gender, and beer is liquid food. Keep the great craft beers flowing please.


        David Ivey
        BlackBucketBrew.com InBox Magazine Editor