Last weekend Whitney Burnside gave birth to her first child, who arrived nearly a week early; she was brewing at 10 Barrel’s Pearl District brewpub right up to the final days. It’s an uncommon sight: a woman on the brew-deck mashing in or cleaning kegs with a baby just weeks or days away. Women in the beer industry already face an uphill battle, and now have to battle the perception that they can literally not pull their own weight.
“I know a lot of female brewers but none who brewed while pregnant,” says Claire Wilson, head brewer and founder of Dogwood Brewing in Vancouver, British Columbia. Wilson has been brewing for 15 years, and two years after starting Dogwood she chose to get pregnant.
Wilson was unsure of how long she could continue to brew and stay active in the brewery. It wouldn’t be easy to step away from a small company with only a few staff members. She looked for advice on an industry website called Probrewer and eventually linked up with Jennifer Talley of Xmission.
“She was very reassuring and brewed all the time and worked till 8 months with her second child,” says Wilson of Talley. “I chose to keep the ‘you can continue all normal activity until you you don’t feel comfortable’ mantra.”
Wilson worked 15 hour days brewing, packaging, delivering kegs, and working the tasting room right up until her due date. “I added a couch to my office and did a few naps.”
When asked if she considered stepping away from brewing operations early, Portland brewer Whitney Burnside said, “No way!
“I knew that it would change things for me and present challenges but I have been able to work around them with the help of my wonderful coworkers and industry friends.”
It’s a reminder that brewing is a blue collar job, not unlike working in any other factory or production plant. At most craft breweries, taking time off, even for being pregnant, is a difficult task. Both Burnside and Wilson say that climbing up ladders was among the most difficult tasks, not only for the extra baby weight but the extra blood the body produces during pregnancy. Luckily, the industry is also incredibly supportive.
“Being a heavily male dominated industry, most of the people I interact with are super awkward about me being preggers,” says Grace Fowler, brewer at Akasha Brewing in Sydney, Australia. Fowler is due to give birth this Friday. In the meantime, she is working two jobs, the other as head brewer at the gypsy brewery she co-founded – Reckless Brewing. “Most assumed I had put on a few kg, too many beers, or too many pies until I really obviously started to show. Our farmer who takes our spent grain only realized last week I was expecting. I see this man 2-3 times a week, every week!”
Outside of the physical tasks there are issues of space, exhaustion and even guilt. There is already added pressure to keep up with men, who may perceive that the women cannot pull their own weight, and it’s much worse when pregnancy comes into play.
And through everything, these brewers still need to taste the beer. That provides an unexpected challenge.
“I still taste my beer, but nothing more than just a few sips, which has been quite annoying,” says Burnside. Even doing that has been a problem with some consumers.
“There was someone who commented on a photo of me and 10 Barrel brewers Shawn Kelso and Ben Shirley who was disgusted to see that there was a pregnant woman posing with a beer,” says Burnside. “women, amazingly enough, can brew beer AND be pregnant. Basically super woman powers…”
“I have been smelling/tasting beers differently and it has been intensified since I’ve been pregnant,” reports Burnside. “It has made me pay extra close attention to every step of the brewing process. Something funny that has happened is that she kicks whenever I am tasting a sampler of beer! Hopefully that means she likes it. Maybe she’ll be a little brewer someday.”
Burnside and Fowler are lucky to brew in environments favorable to maternity leave. Burnside gets 6 months off with her employer Anheuser-Busch, and Fowler is a beneficiary of Australia’s liberal laws.
“If your job is unsafe to perform while pregnant, your employer must provide you with a safe job or pay you to take leave,” says Fowler. “Once the baby is born you are entitled to 18 weeks paid leave (paid by the government at minimum wage, about $700 a week [roughly $480 USD]). You are also entitled to take 12 months unpaid leave during which time your employer has to hold your job for you.”
It’s no surprise that the industry does not often have guidelines for safety in these sort of instances. Often, brewers are expected to do unsafe work, no questions asked, and if you are at a small company or are a staff of one, you do not have many options.
“I have different rules for myself than my staff. I don’t ask my male 6′ 2″ brewer to do risky things but have no problem doing them myself,” says Wilson. “I think I would feel the same with a pregnant employee. I would try to switch them to light duties if possible, not ask them to do anything physically taxing. But that is from an employer’s duty of care perspective.”
“Any pregnant woman should be able to work for as long as they like, as long as it is safe,” adds Fowler, who realizes the protections provided in her country might not exist in America. “Because my job is protected for me in Australia, I don’t have to worry about being fired or pushed out.”
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.