She's the one: Kettlehouse's Colleen Bitter lone female brewer in Montana

2009-10-13T23:30:00Z She's the one: Kettlehouse's Colleen Bitter lone female brewer in MontanaBy TRISTAN SCOTT of the Missoulian missoulian.com
October 13, 2009 11:30 pm  • 

Colleen Bitter dips what looks like a wooden canoe paddle into a brew kettle of hot water and malted barley grain, and stirs the mash with aplomb.

It's a stage of the brewing process called sparging, through which the sweet wort is separated from the spent grains, and Bitter monitors the batch carefully. She checks the volume levels inside a colossal steel vessel and eventually achieves the desired amount of pre-boil wort. Next, she hand-shovels about 2,100 pounds of the soggy grist into plastic tubs (a local farmer will pick up the dregs and use them as cattle feed).

The keen, yeasty aroma of an emerging batch of award-winning Cold Smoke Scotch Style Ale soon fills the Kettlehouse Brewing Co., and Bitter is making headway. It's not quite noon.

This is business as usual at the Kettlehouse's new Northside taproom, brewery and cannery, where Bitter works as assistant brewer. But her role in the brewing process is unique for reasons beyond her control - she's a woman. And so far as the craft beer brewing business goes, there aren't many around.

By all accounts, Bitter is Montana's lone brewster, an old English term for a female brewer, and part of a minority nationwide.

Tony Herbert, executive director of the Montana Brewers Association, says he hadn't heard of or met any women brewers in Montana; neither had any of the members of the association that he surveyed.

"I'm unaware of there being any female brewers, but I haven't met all of the brewers in Montana," Herbert said. "There are a ton of women working around the edges of the business - serving, managing, marketing - but in terms of the brewers, all those I've met to date have been men."

There are 24 craft beer breweries in Montana, and Bitter hasn't met the brewers at every location, either. Still, she hasn't met another female brewer in Montana.

"It's been estimated that less than 1 percent of brewers nationwide are female," Bitter said. "Which is pretty unique."

That estimate comes from Teri Fahrendorf, founder of the Pink Boots Society, an association of women brewers that takes its name from a nearly universal piece of brewing safety equipment - a set of rubber, galoshlike boots.

In 2007, after nearly two decades as a brewer, Fahrendorf retired from Steelhead Brewing Co. in Eugene, Ore., and embarked on a yearlong, cross-country brewery tour. She drove nearly 13,000 miles in a Chevy Astro van and trailer, visited 70 breweries along the way and brewed beer at 38 of them.

"I always had this dream of visiting all my brewing friends, so I put on the boots and went and brewed with them," she said. "I didn't know all of the brewers, but once you start talking about beer you're just one of the bros. You're hanging out. You're talking about what you know best. But I felt strongly that I wanted to represent my entire gender, so I started thinking about how to do that, and it occurred to me that the rubber boots are a piece of safety equipment that every brewer wears every day. And pink is a girly color."

When Fahrendorf started brewing two decades ago, she was the only woman brewmaster west of the Rocky Mountains, and the second ever in the United States. The day before Fahrendorf left on the brewery tour, on her birthday, her mother-in-law gave her a pair of pink rubber boots. She wore them throughout the entire trip.

When Fahrendorf arrived at Stone Brewing Co. in San Diego, she met a young woman brewer who posed the question: "How many women brewers are there?"

Not knowing the answer, Fahrendorf grew determined to collect the names and contact information for all women brewers worldwide, and she founded the Pink Boots Society. A list of active women brewers and cellarwomen, retailers and packagers, marketers, managers and beer writers can be found at www.pinkbootssociety.

com. According to the list, Bitter is the only brewer residing in Montana.

"We're up to 324 members," Fahrendorf said. "And we've only been an organization for a year and a half."

The goal of PBS, Fahrendorf said, is to eventually gain nonprofit status and start granting scholarship money to women brewers who want to further their brewing education and training.

Bitter started learning about the brewing process in 1998 working at the Kettlehouse, which at the time was a "you brew," on-premises business where customers created their own personal batches of beer. After leaving the job to pursue an education in wildlife biology at the University of Montana, taking a hiatus to do seasonal research work on raptors, Bitter returned to the Kettlehouse in 2006 and was hired as a brewer.

She mostly learned on the job, but has since earned a certification in brewing from the Siebel Institute of Brewing Technology in Chicago. Last month, Kettlehouse's Cold Smoke ale won a bronze medal at the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver one of the largest in the world.

Bitter and Kettlehouse head brewer Paul Roys attended the festival, where 3,300 beers were judged.

"That was big news," Roys says. "It was cool to pull that out for the brewery."

Bitter said the experience just helped reaffirm her conviction in brewing craft beer.

"I love beer. I'm passionate about it. It's exciting because there are so many possibilities in every batch," Bitter said. "I love everything about the brewing process, from start to finish, because there are so many different variables that go into a beer and change the way it tastes."

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

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