When Gabby Grant isn’t building wind farms in California or rafting with her family, she likes to brew beer.
Out of the garage she built herself in Missoula’s University District neighborhood, Grant brews a new batch of craft beer every week with a homemade system. Some weeks she’ll make a cherry porter, and other weeks she’ll make a honey rye pale ale. She calls her operation Silver Box Brewing, and she names her beers things like “Drunk Architect” and “Sister of Yeti.”
“My last house looked like a giant silver box, so that’s where the name came from,” she said, grinning.
Grant is a beer aficionado, and she’s part of a thriving home-brewing scene in Missoula that’s riding a wave of consumer interest in locally brewed beverages and the career options that come with it. She’s trying to lead by example in getting more women involved in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
When Grant went to school to learn how to brew beer at the American Brewers Guild in Vermont, she was the only woman in a class of 50 men. And she knows that even in Missoula, there are only a handful of women who are as passionate about homebrewing.
“It’d be nice if there were more women,” she said. “I’m always trying to encourage women to get into it. Because you know, you can make what you want. It’s no different than cooking.”
Grant has an easygoing personality and loves to chat, joke and drink beer with friends. But when it comes to brewing, she applies her engineering background and takes the process fairly seriously.
“It’s a lot of science,” she explained. “I like science. I like to build things. And this is building beer, putting it together.”
She’s got a homemade bar built in her garage with taps, CO2 tanks for carbonation and even a nitrogen tap for the increasingly-popular “nitro” pours. Regular CO2 bubbles impart a bitterness to the taste of beer, she explained, and nitro pours have a different flavor. That’s why she always taste-tests her beer before she carbonates it.
When making the wort, the liquid extracted from the mashing process, for her rye pale ale, she pays attention during every step of the process.
“It’s important to get the right balance of grain to water during this process,” she said as she added hot water to her grains. She uses specific yeast and hops combinations, noting that European and American hops have much different flavor profiles.
Homebrewing beer is an art form, and Grant likes to experiment and be creative. Sometimes she’ll use cherries in a concoction, and other times she’ll use coconut.
She often visits local breweries like Great Burn, KettleHouse and Bayern to try different beers and get ideas. But she got into brewing because she wants to try new things. Eventually, she’d like to open up her own nano-brewery.
“I like to drink beer that they don’t have available here,” she said.
She wants women to know that brewing beer doesn’t have to be physically demanding.
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“Maybe it’s just intimidating, the idea of dumping a five-gallon bucket of something,” she said. “It could be if it’s not set up right. It’s hard to lift things, to get the weight up.”
But, she said, she built a fairly simple system that allows her to use hoses to transfer water and other liquids so her back doesn’t bear the full brunt. She often gets ideas from other local homebrewers, and keeps in touch through a Facebook group and through the Zoo City Zymurgists, a local homebrew club.
“It’s kind of fun to have friends to talk about brewing with and to see what they’re doing and how their system is set up,” she said. “There’s some guys in town with really impressive set-ups. I built this one. I like to brew a lot so I brew at least once a week. So that’s about 50 beers a year," with about five gallons' worth of each kind.
David Nikonow is the vice president of the Zoo City Zymurgists Club.
He said the club now has about 50 dues-paying members, and about 20 people generally show up to their monthly meetings and events. They’ll judge brewfests in town, have competitions, brew special ciders or beers or just sit around and talk brewing. This year, they’ve started a Stein Bier Classic, which involves using hot stones from a fire to brew beer.
“We’re one of the oldest homebrewing clubs in the country,” he explained. “Membership ebbs and flows, but right now we’ve got a pretty good membership and a core group.”
He acknowledged that there’s hasn’t been much interest from women in joining the nonprofit club.
“We certainly don’t discourage gals from joining the club,” he said. “We want as many women to be involved and engaged in it as possible, but there doesn’t seem to be many involved.”
However, he noted that learning to brew beer can lead to a good-paying career in an industry that is rapidly expanding. Missoula has seen tremendous growth in the number of craft breweries in the last 10 years, with more on the way, and all those breweries are always looking to hire brewers.
“There’s several folks in our club that have gone on to work in the brewing profession,” he said. “Probably one of the latest success stories is Old Bull Brewing in Frenchtown. It was started by a guy in our club who was just a homebrewer for quite a few years.”
A 2014 study by Stanford University found that out of 1,700 active breweries surveyed, only 4% had a female head brewer or brewmaster, according to the website Women in Craft Beer.
Joseph Hickman, a club member, said the private club Facebook page has about 400 members.
“It’s a really interesting underground scene,” he said. “I moved down here from Alaska. It’s a rabid culture down here. Everybody has the dream of opening up their own brewery. Especially since we haven’t hit peak saturation point yet. We’re still in the growth phase. Twenty years from now when doors are closing, we’ll see.”
For Grant, every new beer and every new day is a gift. Several years ago, at the Tell Us Something live storytelling event in Missoula, she told a crowd about how she was nearly killed in a car accident.
“I learned that day what never to wait for,” she said back then. “Whatever makes you happy, go and do it. You never know when it’s going to be your last day.”