Tonya Cornett, brewmaster for Bend Brewing Company, usually doesn’t do her hair in the morning before going to work. Starting at 7 a.m., Cornett spends the day upstairs at BBC, where she moves 120-pound kegs, hauls 55-pound bags of grain, drags hoses of liquid and makes award-winning beer for the downtown Bend brewery.
Cornett loves the entire beer-making process: from creating the recipe to drinking the finished product. Working 40 to 60 hours per week, she brewed more than 1,000 barrels of beer last year, from light ales to dark stouts.
“When I see a full house of people downstairs, and everyone has a beer in their hand, and I know I made every beer down there — that’s a very satisfying feeling,” Cornett said.
Cornett, 39, is among the few women in the brewing industry. She’s one of two female head brewers in Oregon, according to Brian Butenschoen, executive director of Oregon Brewers Guild, a nonprofit organization that promotes brewing in Oregon.
The other is Jen Kent at McMenamins’ Thompson Brewery & Public House in Salem.
Cornett was the first woman named champion brewer in the 2008 Brewers Association World Beer Cup, held in April in San Diego. Nearly 650 breweries from 58 countries, with 2,864 beer entries, were judged in the competition. She compared it to the Olympics of the beer world.
“I was the first woman to win the award, and it’s really put the spotlight on me,” Cornett said of the media coverage she received after winning. Cornett added that it validated her hard work and gave her the confidence to know she’s on the right path.
Cornett learned how to brew beer at a brewery during the mid-1990s in Fort Collins, Colo. She continued her education at the World Brewing Academy, a collaboration between Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago and Doemens Academy of Munich, in Germany.
Brewing in rubber boots
The BBC brewmaster is a member of the Pink Boots Society. The organization, started by veteran female brewer Teri Fahrendorf, acts as an international network for women in the brewing industry.
In Oregon, Butenschoen said, there are approximately 150 people involved in the brewing process, and fewer than 10 of those are women.
The Pink Boots Society, named after the rubber boots brewers wear, held its first meeting the morning of the 2008 World Beer Cup. Members were ecstatic when Cornett won the award.
“She seriously was representing all of us, and we knew it, and when Tonya won, some of us were screaming and some of us were crying,” Fahrendorf said. “We were all so excited.”
Fahrendorf, now a beer steward at Belmont Station Beer Store & Café in Portland, was a brewer for 20 years for Steelhead Brewing Company, Triple Rock Brewing Company, Golden Gate Brewing Company and Siebens River North Brewpub. She got the idea for the organization last year while she was on a national beer road trip and she met women in the industry who were excited to meet another female brewer.
“I thought these young women needed to connect with the experienced gals who have been in the industry for a long, long time,” Fahrendorf said.
Worldwide, the society now has about 140 voting members, women who currently are or have been professional brewers, lab technicians or cellar women who work in the cooler. There are approximately 16 nonvoting members, women who are not directly involved with the brewing process but make a portion of their income from the beer industry.
Membership is rising quickly, Fahrendorf said.
The organization’s mission is to encourage women to consider brewing as a profession, help them get the education they need, help them stay in the field and provide support and mentors.
Brewers can learn on the job, Cornett said, but it helps to have a background or formal education in chemistry or math. Classes in business and food science also help, Fahrendorf said. The profession pays an annual salary of about $35,000 to $45,000 at a small brewpub, Cornett said. Salaries increase as the size of the brewery increases.
“You don’t brew for the money, you brew because you love it,” Fahrendorf said.
Another goal of the Pink Boots Society is to encourage women to become beer drinkers and to try home brewing.
Tyler Reichert, owner of Silver Moon Brewing, previously owned a store in Bend that sold brewing supplies. Even though the industry is typically male-dominated, it doesn’t need to be, he said.
“When we sold home-brewing supplies, some of the best brewers were women because they were more familiar with cooking, and sometimes we had to explain to men just how to boil water,” Reichert said.
A man’s industry?
The beer industry is typically dominated by men, partly because beer has been advertised as a man’s drink in the past, Fahrendorf said.
The first step on the path of a brewing career is to drink beer, enjoy the various flavors and become regular beer drinkers, she said. “Before you can have a woman professional brewer, you have to start way back and have a woman beer drinker.”
More women are entering the industry for various reasons, including the variety of beer available, which is greater than it was 20 years ago, and festivals, competitions and other events that have increased exposure to beer education and terminology, Fahrendorf said. It’s not unusual anymore for women to talk about beer, she said.
“I think most of the people that are getting into it are people who started drinking beer after the craft beer revolution,” said Butenschoen, of the Oregon Brewers Guild. “People are realizing now, as opposed to 20 years ago, that there are a lot more flavors and interesting things you can do with beer.”
Brewers don’t need to have a degree in fermentation to enter the industry, he added, noting that it’s possible to come from the culinary field.
A main reason men have dominated the industry is because being a brewmaster is a physical job that most women don’t want to do, Cornett said.
“Culturally, it’s not thought of as a woman’s job,” she said.
The Brewers Association Great American Beer Festival will be held this week in Denver. Cornett is entering five beers: Outback X, Black Diamond Dark Lager, Hop-Head Imperial IPA, Scotch Ale and a two-year vintage Outback X.
No matter what happens in Denver, Cornett will forever remember her success — and the BBC’s — at the World Beer Cup earlier this year.
“This one exceeded everything because the World Beer Cup has breweries around the world that are hundreds of years old, and to win at this competition was very difficult, even to get two medals,” Cornett said. “It was very hard for a small brewery.”
Cornett’s success is a positive step for the entire Central Oregon brewing community, Silver Moon’s Reichert said.
“I see it as a testimony that the Bend companies are making not just beer that we think is great, but beer that is recognized as internationally great,” Reichert said. “For BBC to win brewpub of the year, it just draws more attention to Bend.”
Cornett has high expectations after winning the award and the subsequent attention, but her main concern is keeping her beer the best it can be — a plus for BBC and the local brewing industry.
“The more each of us keeps getting better at what we do and finding our niches, it’s better for everyone,” Cornett said.
BBC’s 2008 winning streak
In addition to winning the top brewmaster award, Bend Brewing Company won gold medals for its Outback X and Black Diamond Dark Lager beers, and BBC was named champion brewery in the small brewpub category.