St. John's native Tracy Brown scrapes spent grains out of the mash tun during Project Venus' most recent brewing day. Mashing is the first step of brewing, where milled malt is mixed with hot liquor to break down the grains' starches into accessible sugar. The yeast then uses the sugar to make alcohol. - Submitted photo
The creator of beer, historians believe, was a woman.
Beer is believed to have been first brewed in the Middle East 6,000 years ago, and Sumerian people even prayed to Ninkasi, their goddess of the beverage, said to prepare the drink daily. A Sumerian poem dedicated to the goddess and translated to English by the University of Oxford describes her baking bread, mixing it with grain and malt and letting it ferment before brewing it with honey and wine.
Somewhere along the line, beer became considered to be a masculine beverage. A group of ladies in the U.K. - including St. John's native Tracy Brown - have begun a project to reclaim beer for women and encourage them to get back into the brewing industry.
Brown was a Memorial University student intent on studying medicine when she took a job at the local Molson brewery as a quality analyst during summer breaks. Because of the brewery's relatively small size, she said, she was able to work closely with the brewer and gain some insight into and experience in the beer brewing process.
She didn't realize there was a master's program in the industry until meeting a person who had completed it, and she decided to research the possibility.
In 2003, Brown earned her BSc master's in brewing and distilling from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, and then gained the professional qualification of master brewer after completing practical experience and a series of exams.
She has remained in the U.K. ever since, working first for Heineken and next for a smaller, family-owned brewery, but has been employed by Molson-Coors for the past two years as a technical brewer.
Back when Brown began brewing, she was one of a small number of women in the industry, she said.
"We have these annual brewing dinners and when I started going to these eight years ago, out of a room of 250 people, maybe 10 or 12 were women," she said. "Now, over the past few years, you might be up to 30 or 40 of them being women. It's definitely a male-dominated industry, but it's not unusual now to have the head of the brewery or a lot of the board members be women. I think in the U.K., as in North America, the whole craft brewing scene is really booming."
In January, Brown was part of an all-female team of U.K. brewers who produced a new ale as part of Project Venus. One of the team members, Sara Barton of Brewster's Brewery ("brewster" is the correct term for a female brewer, Brown explained, although she prefers not to use it), came across an article about a Project Venus in the United States, and decided to organize something similar for Great Britain.
The project aims to promote women in the brewing industry. The group had already produced three beers - Venus Jade, Venus Rouge and Venus Black - by the time Brown joined, although there were only four team members each time. The latest project included 14 brewsters from a dozen different breweries.
Together, using Galaxy hops from New Zealand, to fit with the theme, the ladies produced Venus Gold at Prospect Brewery in Wigan.
"I describe it as a light, golden ale," Brown said of the beer, with 3.8 per cent alcohol.
The collaboration brew was launched in a Manchester pub, and has been available for purchase in various outlets in northwest England since then. It's been well received, Brown said.
The team's next brewing day will be held in April, during which time they'll come up with a new brew.
"Every three months we alternate. We do brews at each other's places of work, and then the beer goes on sale through their normal outlets," she said.
Beer is made with four basic ingredients: water, fermented sugar, hops and yeast. The flavour of the brew can depend on the type of malt, hops and yeast used, as well as other ingredients added, including spices. Each type of yeast has a particular effect on the beer. Lager includes yeast that collects at the bottom as it ferments at a relatively cool temperature, while yeast ferments at a warmer temperature in an ale, forming a foam at the top.
Brewing isn't an easy process, Brown admits, but it's one that she loves.
"The thing that I love about my job is there's so much you can do, so many styles," she said. "When girls say that they don't like beer, I say, 'Well, you just haven't found the right one yet.' There are so many varieties out there that for sure there's one for everyone."
Before moving to the U.K., Brown was a fan of lager - "That's all I knew in Canada, a cold lager," she said - but these days lager isn't her favourite.
"I like a really nice hop on my beer, with nice, fragrant, floral notes," she explained. "That's my favourite. A pale ale is the style that I quite like."
When she comes home, Brown enjoys Rickard's products, which she says she misses in the U.K. She's been to Yellowbelly brewery downtown, and gives it a thumbs- up.
Brown predicts Project Venus' next brewing day to draw a similar team size as the last one, and she's encouraged by the increasing numbers of women looking to bring beer back to its roots.
"Word is slowly spreading," she said. "It's great. I've really, really enjoyed it."
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