(Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on women leadership in the brewing industry. Next week’s profiles will include Jess Reiser, Burial Beer; Leah Rainis, executive director ABA; Erin Jordan, head brewer at Archetype; and the Pink Boots Society.)
Many may not know the role women played in brewing history. In fact, throughout history, until the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of beer production was done by women.
“Women in brewing history is interesting,” said Leah Rainis, executive director of the Ashville Brewers Alliance. “It dates back to ancient Sumeria, where the majority of beer brewers were women, and it stayed that way until beer became commercialized.”
Tara Nurin noted in her article, “How Women Brewsters Saved the World,” that the majority of ancient brewers were women.
“European women fed their husbands and children low-alcohol, nutrient-rich homebrew that proved more sanitary than water,” Nurin wrote.
Women remained chief brewers until the Industrial Revolution, when men realized brewing could make money.
Fast forward to today, and craft beer brewing is run predominately by men.
“The 2019 Brewers Association Brewery Diversity Benchmark data shows that only 22% of brewery owners nationally are women and only 8.9% of production staff managers are women,” said Leah Wong Ashburn, president and CEO of Highland Brewing.
However, the Asheville brewing scene is a stellar example of women in ownership and leadership. Following are profiles of some of the notable women in the local brewing scene.
Leah Wong Ashburn
President/CEO and Second-Generation Family Owner, Highland Brewing
Highland Brewing, Asheville’s pioneering craft brewery, was founded by Oscar Wong in 1994. It’s a resounding success story.
After a career in educational sales, Leah Wong Ashburn joined her father’s brewery in 2011, starting in sales, then marketing, becoming president in 2015 and CEO in 2018. Along the way, and unbeknownst to Wong, his staff met and gave their independent recommendation that Ashburn become the next leader of Highland Brewing.
Ashburn said she splits her time “between representing the brewery externally to share our voice within the local landscape of business — and internally navigating the direction of the company and working with our team to stay true to our pioneering past with a viable future.”
As a trailblazer, Ashburn was named the James Beard Award for Outstanding Beer and Wine Professional in 2018 and the Asheville Chamber Woman Executive of the Year in 2019.
“I am proud that we have created a culture at Highland where women have a voice and a place,” Ashburn said. “We are women-owned and our staff and management team are both more than 40% female.”
Ashburn thrives in the professional, yet convivial, culture at Highland Brewing.
“Sometimes I miss the paychecks of my previous career, but I wouldn’t trade that for the reputation for quality and community we’ve built at Highland,” she said. “It feels good to be deeply rooted, and at the same time, forward-facing.”
Co-owner, CFO, Catawba Brewing Company
The story of how Catawba Brewing came to be is driven by the ingenuity of Jetta Pyatt. In 1994, she was looking for a Christmas present for her husband, Billy, who was “notoriously hard to buy for.” At the time, both Jetta and Billy had telecom corporate jobs at Corning, Inc.
Pyatt said she didn’t know people could make their own beer, but a friend had gotten a home brewing kit for his birthday, which inspired her to purchase one and two starter beers for Billy.
Billy’s interest in home brewing took off and the rest is brewing history. Billy, his brother, Scott, and Jetta founded Catawba Brewing in 1999.
The company now has five tasting rooms, two in Asheville, and one each in Morganton, Charlotte, and Wilmington, plus Palmetto Brewing in Charleston, South Carolina.
Pyatt has put her 31-year career at Corning, from strategic planning, field sales, and operations to use at Catawba.
“As one of the owners, you wear lots of hats,” Pyatt said. “As CFO, I have all the financial operations, plus the retail operations of the tasting rooms in the five cities. I’m also human resources — payroll, hiring and benefits.”
Working in predominately male industries is not new for Jetta.
“My career at Corning was in high-tech telecom, which is extremely male-dominated,” she said. “I don’t see brewing is much different. There will be work-life balance challenges when you are a woman, and even more when most of your co-workers are men.”
Cristina Hall Ackley
Co-Founder and President, Ginger’s Revenge
Cristina Hall Ackley and husband, David Ackley, took a unique twist in founding Ginger’s Revenge, specializing in the production of alcoholic ginger beer.
The Ackleys started the company in 2015, after David spent years as a homebrewer and Cristina worked with nonprofits on fundraising and event planning, and in the restaurant industry. They opened the tasting room March 2017 on the north end Asheville’s booming River Arts District.
Ginger’s Revenge, Ackley said, is “dedicated to producing exciting and creative craft beverages from sustainably sourced ingredients.” The process substitutes cane sugar for malt as the fermentable ingredient.
The brewery innovates with refreshingly crisp flavors, including the ever-popular Lime-Agave and complex profiles of Chocolate Orange Peel and Caramelized Fig and Vanilla.
“The brewery industry is creative and collaborative, and with the growth of the gluten-free market and beer alternative category, we felt like it was the right time to start a brewery focusing on alcoholic ginger beer,” Ackley said.
As president of Ginger’s Revenge, Ackley wears many hats, including branding, marketing, packaging design, strategy, human resources, bookkeeping and overseeing front-of-house operations.
“Navigating a small, young business through the pandemic is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my career,” Ackley said. “We worked really hard to maintain a mental balance of pragmatism and optimism and to be a source of comfort and positivity for our team members.”
And make it through, it did. Ginger’s Revenge celebrated its fourth anniversary this month.
Co-owner and Co-founder, Hillman Beer
Brandi Hillman is a leader. Not only is she co-owner at Hillman Beer, but also, she met the challenge of getting Old Fort to grant Hillman an exception to open a taproom/brewery in a dry town. On top of that, Hillman is the first female president of the Asheville Brewers Alliance.
Hillman Beer is the culmination of years of planning between Brandi and her husband, Greig Hillman, and Greig’s brother Brad, who was an avid homebrewer. Brandi and Greig owned several Subway restaurants, but after discovering craft beer, they decided to open a brewery, with Brad’s brewing talents.
Hillman Beer opened its Sweeten Creek taproom at the edge of Biltmore Village in April 2017 and immediately submitted three beers to the prestigious Great American Beer Festival (GABF) competition in Colorado. The Hillman family was surprised and proud their Belgian Quad (Four Fat Baby) took home a bronze medal, quite an accomplishment for a small, new brewery.
Hillman Beer sought to bring the pub style back to the brewery, adding a deli and outdoor picnic tables for a bier garden experience.
Hillman feels that the biggest challenges for women in the brewing industry are in the brewhouse. She said she hasn’t faced those challenges because she’s in the business end, which is different.
Hillman Beer will celebrate its fourth anniversary in April.
“It’s more than just selling beer,” Hillman said, “It’s making folks understand the difference between craft beer and Bud.”