A real beer-hall woman

Whitney Thompson holds up a beaker of Prima Pilsner, inspecting its clarity during the brewing process at Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown. Above, she stands behind a row of taps in the company restaurant.
Whitney Thompson holds up a beaker of Prima Pilsner, inspecting its clarity during the brewing process at Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown. Above, she stands behind a row of taps in the company restaurant.
Posted: June 03, 2010

We need not belabor the history of women's role in the marketing of beer: Suffice to say it has leaned heavily on the low-cut dirndl; and in one notable campaign, on a team of Swedish blondes clad in attire unsuited for a Scandinavian winter.

The history of women in the making of beer, on the other hand, is another matter. Put out the call for a roundtable of women brewers hereabouts, and, well, all you'll need is a small booth. If that.

So in the mammoth beer hall of Downingtown's Victory Brewing last week, it was refreshing to encounter - over a Korean short-rib sandwich and a pint of dark Donneybrook Stout (at 3.4 percent alcohol, a good lunch beer) - a bona fide brewer by the name of Whitney Thompson, sensibly clad and straight-talking: "I'm a no-B.S. kind of person."

She is also low-key and pleasant, the lone female on Victory's 11-man (and one woman) team of award-winning brewers; which is 1000 percent more than almost every other local brewhouse.

(Stoudt's in Adamstown, Pa., founded by Carol Stoudt in the 1980s, is a major exception; her daughter-in-law, Jodi Stoudt, still brews there part time. Also, females have a sizable presence in the labs at local breweries.)

Can it be awkward? The first few months, concedes Thompson, who's dressed in work trousers and a dark-blue polo shirt. But you put your head down, and do the job, and sometimes, she says without bravado, you may even do it better.

And, yes, you might occasionally nudge a guy out of his comfort zone. And maybe he's not exactly always P.C. "But, hey, I'm working in a brewery."

It helps, no doubt, that her husband, Larry Horowitz, is a top brewer at Iron Hill in West Chester. And that she earned her chops the old-fashioned way, after her degree in biology (at dry Bridgewater College near Harrisonburg, Va.), apprenticing at Ernst August Brauhaus in Germany, known for its pilsners.

At 28, Thompson has the sturdy build, steady gaze, and soft-spoken demeanor of the farmer's daughter she is - the product of an upbringing on a 100-acre turkey and sheep farm in Virgina's Shenandoah Valley where she learned the demands of farm life: "Turkeys," her father relished telling her, "don't take vacations."

She has five years of brewing under her belt now, her first gig at Tröeg's in Harrisburg earning a moniker - read on - that even now she volunteers proudly.

Women in the beer world seem to almost require one - "Queen of Hops," Carol Stoudt, who founded Stoudt's; "Beer Lass," Suzanne Woods, the Sly Fox sales rep and organizer of In Pursuit of Ale, a collection of women against mass-produced swill; "The Beer Chick," blogger Christina Perozzi, coauthor of The Naked Pint, a craft-beer guide.

In fact, Thompson says women, who are generally thought to be in closer tune with sensory perception, are an easy sell when it comes to good craft beer: "I can convert one in minutes if I know what they like: They're an untapped market."

Thompson's tag at Tröeg's? "They called me 'The Hot Spot Girl.' "

And what is a hot spot? It could be something simple, Thompson says, like bird-dogging the inspection of empty brewing tanks to make sure they're pristinely clean, or something more challenging: figuring out the best level of oxygen to kick-start various brewing yeasts.

Thompson takes a visitor on a short tour of the Victory premises, showing off the new home for eight towering fermentation tanks on order from Germany. (Victory's sales last year, like those of many craft brewers, soared, jumping 18 percent, straining its capacity.)

She has graduated from her first brewing job (hauling the hoses, toting bags of grain) to the quality assurance part of beer-making, which involves technical attention to the microbiology of the beer - the proper amount of yeast in the tanks, the vitality of the yeasts, the right brewing temperatures, "caretaking" the evolution of the sugars and alcohol and, finally, the flavor.

By 2 p.m., she cochairs a bi-weekly roundtable of brewers who will pass on the readiness of the beer's flavor for bottling. Foamy pitchers are situated on a lazy Susan. Tasting glasses are filled and sipped. Notations are recorded: Does the lager have any off-flavor sulfur notes? Is there any green-apple scent, implying the beer is too young? Is there any buttery aftertaste? (You'd better hope not.)

There is general jocularity around the table, echoing off the copper of an old lauter tun, a dome-like piece of brewing equipment, that hovers saucerlike overhead.

Whitney Thompson, for a change, is not the only woman at the table.

There's a senior biology student, an intern from Drexel, sitting next to her, her hair long, untrussed, and blond.

Her goal, or one of them, at least? To land a job at a brewery: Victory, she says, would be sweet.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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