Women in Brewing | Bess Dougherty
Despite her recent announcement that she’ll be leaving Wynkoop, rest assured, “Bess’s Barrel-Aged Beer Babies” will live on! Back in June, PorchDrinking spoke with brewer Bess Dougherty, recording a PorchCast episode in her “happy place,” Wynkoop Brewing Company’s barrel room. Little did we know a mere 12 hours later Bess and the rest of the Wynkoop family would learn that the brewery would begin scaling back operations to eliminate external distribution AND Bess would soon decide to leave her brewing position at Wynkoop for another opportunity. In light of the latest happenings, we sat down to talk women and beer with her and hear about the latest landmarks in her career path.
For those who don’t know Bess, she is lovely, approachable and energetic, even when meeting for an interview on an overcast Sunday evening. Her character, talent and leadership at Wynkoop since 2012 makes her an obvious candidate for this piece along with the perspective her journey brings: When Bess officially entered the brewing industry four years ago, women in the brew house were a downright scarcity. Denver Westword wrote a feature piece at the time, mentioning that “with a few notable exceptions, there are very few women working in the craft beer industry in Colorado — or nationwide, for that matter — and fewer still in the brewhouse.” Given this, it’s pretty amazing to think of the sheer quantity of female talent hired at breweries in the span of four years and hard not to think of words like “pioneer” in terms of what Bess has helped start. After a four-year run at Wynkoop, Bess is leaving to lead a new venture, The Grateful Gnome Sandwich Shoppe & Brewery, where she’ll take the reigns as head brewer.
Before enticing you further with the promise of deli meats and beer, can we go back for a moment to the year 2012? Granted, it wasn’t that the industry was completely devoid of women, but out of 161 breweries on record in Colorado that year (source: The Denver Post), the chances you’d walk into a brewery employing a female brewer was about 4%. Says Bess, “When I first started, [some of the notable women brewers in Colorado] were myself, Ashleigh [Carter] at Prost and Lindsey [Cornish] up at Odell’s. The following March after I got hired, I hosted a female collaboration beer for Colorado Craft Beer Week. At that time, there were a total of eight women in the industry in Colorado, two of whom worked at the lab at Avery, and everyone else was an actual brewer.” Thanks in part to initiatives like International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day, we see the gender landscape changing, ever-amorphous but becoming more equal by the year. Bess’s unique perspective and contributions are best expressed in her own words, so READ ON:
It’s official, you’re leaving Wynkoop for a new venture, The Grateful Gnome, started by another former Wynkoop employee. Do tell more.
The owner is Dan Appell, a former sales guy at Wynkoop, though my first interactions with him were back when I worked at the liquor store. He was our sales rep, so I really have known him quite a while. He’s just a delightful human being, he grew up in Jersey and his family was in the deli business, and he’s been talking about doing this project since I fucking met him, always saying he can’t find a good sandwich in town and he wants to open a brew pub and make actual east-coast style sandwiches.
That concept sounds awesome.
I mean yeah, it sounds cool, I’ve also lived here my entire life and have no idea what the difference in sandwiches is, so I’m kind of excited for an education! He’s been planning this forever and then he finally got a lease on a building and things started moving, and I’ve just been overjoyed for him. He asked me one day if we could meet for beers and if I could just kind of help him with brewhouse stuff and we were just sitting there talking for two hours and he was like, “So you might want to leave Wynkoop?” and I was like “Oh! So that’s what this is!” I didn’t take the job right then, we had several more talks about it. It’s a big leap, it’s fucking scary as shit. It’s like I’ve always had the safety net of Wynkoop being an established brand and getting to do all these fun beers. Now I have to do everything.
Will you have any help back there or is it going to be just you?
There’s another person in mind, but I can’t say who just yet… but a delightful human being and really good brewer so that helps! The two of us will be handling all brewery-related everything including all festivals.
Where will you guys be located?
We’re actually going to be right across the street from the Oriental Theater, right by our friends from Call to Arms and De Steeg. There was one time during initial talks with Dan where I said, “You have to go talk to these people and tell them what you’re doing with this space. Once you do that, I’m on board but you have to take care of this.” And he did. De Steeg is getting fucked over because of construction right now, so on one of Dan’s first weekends with that property, he went on down the pathway that connects our brewery to De Steeg and cleaned out all that trash and rubbish and laid some mulch, you know, trying to take care of our neighbors. And then with the boys at Call to Arms, I was nervous about it just because sometimes [next to other talented brewers] I feel like a giddy little school kid getting to live their dream.
The thing about Call to Arms though, those guys have been in the business long enough to know that you moving in down the street should not be a concern. They see the big picture. Even Call to Arms has helped GoldSpot Brewing’s [Kelissa’s place of employment] business a LOT. Breweries don’t tend to struggle these days due to density. If people like your beer, they will come, and then maybe make a day of it and go next door to your friend’s place.
Yeah, I even got a call from Jon Cross [from Call to Arms] saying, “I had heard you’re going to be our new neighbor brewer, let us know when you want to do a collaboration!” I’m like, alright!! I’m in!!!
Awesome. So when’s the anticipated opening date?
We’re shooting for October, we have all of our equipment purchased and built, all of our bright tanks and fermenters are out here already, and we got the system through Alpha and they’re actually going to hang on to some things because we’re waiting on some permits. So I get to go out in a couple weeks and hug our new system, cause that’s what I do, I hug equipment, a lot.
You do. I’ve seen photos of that! You have some signature moves that you’re reputable for with all the collaborations you did during Wynkoop’s renovations. You tried to maintain a record of eating tacos for lunch every time you brewed a collaboration beer, right?
And I succeeded! Every single time (11 collabs in total) I had tacos for lunch! The only one we didn’t was with OMF, but the one thing we DID do was make s’mores on their direct fire brewing system.
So traveling back a bit, can you recap your journey up until now? How exactly did you know you wanted to be in the industry years ago?
It actually started right after I turned 21, I got a job at a liquor store in Westminster and through that job just started getting into the beer industry. That’s back when liquor stores were closed on Sundays, so like, every Sunday we would go to our brewery friends and do tours and stuff. And then I started wanting to taste beers that didn’t exist, so I started home brewing so I could get those flavors, and then through that job I got an eight-day trip to Belgium that was beer-focused and it was like boom, I’m done, I need to make beer for a living! The whole trip was talking about passion and meeting fourth generation brewers and seeing their kids run around with table beers and it was just so cool. I was like, “I want that in the States and the only way to start is to get a job brewing.” So I enrolled in the Siebel Institute online, and the day after that we (Denver off the Wagon, where I was working) did our first birthday collaboration brew at Wynkoop… and I was the only person from DOTW that stayed for the whole cleaning cycle and everything. And after that Andy [Brown, currently of C Squared Ciders] offered if I would send him my course syllabus, he would try to schedule something relevant on days off from my actual job so I could get hands-on experience. About a month and a half after I finished the course they ended up having an opening. It was after a 10-hour brew day that Andy gave me (I actually have it here), this little Railyard button, and I just thought it was like “Oh that’s so sweet of you, you found some schwag for me!” He was like, “Yeah, you know everyone who works here has one of these buttons on their bag…” I wasn’t registering what was going on and everyone else started giggling and walked out. And I was like, “Well, gotta get going, thanks for the button!” He was like, “So, are you really still interested in a job here?” I was like, “Andy, I just worked for free for 10 hours, so yes!” He pulled up a calendar, and two weeks from that day was my start date, just over four years ago now.
It seems like everything you post online Wynkoop related was about the new brew house or barrel room — that really seems to be a love for you, did that start at Wynkoop with their ability to provide that for you in their program, or did you always have a love for barrel-aged styles and brewing?
Well barrel-aged imperial stouts have always been my favorite style; I’ve always been fascinated by them because they’re so challenging. Once you get your process and brewing routine down it’s like the final frontier. You can make the cleanest fucking beer going into it and then it’s just a crapshoot once it goes into barrels, and I love that challenge. It’s even more satisfying when you make a beer for a certain set of barrels and then it actually turns out how you want it to, that’s just cooler to me than stainless. One of the beers we put out this summer was a sour that was on for like two years and we kept tasting it and it just wasn’t ready. And that’s the cool thing about barrels, they tell you when they’re ready. But getting to take that over was kind of a natural progression for me. After Andy left I was the main person doing new recipes. The other brewer Greg is a very science-driven brewer and we complement each other very well but I have more of the artistic side. So I just started doing my thing. They soon realized that barrel-aged beers, sour beer, that’s what people spend money on and what gets people in the door. So when I got the blank check for that project, that’s when it started, and the catalyst for that was getting the first set of Laws Whiskey barrels through some personal relationships (I know their barrel blender through the Denver Whiskey Club, ‘cause that’s a thing!). And then every time I put out one of the beers that was aged in their barrels, I’d take them samples of it too, and they also really like the beers I’m doing with their barrels and that tends to get you even more barrels.
When did you take over as barrel lead?
About a year and a half ago now is when it was official. Wynkoop is at around 70 barrels right now, and I feel pretty good about that!
You just did your “farewell” beer at Wynkoop. How many “Bess” barrel-beers are still coming out past the Bess era of Wynkoop?
Oh there are a quite a few. That’s been, honestly, other than leaving my coworkers and my Wynkoop family, leaving the projects that I started has been so hard, it’s like leaving your child! So I “knighted” one of the other brewers from here on out but was like, “You KNOW, I’m still going to be coming in, tasting them and helping you,” anything going forward you need to figure out but I’m here to help and I’ll support you and I want to support these beers!
On “Women in Beer”:
So, my whole take on it is, I want this sort of thing to not exist. But until we do have that equality, until I can work on any event, even for an hour and not have any dude question me or my knowledge because I’m a girl, we need this.
If you were stuck on a desert island, what would be the one beer you’d want to drink?
Speedway Stout [by AleSmith Brewing].