By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Women beer professionals from all over the world are converging on San Diego for the Pink Boots Society’s 10th Anniversary Conference & Beer Festival June 2-3. In addition to the decadal birthday celebration, the conference brings together all-female faculty — a first for beer conferences — who will lead workshops and discussions on a range of topics.
Yet the conference represents far more. It kicks off the future of what executive director Emily Engdahl calls a “sisterhood” of craft beer professionals in the 1,200-member organization, which has 50 chapters in 10 countries from Australia to Spain.
Engdahl first became involved with Pink Boots in 2013. The Society had recently received 501(c)(3) status, and Engdahl wanted to help out at a fundraising party held that February. By June she had assumed her role of executive director (though she also has a full-time career as an office manager and fiduciary at a family business). “I’ve seen these women not just on a professional — but personal level. They come together,” says Engdahl. “I loved the tribe, everyone I met, the camaraderie, the amazing wealth of knowledge I found in the beer industry.”
And yes, that includes the pink, which has also made the organization a sometimes-lightning rod for controversy.
“I take issue when people tell us we shouldn’t be pink. If you are a feminist, why the hell would you let anyone tell you what color you’re supposed to wear?” says Engdahl. “I love pink. It’s one of my favorite colors.”
She also points out that in the 18th century and until World War I, pink was a masculine color: softer than the more aggressive red, but still manly. Girls wore blue. “We are reclaiming pink. It’s the ultimate feminist movement to wear pink,” says Engdahl. “Just as you shouldn’t tell a girl she should only like fruity beers and not stout, why would you tell a girl she shouldn’t wear pink if that’s the color she wants to wear?”
Pink Boots evolved out of co-founder Teri Fahrendorf’s 2007 road trip, where she worked to connect with female brewers and help further their careers all while donning a pair of brewhouse-ready pink boots (a pre-trip gift from Fahrendorf’s mother-in-law). While traversing some of America’s 1,511 craft breweries, she kept hearing the same thing from the women brewers she met: “I thought I was the only one.”
Fast-forward 10 years, and Fahrendorf can see how much has changed. “We were pioneers,” she says. “Having Pink Boots, whether members or not, gives women confidence to shoot for the top. Some women don’t need it, but some do. Sometimes it takes a very simple role model. We’ve changed the dialogue, and the dialogue now includes women.”
From fewer than two-dozen women at their inaugural lunch in 2008, Pink Boots had grown to about 2,500 members in 2015. At that point, membership was free (though many members would donate funds) for women making any portion of their income in the beer industry. In 2016, Pink Boots made some big changes: they established a more organized board, started charging membership dues and gave chapters more control over money and communication. And to qualify for membership, a 25 percent income threshold was instituted.
“We wiped out our entire membership database,” says Engdahl. “Now we’ve already rebuilt over half those numbers. It’s a more professionally and educationally centered organization.” By 2018, Engdahl estimates membership will be above 2,250.
With U.S. craft breweries potentially topping 6,000 by the end of 2017, Engdahl is not surprised by Pink Boots’ growth — or the number of women joining the industry, though how that’s happening has changed. People often found a job in craft beer either through family business ties or via a winding, indirect path. Now Engdahl sees young adults enrolling in college or vocational programs specifically to launch careers. “Brewing and brewing science is a viable lifestyle, one you can enter deliberately and with intent,” she explains. “That’s very exciting and very different from any other way that we’ve seen brewing become a vocation before.”
The anniversary event was made possible thanks to “an amazing team of women who dreamed up this whole conference,” says Fahrendorf. As the Society’s most active chapter, San Diego was a natural location. But in addition to providing education and motivation, Engdahl wants women to come out of the conference knowing “they can do what they want to do in the industry and nothing holds them back,” she says. “I want these women to be seen as role models and as heroes in the industry. Breweries exact a lot of social change, and I think it’s important to remember the social magic we do in beer.”
As Engdahl looks ahead to the next 10 years, she hopes she will be able to look back and see that Pink Boots has changed the industry and overall awareness of broader societal problems that can make it difficult for women to advance. “I want it to not matter if you’re a man or a woman in the beer industry. Do you make good beer? Are you a nice person?”
She also suggests ways men can support women in craft beer. “Speak out and make sure you are being the best feminist you can be. It doesn’t have to look big or heroic. It just has to be the normal everyday things we do to encourage society toward equity,” says Engdahl. “Make sure your daughter isn’t getting left out of STEM in middle school. Get your sister a homebrew kit. Patronize businesses that support Pink Boots and tell them you are glad they support women in the beer industry. For associations, ask for more diversity in the board and in presenters.”
Pink Boots, though, isn’t about special treatment — it’s about equity and betterment for all. “I hope I can work myself out of a job,” says Engdahl, but cites educational system deficiencies, sexual harassment issues and inequality around the world as proof we’re not there yet.
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