Had you told teaching specialist Nicole Shriner five years ago that she would be the head of the Distilling and Fermentation specialization at Michigan State University, she most likely would’ve laughed in your face. However, after training with Michigan’s godfather of craft brewing, she discovered teaching was her key to continuing a legacy.
Through higher education, STEM programs and women’s organizations, Michigan’s brewing industry is seeing women rise in the ranks. According to womenshistory.org, women have been crafting their own brews since the dawn of Mesopotamia. The craft came to the United States from European settlers, and women returned to their roles as tavern keepers and brewers. However, leading up to the Industrial Age, women were replaced by men and mechanization. Shriner, 28, said that with recent efforts to get women involved with STEM programs, this culture is quickly shifting.
“I think as the craft beer industry has grown, the percentage of women in brewing grows,” she said.
This fall, Shriner filled the role left behind by her mentor, Distinguished Professor Kris Berglund, by teaching chemical engineering and food science majors the nitty gritty of brewing and distilled beverage making.
“Kris gave me a lot of opportunity for growth because he let me branch out into brewing,” she said, recalling her time as a TA in Berglund’s fermented beverage and distilled courses.
Shriner’s dissertation was on cyclic distillation, where she focused on energy conservation in the production of craft spirits, specifically hard cider.
“The day I passed my dissertation defense, Professor Berglund was talking to my mother,” Shriner recalled. “He said something like, ‘you know, I’m not going to be around forever.’”
Berglund died last December, the same day that Shriner graduated from MSU with her doctoral degree. Shriner described the situation as “really eerie,” but took the sign to submit her application and began seeking out answers on her own. Prior to graduation, Berglund spent five years working for Berglund, either as a TA or intern at his craft distillery, Red Cedar Spirits in East Lansing.
But she felt that wasn’t enough to fill the big shoes her mentor left behind. She spent two months studying brewing sciences in Chicago and four more in Gräfelfing, Germany. It was there, she said, she learned the ins and outs of the craft, “from raw ingredients to malting and packaging.”
When I asked the brewmaster what her favorite recipe is, she took me through a fluorescent-lit lab and opened a metal door that led to a hallway. That hallway led to another hallway, until we stopped at a vaulted door, where she entered a keyless entry code, revealing a walk-in refrigerator where metal, cylindrical carboys were on the floor with different labels. And there it was, next to the “Strawberry Bubblicious Baby” — a vessel labeled “ShrinerWeiss,” the first brew Shriner perfected after returning home from Germany.
This semester, Shriner teaches four senior-level and graduate courses, from the environmental impacts of the fermented beverage industry to building original beer and wine recipes. She said her favorite part of her role in preparing the next generation of brewers is helping them make craft brews they enjoy.
While interning at various breweries she said she mostly worked with “guys with big beards and plaid shirts,” but she added that she never felt she was treated differently by her coworkers.
“There was one time when an owner tried to kind of scare us and said ‘If you can’t lift 50 pounds over your head, you can’t work,’” she recalled. “So, I got a bag of malt, put it over my shoulder and put in the mill just like a guy would do.”
The future of Michigan brewing
With the 12th most breweries per capita in the United States, Michigan’s industry continues to battle for its corner of the national market, according to a 2018 study by the Brewing Association, a national not-for-profit trade network.
Shriner’s latest project has been drafting a proposal for a fermented beverage lab to present to the department of chemical engineering. The vision is to offer Michigan breweries an in-state lab where samples or raw product can be sent for analysis, adding that “the biggest problem in brewing is consistency.”
During a mash, Shriner explained, different sugars are developed. Those other sugars end up as ethanol and other byproducts. As a result, slightly different concentrations of sugars produce a different product. “Understanding why their product was consistent often has to do with more sophisticated equipment, which they don’t want to invest in,” she said.
Even in-house, researchers are sending wheat and barley samples to out-of-state labs for analysis, a transaction that can cost around $250 per sample. The lab will not only give students experience testing raw materials, but Shriner hopes it will also save the department money and reduce its environmental impact with less shipping.
“Kris had this idea for a while and always mentioned it, so I’m trying to see it through,” she said.
All Michigan everything
There are signs of rising demand for “all-Michigan beers.” Shriner noted the buzz surrounding the construction of a $100 million facility to process barley and malt in Litchfield, Michigan. Hop Growers of American cited the state as having the largest hop production outside the Pacific Northwest.
At the front of that culture shift is Emily Geiger, 30, who founded her yeast extraction and quality control company, Craft Cultures, when she was 23.
While Geiger was living in Houghton, Michigan, a fellow brewer knew of her talents for trapping the wild organism and tipped her off to a nearby “yeasty” smelling beach. Along the white sands of Eagle River, Geiger set up mason jars, filled with sterile wort and covered by cheese cloth, and waited.
“Most of the traps — when they come back, there are communities of microorganisms. Bacteria, yeast and fungus,” Geiger said. “But this one site was just yeast. I still don’t know why to this day.”
Eagle River Ale Yeast was born. Created in 2013, Eagle River Ale Yeast, is one of seven “indigenous Michigan” yeasts available on craftcultures.com and is still Geiger’s best seller.
The Michigan Tech graduate discovered the potential of the liquid yeast market while working as a chemist at Keweenaw Brewing Co.’s labs in Houghton. She said it took her eight months to learn how to extract, test and brew yeast. Once she learned, she looked at a file containing receipts from past purchases the lab had made from yeast brewers on the West Coast. She said “shipping alone was around $300.”
“I started doing market research and realized there was nowhere in the Midwest, east of the Mississippi for breweries to buy yeast from,” she said.
Now, Geiger has clientele in Wisconsin, Northern Michigan as well as Howell, Flint, South Lyon and Grand Rapids, to name a few.
Breweries and distilleries from across the state send her samples of crops grown nearby. Geiger will run several preliminary tests on ethanol tolerance and spot lingering bacteria until it’s ready to brew. The result is a signature yeast exclusively owned by the brewery, called “proprietary yeast.”
“A lot of people are referring to it as the Michigan terroir,” she said, referring to the winemaking term for the environment in which a wine originates. “The beer styles don’t really fall under traditional beer categories, which some brewers view as a flaw. But the beer market is oversaturated, so it’s really fun to come up with new flavors and characteristics that represent Michigan.”
Noting there is a divide between “traditional brewers” and those seeking unique yeast strains, Geiger said the craft brewing industry “is a great to be a part of because everyone is so collaborative,” — a welcome breath of fresh air after navigating the “competitive” world of academia.
Geiger is part of a statewide collective called Fermenta, a collective encouraging women to pursue education and careers in the fermented beverage industry through workshops and scholarships.
In the past, Geiger has donated yeast to Fermenta’s regular “Collaboration Beer Days.”
Since its inception in 2014, Fermenta hosts Collaboration Beer Days every year where selected breweries serve as public laboratories for beer enthusiasts to meet up, mingle and design a signature recipe together. Fermenta spokeswoman Emily Hengstebeck said International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day always draws the largest crowd.
“It’s everyone, not just women, coming together,” she said. “Plus, we get to come back in a month to try the beer and discuss what worked. Before you know it, you know these people for two to three months and it goes on from there.”
Hengstebeck said she didn’t start drinking alcohol until she was 21 years old. Her interest in craft brewing culture stemmed from frequent “up north” trips with her parents, which usually included stopping at breweries.
At 25, she moved to Petoskey to work as a pub tender at Beards Brewery. Shortly after learned about Fermenta.
Upon meeting co-founder Pauline Krueger, sales director at Shorts Brewery, Hengstebeck became the “number one Fermenta fan girl. I walked right up to her and I was like, ‘we are going to be good friends,’” Hengstebeck said.
The group served Hengstebeck as a pathway to advancing in the industry. She said she used to travel to craft breweries around the state as a hobby, but it’s now her job as the sales director at Beards Brewery.
“It’s easy to say that craft culture is a man’s world,” Hengstebeck said. But that’s a relatively recent development. “Women were the first brewers. They were the ones that kept the house, did all the cooking and became the first chemists who made these volatile beverages that we can drink for fun.”
In 2007, Tiffany Davidson graduated from Central Michigan University with a bachelor of science degree, having studied the roles of European women and spirituality during medieval times.
“Some of these women just happened to make their own beer, too,” she said. “I thought, ‘if they can do that, why can’t I?’”
Her adventures in homebrewing started in 2012 with a “Mr. Beer Kit” her wife bought her as a Christmas gift. Then she started seeking out all-grain recipes used by the medieval brewers and alewives she had been reading about.
“Women’s roles changed, and the industry that was theirs was taken away by men. Some women were even branded as witches. Groups like Fermenta serve as the support system to help encourage and educate the brewers of today and tomorrow.”
Eventually, Davidson applied for a scholarship through Fermenta and attended her first “beer camp.” She has since won two scholarships from the group and earned a Certificate in Fermentation Science from CMU last year.
Now, Davidson lives in Lansing and works as a brewer and regulatory and safety manager for Old Nation Brewery in Williamston. She echoed Geiger and Shriner’s observations on the craft brewing culture in Michigan.
“I’m very inspired by the diversity that is starting to show in the industry,” Davidson said. “More individuals across the gender spectrum, of different sexualities, races, religions and spiritualties are becoming part of this industry here in Michigan. It’s amazing to see the growth.”
Hengstebeck said that the role of Fermenta is to raise awareness about opportunities for women through partnerships instead of “petitions.”
“If we can increase awareness for women in the craft work place, or any work place, I think we’ve lived out our mission of craft scholarship and education.”