Better brewing with Emma Christensen

Better brewing with Emma Christensen

Emma Christensen, a former recipe editor for Apartment Therapy's The Kitchn, caught the fermentation bug after brewing a batch of homemade ginger ale with regular old baker's yeast. Soon, she was brewing beer, kombucha, cider, kefir, sake, and even wine--all in her home kitchen. 

Hoping to bring homebrew to others' kitchens, Christensen wrote a book: True Brews, a beginner's guide to making fermented beverages. But she says she had another book in mind before she started True Brews. That book became Brew Better Beer: Learn (and Break) the Rules for Making Ales, Porters, Stouts, Lagers, and More, the most accessible guide to home brewing we've ever read. Christensen breaks down beer by style and provides basic recipes for each. Unlike most homebrew recipes, Christensen's are for 1-gallon batches, as well as the more common 5-gallon batch. 

But as anyone who's ever homebrewed understands, 5 gallons is a lot of one kind of beer. Brewing smaller batches makes it a much more manageable process that you can do on your own, without the help of a partner, in far less time than it takes to make the standard 5 gallons. 

Christensen is currently working on a book about making cider at home, which we know we'll be adding to our bookshelves as soon as it comes out.


Let's talk a little bit about breaking the rules. Stereotypes about who homebrews abound. As a woman, you're already breaking that rule.

I have to admit, I am not unaware that I'm a woman and that I homebrew. I would say I brew beer, because I love bringing beer. I'm not trying to break a stereotype or anything like that. These days, plenty of women are brewing.

It's a funny world. It is an old boy's club. I've tried to join homebrew clubs, and I've tried going on some of the homebrew forums, and I just can't hack it. I don't know if it's the male or female thing. Definitely, it takes a little while for people to understand that I'm serious about homebrewing and actually know what I'm talking about.

Despite that you've written two books about it?

I know, I know. Well, people are funny. I guess I don't know if this is necessarily a male thing. I don't want to pin it on the men, but homebrewing can feel like a club, and if you're not in the club, it’s like you're not a homebrewer.

A huge reason why I wrote Brew Better Beer...was that I wanted to get rid of the gatekeepers. I wanted to lower the barrier to entry.

It feels like there are gatekeepers sometimes. People who want to challenge you, people who want to test your knowledge and see if you're really a homebrewer, if you really know what you're talking about. And I am so not about that. That kind of conversation turns me off immediately.

A huge reason why I wrote Brew Better Beer--and I've had this book in the back of my head for a long time, even before True Brews--was that I wanted to get rid of the gatekeepers. I wanted to lower the barrier to entry.

Homebrewing is totally fun. It's not easy, but it's also not so crazy hard difficult that you can't do it at home. I just wanted to show people you don't have to go to an extreme place in order to brew some beer at home.

You can brew beer once a year if you want--and you're still a homebrewer and you can still brew good beer. You can brew beer using your pasta pot that your mom gave you. You don't need to go buy a super fancy thing. You can brew a one gallon batch. You don't have to go all crazy and brew five gallons or start your own mini brewery in your garage. You don't have to do that.

There are lots of ways to get into this and lot of ways that you can love homebrewing. Hopefully, people get that.

I was in an interview a month or two ago with a bunch of homebrewers on a homebrewing podcast. One of the guys said to me that the first thing they said about my book: "It feels like a cookbook."

That was such a funny moment to me, because I'm like, "Well, of course it's a cookbook." I've been a recipe editor for many years now. I wrote recipes for The Kitchn. I live and breathe cookbooks. This is a cookbook.

I realized that most, if not all, of the homebrewing books out there, they aren't really cookbooks. They are like manuals. They're very different. Until that interview, I hadn't made that distinction between my book and the other books on the shelf, so that was interesting. It's true. I brought cookbooks to the beer world.

There are at least 60 beer recipes in Brew Better Beers. Tell us about the process of developing them.

That year of testing was insane. Insane. I would work my full-time job, then I would take a break at five in the afternoon several times a week, and I would get a batch of beer going. While it was mashing, I would go back and finish my work, answer some emails, and then I would brew until nine or 10 at night, or until it was done.

If you want to learn really how to brew beer on an instinctive level, I challenge yourself to brew a beer a week, or more if you can.

At first, that's fun. It's like, "Dude, this is my job! I'm brewing three times a week, sometimes more." But it definitely got a little wearing after a while. That's a lot of brewing. At the same time, I learned a lot. If you want to learn really how to brew beer on an instinctive level, I challenge yourself to brew a beer a week, or more if you can. If you want to brew three beers a week, brew your way through my cookbook. You will learn a lot about beer.

It is amazing. Probably half way through testing, I would go to the homebrewing store to pick up ingredients and just have an instinctive feel. I would start to go for the pale malt, and then I would be like, "No, the Pilsner malts are what I want." Or they'd be out of some malt, and I would instinctively sub in the malt that I knew was going to be the closest. Or hops, starting to understand, if I add the hops at this point, this is what's going to happen.

Also, understanding the connections between the different styles of beer like really getting how American styles of beer grew out of British styles of beer. Understanding how the British styles of beer are all interconnected with each other, and how the American styles are all interconnected.

As exhausted as I was--I was happy as I was when I finished the testing phase--I was also a little sad, because brewing like that feels a little like learning a language. The more you practice a language, the more fluent you are. I knew I wasn't going to be practicing this language nearly as frequently as I had been for this intense period of testing, and I knew I'd lose some of that instinctive knowledge.

Do you harbor any dreams of becoming a professional brewer?

(Photo:  Danielle Tsi /courtesy of Emma Christensen)    

(Photo: Danielle Tsi/courtesy of Emma Christensen)


No, not at all. I'll never say never. You'll never know. But it's the same reason I'm not really interested in being a chef. I like to experiment and to do different things all the time.

I could maybe see being a gypsy brewer or one of these brewers who go around and do special projects. But no, I like to experiment, and there's too much pressure when you're having to brew the same thing and pay the bills and all that stuff. I'll keep it a hobby, thanks.

What do you think prevents women from getting into homebrewing beer?

Homebrewing isn't for everybody. I talk to plenty of people who just think it smells bad. They don't like it when their partners brew beer, because it makes the whole house smell like hops and grains. Personally I don't get that. I love the way it smells, but to each his own.

That's a tough question. It's a hard question to answer. Why do any stereotypes exist, and why do they get perpetuated? Right now, I feel like it's a really interesting time, because the stereotype is starting to wear away.

All sorts of women are homebrewing, and all sorts of men are homebrewing. People who you would not suspect homebrew, they are not bros. It's not just the nerd girls who want to nerd out about it, and it's not just the girls who are trying to support their boyfriends or whatever. People are really engaged with it. Homebrewing is cool now, man.

Maybe it's part of a larger, wider acceptance of DIY culture and the fact that we can do things our self at home. Part of that being the internet and blogs and all of this information that we have access to and talk about with other people online.

It's also access to ingredients. Up until maybe 10 years ago, people only ever brewed kit beers, kit brews, because you didn't have a wall of grains to choose from. You had what you had, and it was usually old and stale. It wasn't that good. Ingredients have come so far recently.

All the different kinds of hops we have now, all the different kinds of yeast that we have, it makes it much more intriguing and engaging to a lot of people. I also think it's the cultural shift overall: craft beer becoming big. Drinking craft beer is not just a guy thing anymore. Women are totally getting into it, have been for a while. That's not necessarily a super new thing, I'd say.

Everybody's been getting into it for the past 10 years or so. Getting back to cooking being a trendy thing. It sounds bad to say it's a trendy thing, but cooking being something that people do at home and enjoy and do for more than just getting dinner on the table.

All these things, I think, feed together, because beer is just another DIY project. It's just another thing to cook. It's just another reason to be in the kitchen. It's another way of preserving if you are into preserving.

You've managed to turn your love of beer and brewing into two books. What would you recommend for a fellow brewer interested in taking her love of beer to the next level?

I learned a lot by reading books. I am a total nerd, so I've got a shelf full of books. Don't look just at the beer books. There are a lot of really good beer books out there that can get as science see as you want.

I got this one that was about beer chemistry that I was like," I'm going to do it. I'm going to read the beer chemistry book," and I can't get pass to page 30. It's really hard. It's really, really scientific. Anyway, don't just look at those books. Look also at books that might inspire you. For instance, I really like the, The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart. That one is super inspiring. It's basically an encyclopedia of all the plants, fruits and vegetables, any plant, I think, that has gone into any kind of alcohol over the course of human history, and it's fascinating.

There' another one I really love called Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers. There's not a lot in there that you can just go take into the kitchen and make, but it's inspiring, and it's interesting to think about.

What would you tell someone who wants to start homebrewing before she heads to a local homebrew shop for the first time?

Honestly, if it was a friend, I would say, "Come over, and I will brew beer with you." You can see how it goes and what equipment you need, and I can help you know what to get ready for going into a homebrew store.

Other than that, I would just say do a little bit of research before you go in. As a general rule, people who work in homebrew stores are really super awesome people who do know their stuff. They're generally going to help you to figure out what you want to get.

But I think it's good to have at least an idea, like know if you want to do one gallon brews or five gallon brews. Or if you aren't sure yet, maybe have a couple of questions that you want to ask the guy at the beer store. Maybe have an idea for the first beer you want to brew. Just the style, like do you want to brew wheat beer right now, or do you want to brew an IPA?

Do some research before you head into the wild of the homebrew store. But a homebrew store is just like any other store. The first time you go, it's going to feel weird and intimidating. It's a store like no other. But one trip is all you need, and then it feels like home. You'll never feel intimidated again.

Same with brewing. Brewing one batch is just going to feel weird and awkward, and you're not going to know what's happening the first batch of beer you brew. Every batch after that, you'll progressively learn a little more and get a little better and feel more confident.

Shop talk with the founders of Oakland's Umami Mart

Shop talk with the founders of Oakland's Umami Mart

(Photo by Myleen Hollero/Courtesy of Umami Mart)

Friends and founders of Umami Mart Yoko Kumano and Kayoko Akabori grew up in Cupertino, the California town many people first become acquainted with upon opening their first Apple product. Like Apple, good design--where looks matter as much as utility--reigns in their store.

Situated in Downtown Oakland since 2012, Umami Mart’s roots span the globe. What began as a humble blog during Kumano’s and Akabori’s post-college stints in Tokyo and New York City, respectively, soon had a thriving community of contributors penning restaurant reviews, travel tips, and recipes from around the world.

“At one point we had 30 writers who were submitting for free,” Akabori says. “They were just doing it as a hobby. Of course, we all had the time to then. We were all in our twenties. It was just sort of a fun thing.”

After six years of working in museums in New York Akabori moved back to the Bay Area, where she found work in a Spanish tapas bar. Making what she describes as “bathtub sangria” in buckets, Akabori admired the restaurant’s stunning copper bar and soon took up bartending. Burned out from the nine-to-nine culture of ad agency work in Tokyo, Kumano quit and convinced an izakaya to let her serve coffee, shochu, and sake, confounding her all-male coworkers.  

And they kept at the blog. But after doing it as a hobby for three years, they wanted more. “We asked ourselves, ‘“What should we do with Umami Mart?’” says Kumano. “It’s growing a little bit, but what can we do to…” “ make it our life?” Akabori finishes.

Both back in the Bay Area, they began to set up shop, a gorgeous and bright shop, where splendid Japanese barware like dazzling cut-glass tumblers and elegant bar spoons are displayed like precious museum artifacts. There is a marvelously curated selection of cocktail books and prints designed by one of the blog’s Copenhagen-based contributors. And in the back, an exciting bottle shop with sake, shrubs and bitters, specialty shoyu, and rare Japanese craft beers. 


What are some of the most interesting intersections happening right now in Japanese and American drinking cultures.

Yoko Kumano: We’re so into the cocktail thing. We specialize in cocktail ware from Japan, and when we started the online store in 2010 we weren’t quite sure exactly if it was going to work. We brought in about 10 products from Japan. The writer who we worked with was popular on our blog and had told us about how he’d wanted these specific pieces from Japan.

I think that was the first time I was aware that American bartenders were starting to nerd out on Japanese cocktail history and culture. The reason I think they could nerd out on this barware and the culture in Japan, is because, like a lot of things in Japan, they’ll make things over and over for decades and perfect it and tweak it a little bit. But in general, they’ll just keep doing it over and over. I think when the cocktail culture here started looking back into traditional cocktails or Pre-Prohibition style cocktails, Japan was still doing them.

Kayoko Akabori: They just never stopped. And they never stopped making the tools either.

YK: Cocktails in the States started in the same spot that the Japanese cocktails started. Here, they went in all these different directions and came back. In Japan, they just stayed in one spot. It’s the most frustrating and the most admirable thing about Japan. It’s so frustrating to see that Japanese people don’t really go out of the box--in certain ways, yes they do--but it’s one of their strengths. They perfect things and keep at it. Whereas in the States, we are very free to think outside of the box. People accept change. They’re open to many new things, but maybe not perfection. Perfection is something that in Japan people really seem to strive for.

The Japanese not only have made their products over and over, but they really fine tune the service aspect of making a cocktail and serving it to the guests. They’re very aware of that exchange between the guest and the bartender.

Maybe the negative side of this on the American openness to creativity, is a lack of understanding of what should be the standard, for something like an Old Fashioned or a Martini.

YK: One of the very very big differences between the American and Japanese cocktail cultures is the service. The Japanese not only have made their products over and over, but they really fine tune the service aspect of making a cocktail and serving it to the guests. They’re very aware of that exchange between the guest and the bartender. I think that’s a part of what the American bartenders are looking at as well when they look to Japanese cocktail culture. They’re looking at the drinks and the tools, but they’re also looking at the hospitality.

The beautiful barware that you sell in your shop seems to be a part of that. It’s part of the experience of: “I’m making a drink for you, and this is a special moment.”

KA: Exactly.

Is there a gender divide in Japanese drinking culture?

KA: Yes! Absolutely.

YK: Right now, the big thing is sparkling sake, which is being marketed to women. So you’ll see a lot of the labels are pink, pretty, or kind of elegant. And sparkling sake is lower in alcohol, around 5 percent, whereas sake in general is about 15 percent. The female market is definitely something that Japan is looking at right now especially because there are more women in the workplace, too, so they’re trying to target women who have disposable income.

Also, the craft beer movement is geared toward women in Japan. The Sapporos, the Kirins and the Santoris are very masculine. You get it in the izakaya in the big jockeys. The jockeys are a mug, like a stein. Huge. They just pour it in that. And you chug it. Whereas craft beer, you sip. Japanese craft beer is not as hoppy as American craft beer. It can be a little more fruity. They are definitely targeting women with craft beers.

What’s behind the fairly recent boom in Japanese craft beer?

KA: There was a Japanese law that said you had to produce high volumes of beer in order to be licensed to distribute it. That’s why the big four--Kirin, Sapporo, Suntory, and Asahi--had the major monopoly in beer.

The production of beer is so similar to sake that a lot of sake breweries, small township, were making beer as well, but just for their own towns. It couldn’t become widely distributed. Even now, I wouldn’t say that the microbreweries are widely distributed in Japan. We have Japanese visitors come into Umami Mart and they’re very surprised because they haven’t seen a lot of these labels that we carry in the store.

In the mid-nineties, this law was lifted. So a lot of microbreweries were able to come out and start producing more and distributing. That was a very special moment.

YK: It was really bad for the first years. Even those small brewers who were brewing for their local people. The beer wasn’t that great. And so when this law was lifted, they were trying to brew for a bigger market so they were refining it a little bit. And that probably took about 10 years. When I was living there between 2005 and 2010, it still hadn’t really caught on, again, because Japanese people are obsessed with perfection, and they knew that it wasn’t great. So it didn’t really get a lot of traction or attention or people acknowledging it was any good until around 2008 or 2009.

KA: But it’s really exciting because the craft brewers tend to be a little more revolutionary, or rogue. They’re willing to do this other, new thing. Japanese people have been making whisky since the late 1800s. They’ve perfected that. It’s really exciting for Japanese beer to be so new. These craft brewers will always be refining and making their beers better, but it’s not this 100-year-old tradition. I think it’s just a really exciting time for these brewers.

What’s the general reception to craft beers been like in Japan?

YK: I think that the younger people are definitely into it. There’s a huge craft beer festival in Yokohama every year and a lot of people go there. There are more restaurants carrying kegs of the craft brews, but in general, alcohol consumption is going down in Japan. They’re definitely looking for new markets. People are interested--definitely younger people and women--but it’s still very niche, because of those four very large breweries. They’re like our Budweiser. Most of the country is still drinking those big four beers. In the cities, people are drinking more of the craft beers. But still, whenever we go to Tokyo, you have to search to find it. There are a few pubs that specialize in craft beer, but it’s few.

The large brewers aren’t going after the craft beer movement in advertisements yet, or going out and buying them up, like what’s going on in the States?

KA: No. We’re not there yet. I think those big four will always be the big four. They have the big marketing budgets. They’re always going to be in your face, at all of the major restaurants. Everyone is always going to carry their beers.

YK: And it’s part of the culture. Toasting is kind of an obligatory thing. That’s why they have a lot of non-alcoholic beer too. Because sometimes people can’t drink, but you always want to partake in that first toast.

KA: And I think beer is the No. 1 consumed alcohol in the Japan right now, too.

What are you most excited about that’s coming out of Japan right now?

KA: We visited Niigata Beer Co. in February. Niigata is a prefecture that’s Northwest of Tokyo. The brewery was so DIY. There were no signs. There were cows in the pasture. It turns out the owner was growing his own truffles for his beer. We went inside the brewery, and they were making at least 100 different kinds of beers, not all at once, but in their rotation: blueberry, sakura--which is a Japanese plum--wasabi, yuzu. They make all sorts of flavors. It was very ambitious. I really admired their spirit, and the master brewer was this young guy in this probably early 30s.

Why do you see so many sake breweries also making craft beer in Japan?

YK: Sake is made very similarly to beer. You start with a grain and then you turn that into sugar, and you turn that into alcohol, which is very similar to how beer is made. So a lot of the equipment is similar and so is a lot of the knowledge and technique.

YK: Sake uses yeast and koji, which is a mold and what makes sake unique from beer. The mold and the yeast work together to ferment the sugars into alcohol. In that sense, sake is much closer to beer than it is to wine, because wine just starts with the sugar and you turn that into alcohol. With beer and sake you start with the grain and have to turn that into sugars. So you will see a lot of the Japanese beers being made with rice.

Sake making has a reputation for being very difficult to master. Is it much harder to brew sake than it is to brew beer?

YK: I think that’s because sake is expected to be so refined. You can make sake, but it’s not going to be that great. And the Japanese have been making it for about 500 years, so the expectations are very high. In Japan, people who drink beer maybe have a wider range of what they think it should taste like. With beer that range is wide, but with sake there’s a much slimmer margin of forgiveness.

What should someone interested in drinking sake for the first time think about when selecting a bottle?

YK: Like with anything—beer, wine, or whatever—just buy a few bottles. Try them out side by side. People will tell you what they think is good and bad. But when it comes down to it, it’s really about you tasting at least 3 or 4 back-to-back and making that decision for yourself.

You could choose by the label, you could choose by the type but, again, Person A may like this type of wine, but Person B might like this type of wine. It’s just the same with sake. Tasting and taking notes is the best way to pinpoint what you like.

There is a lot of information out there that cautions you against “this” or “that”: “Don’t drink American sake” or “Don’t drink hot sake” or “Avoid an unfiltered”. There’s some information out there that’s...

KA: It’s biased.

YK: Absolutely, it’s biased. So I say, go out there, and just try it.

Tracy Hurst: Chicago's Leading Lady of Lager (Part 2)

Tracy Hurst: Chicago's Leading Lady of Lager (Part 2)

This is the second in a two-part interview with Tracy Hurst, co-founder and president of Metropolitan Brewing in Chicago. She reflects on whether craft beer has a sexism problem and why her brewery helps newer ones get off the ground.

[Read the first half of the interview, where Tracy talks about how she got her start in craft beer and why the brewery she founded with her then-husband Doug Hurst is focused on making lagers.] 

Let’s talk about sexism in craft beer. There was a Slate article this summer claiming, “Craft Brewing Has a Sexism Problem.” As a woman in craft beer, do you think that’s true?

I downplay being a woman in beer because I think the less attention we draw to it, the more normal it will seem. And I want people to recognize me for my work, not the fact that I’m a woman doing my work. That said, sexism is everywhere. And craft beer may have enjoyed a time when it was so esoteric that anyone who was involved in it was unique, whether male or female. Now that it’s more mainstream, the conversation is valid again.

The conversation is more relevant because the crowd in craft beer is getting bigger. By the numbers, we’re going to have more diversity. More sexism. More assholes, as it were.

I will tell you that day to day, I don’t experience a lot of sexism among my peer group, or among my colleagues. Occasionally, I’m downstate selling beer, and I’ll get a guy looking me up and down and going, “You own a brewery?” And I’m like, “Yeah, they let me drive a car, too!”

There’s also these two robots we use to pour beer. I built them. Doug did some of it, but I shopped for all the parts and put them together.

At a beer fest I was at recently, there was a lot of “Oh, these robots are cool! Who made these?” “I did.” “You did?” And I wanted to look at them and say, “Why does that surprise you? Women do use tools.” So, I feel like it’s a valid conversation, but it’s a valid conversation over all: How do we treat women in our culture, bottom line?

In beer, for someone like me who’s been involved in it for so long, it does suck a little more, because this was my safe haven, where I could just be and do my thing and not let the fact that I’m a woman play into it.

What about the idea of “One person’s sexy is another person's sexism”? Do you think that’s true, or is there actually a line that shouldn’t be crossed?

I’m not sure. It’s a really good question. We should talk about it. What is sexist? What is sexy? And where does it come into play when it comes to marketing beer? Beer is an adult beverage, so we should be able to play with adult themes. But I think we have a special voice here. We should make sure we use our power for good and question these tropes that we’re putting out there and maybe police ourselves a little better.

Beer draws a certain personality, a sense of DIY, personal power, dedication to what you do, passion. I think we respond to that in our industry, man or women.

You’ve discussed this topic on The Beer Temple Insiders Roundtable podcast. Your sort of rallying cry to your fellow panelists was, “We in craft beer should be better than this.”

We’re all intelligent people doing remarkable work. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard, and not just bow down to fart humor.

Right now there’s a higher noise to signal ratio of sexism, but I still say, women get jobs in breweries and no one really bats an eye. In the brewing world, if you can do the work, you get the job. So I’m not sure if there’s more or less sexism in craft beer, but we should keep an eye out for it, keep an ear to the ground.

Have you ever felt pressured to act like “one of the guys”? Or do you think that as a woman you’ve had to carve out a space that’s not so soaked in testosterone?

I have no choice but to be myself. I’ve never really been a social chameleon. So, I just fit in with the people I fit in with, male or female.

Beer draws a certain personality, a sense of DIY, personal power, dedication to what you do, passion. I think we respond to that in our industry, man or women.

There’s some part of the larger adult beverages narrative that still says “Beer is for dudes. Sweet drinks are for ladies." What's that about?

Beer was not marketed to women in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. It’s a chicken and egg thing. Did women not drink beer and so it wasn’t marketed to them or did beer companies choose not to market to women out of some ’50s and ’60s sexism. It’s probably a little of both.

You can take it a step further. Beer was marketed as anti-woman: women in bikinis, women with unattainable body shapes, women acting stupid while men drank beer. That’s not gonna get us to buy beer. That’s why when craft beer came around, because it was so weird, and only crazy people in their kitchens did it, women could be a part of it, and it would go unnoticed. Which is ironic, beer was originally brewed by women.

Are there more roles for women by virtue of the fact that craft beer has exploded in recent years, or are there just more women interested in getting involved?

I don’t think the roles have changed. I think we just come in and get the jobs. But I think the roles are the same. Selling beer is the same. Making beer is the same. Running a brewery is the same. I think it’s just people, men or women, stepping up to do the job.

You’re well-known for fostering a collaborative spirit among Chicago craft breweries and have been considered a bit of a “den mother” to up-and-coming breweries. Is that a personal thing or do you think it makes good business sense?

Both. What drew me to the industry was that attitude, that working together, working toward a better—I hate to use the word product, when talking about beer, but yeah—product. That is attractive to me, because I’ve never really been competitive.

I think because we started up when we did kind of pushed me into that position by default. And also the fact that I’m outspoken and opinionated and I have very definite ideas of what craft beer is and what I want to keep alive in craft beer, I use my voice to say these things. The bottom line is, I will work with just about anybody to help craft beer be better.

Another accident of being a lager brewery and not having a lot of money, is that we’ve had to work with a lot of interns, especially in the beginning because we weren’t able to pay anybody. So while they weren’t getting financial compensation, their compensation was being connected.  Everyone who has come through the brewery who’s wanted to stay in the industry now owns a brewery or works in a brewery at this point. Our track record is strong for someone who wants to come in and put in some time.

Being the first brewery to open up in Chicago in 10 years, we learned a lot. Somehow, we ended up paving the way for a lot of people. I don’t really say that because I want credit for it, but we had to face some unique challenges. I have the knots and bruises to prove it, and I’m willing to share what I've learned

So, I’m honored that people see me that way, and I’m very proud of my work and I will continue to live up to those expectations as best as I can.

What advice do you have for fellow drinking women interested in working in craft beer?

Do your homework. Take some Siebel classes, or go to another school. Siebel comes to mind because they’re here in Chicago. Read books, and get involved. Volunteer at things.

Get your face out there, be known as someone in beer. And then keep your ear to the ground. We had someone on our staff recently leave for another opportunity. Half a dozen people around the city knew about it right away and started contacting us. So pay attention to what’s going on, and be active, be out there. Be cool. Go to events. Drink the beer and talk to brewers, be connected, have fun. DW

Tracy Hurst: Chicago's Leading Lady of Lager

Tracy Hurst: Chicago's Leading Lady of Lager

If someone had made an Eater-style heat map of Chicago's craft breweries in 2005, only one spot would show up: Goose Island. Ten years later, as if someone had flown over the area and dumped buckets of craft beer makers and purveyors, hundreds of breweries and bottle shops now dot the map. 

But if someone were to make a heat map of Chicago craft breweries specializing in lager, only one spot would show up: Metropolitan Brewing, the lager-based production facility Tracy Hurst started in 2007 with her then-husband Doug Hurst.

Tracy, an experienced business-owner with a penchant for creative projects, and Doug, a home brewer schooled at Chicago’s Siebel Institute, were among the first to see an opportunity for craft beer in the Midwestern metropolis in the early 2000s. They were the only ones to fully embrace the region’s German immigrant heritage and their lager-loving ways.

Lager is the kind of beer that tastes most like beer, Tracy has said. Fermented at lower temperatures, the flavors are pure and clean, deriving primarily from the malts and hops in the brew, rather than the various flavors yeasts can create when fermenting at higher temperatures. The result is something bready or biscuity, and to many, what you think of when you think of beer. (Because ales don’t require such specific temperature control and typically ferment faster, they’re what most craft brewers tend toward.)

In the first installment of a two-part interview, Tracy, who begins every day with meditation and yoga, reflects on what drew her to the craft beer community and how beer is both poison and pleasure. In part 2, she talks about whether or not sexism exists in craft beer and Metropolitan’s role in helping newer breweries get off the ground. 

“I’m outspoken and opinionated and I have very definite ideas of what craft beer is and what I want to keep alive in craft beer, so I use my voice to say these things,” Hurst says. “The bottom line is, I will work with just about anyone to help craft beer be better.” 

What’s Metropolitan’s origin story? 

I founded the brewery with my then-husband Doug Hurst in 2007. We met when I was in my early 20s and he was already home brewing at that point. We moved around the country together, then ended up in Chicago where he went to the Siebel Institute.

I had been running businesses of my own, and actually I was working on a project of my own when he decided to go to the Siebel Institute. That was in 2004 and 2005. He went to Germany, studied, came back, thought about getting a job, couldn’t. Brewing jobs were hard to get, they didn’t pay well, and there were no benefits. He was kicking around the idea of starting a brewery, so I said, “You know what? Fuck it. Start a brewery. What else are you going to do with your time?” 

I love beer. I’ve been a beer consumer for half my life at this point, and, you know, it seemed like a good idea to me. We’d done a lot of beer travel together, met lots of great people, and I thought, of all industries to be in, this is a great one. The people are great. And the foundations of it—of being homegrown and regionally focused—really appeal to me.

Around the time you were starting Metropolitan was when the local food movement was really gaining momentum. 

I agree. In Chicago, we just had Goose Island for craft beer. We looked around and thought, “Everybody in the country and around the world ships their beer here. We’ve always had a great supply of beer and variety of beer thanks to the fact that we’re centrally located. Why not brew beer here in Chicago?”

We did get a lot of flack for opening in Chicago. The stereotype was that Chicagoans don’t like decent beer. And we called bullshit on that from Day 1. We like good everything: sports, art, photography, theater, music, food, cocktails. The list goes on. Of course we’re gonna like good beer. 

And now, Chicago is often listed as one of the best food towns in the country, even the world.

I would agree. And we’re becoming one of the best beer cultures in the country as well.

How involved are you in the brewing process at Metropolitan? 

I did brew in the beginning, but I wasn’t really a brewer before that. When Doug was home brewing, it was his thing. I brewed when we were forming the business so I could learn, and then because it was just Doug and I doing all the work in the beginning. I sort of phased into and out of brewing itself, even though I’m a very active member of the brewing community. Now I don’t brew any more. Now I run the brewery and I drink a lot of beer. In fact, it’s my job to drink beer with other people. Which means my life is pretty awesome.

Your path to becoming the head of a craft brewery included a lot of dabbling in other fields, first. 

I like to call it being bohemian.

I figure, as a woman born into privilege the way I was, it’s up to me to take advantage of my situation ... I feel like I owe it to everyone in the world who can’t live this kind of lifestyle.

You were even a bellydancer, right?

My first degree is in psychology. I worked in that arena for a while, in group homes and residential treatment with young people—young criminals, actually—which has a souring effect on a person.

So I went back to school in upstate New York for photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology. I did photography for a long time. I had a studio. When I quit smoking cigarettes, I put on weight and wanted to lose it. I’ve always been physically active, but in a fun away. Never like a runner. No offense to the runners. I’m sure it’s fun. But for me it’s not fun. So, I started studying bellydance with a mentor here in Chicago, studied with her for two years, and she started giving me work. So next thing I know I went professional. Mostly I did traditional gigs dancing for Arabic families, weddings, and clubs. Stuff like that. 

I’ve kind of followed my heart and found a way to make money doing what I was doing. It’s never a great living. You’re always counting your pennies and wondering where your next check is going to come from, but to me that was worth it. I’d had day jobs before, and I did fine, and I made good money. But I was always miserable. I’d rather be poor and chasing my dream. 

I figure, as a woman born into privilege the way I was, it’s up to me to take advantage of my situation. So instead of taking the easy road, I’ve always tried to do something that really meant something to me. I feel like I owe it to everyone in the world who can’t live this kind of lifestyle. 

I’m an educated person. I can make money in a lot of different ways. I’m sure we’ve all been told we’re really good at something we don’t really want to do. I always listened to myself in terms of what makes happy on a day-to-day basis.

Why do you think Metropolitan is what “stuck” for you?

I’ve got some other things that I think about, but this is it for me. This is what I’ve dedicated most of my career and personal development to, so it’s gonna stick around for a while.

Really it wasn’t opening a brewery, per se, it was about opening a small business with someone, doing something unique, and entering a community of people I really liked--and still do.

That unique thing you’re doing is brewing lagers, and not the ales that we’re more used to seeing from craft breweries. Is there a special place for lagers in the hearts of Midwestern beer drinkers?

We had a lot of German immigration here in the Midwest--along the lake, here in Chicago and Milwaukee--and these folks brought lager beer with them. So the background is there. Also, lagers are the most consumed beer in the world, so even though American craft beer is ale heavy, that’s not indicative of what the rest of the planet does. 

We’ve known people love lagers. Lagers have been making people happy for centuries, so of course they’re going to do well here. Even if it’s not right now, it will develop into that. Plus, differentiation is critical. You’re not finding anyone else making lagers, so we’re holding out 7 years in.

Because we make lagers but price them as ales, we rely on volume. So in order to make our business profitable, we have to sell a little bit more. That’s a lot of pressure sometimes because teaching people about lagers is challenging. But it’s taking hold. We have faith in it. Bottom line, we have faith in what we do and we’re really good at it. 

It’s so funny because everyone says you drink lager in the summer when you’re mowing your lawn. OK, first of all, we live in the fucking city. Nobody is mowing their lawn. So just chill out with that. Secondly, we make killer lagers in the winter to prove a point. Our Oktoberfest, our Schwartzbier, and our Doppelbock are absolutely on point, good beers. They’re hard to even keep it on the shelves. That’s our point: lagers are year-round beers. 

Humans have been searching for a way to catch a buzz ever since we crawled out of the swamp.

Did your upbringing have an effect on how you approach drinking as an adult?

Both of my parents drank beer, but my memories reside with drinking my dad’s beer, and he drank PBR. This was 30-odd years ago. So my earliest experiences were stealing sips of his beer—and liking it. I believe PBR was craft-made at the time, and not cut with corn, so it was probably a better experience than drinking it now.

I grew up around alcohol, in a good way and a bad way. We have alcoholism in our family, for sure, but it was also a part of celebrations. My family would sit around and play cards together, and drink cocktails and drink beer. So I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with drinking. Even though I had some ugly moments with my family and the prevalence of alcoholism, by and large the experience was quite positive. 

And it makes sense. Humans have been searching for a way to catch a buzz ever since we crawled out of the swamp. Enhancing our experience of daily life is a part of what we’ve done forever. To me, it seems natural. You can hurt yourself with myriad things in the world. Alcohol just happens to be one of those things really interwoven into our social fabric.

Health matters to you. You’re vegan and regularly practice yoga. How does that rub against your job running a craft brewery?

I think that in an industry in which you make and consume something that is at it’s core, poison, no matter how interwoven into American culture it is, you have to recognize that. 

If you look at my team, you can tell they all take good care of themselves. One plays hockey. One weight lifts. Our head brewer is very active and cooks a lot of his own food. 

I really hope that the people getting involved in our community take good care of themselves and make good decisions because it would be so easy for someone to point at us and say, “See this is what alcohol does.” If we mitigate the damage alcohol can cause and make good decisions, we’ll continue to put our message forward. 

I take good care of myself, because I’m a hedonist. And at any point, I can drink enough beer to feel like shit, but I want to feel good all the time. I think as I move on in my career and become more public, I might take on a little bit more of that responsibility, talking to people about taking good care of themselves and being healthy, being active, using your body and using your mind. When your mind and your body are sharp, you can do more good work. You can be more innovative, and you can do your job better and further craft beer. DW