Hop Goddesses

Karen Hertz, Betsy Lay, and Tiffany Fixter joined the craft brewing movement in Denver for one reason—to make excellent beer. How they wound up busting into a boys’ club, and defying their critics, in the process…

Women brewers
Photo by Jeff Nelson

It’s safe to say that when Karen Hertz founded Holidaily Brewing Co. in 2016, after 10 years at Coors and countless hours tinkering with her own beer recipes, she already knew her way around a bag of barley and a fermentation tank. A decade in the industry had taught her just about everything there was to know about beer—how to make it, how to market it, how to sell it. Still, when Holidaily launched, people were surprised to learn that Hertz’s husband wasn’t part of the venture—either as a co-owner, a brewmaster, or as the brains behind the whole operation. “It’s just one more reason to prove I can do this, a little chip on my shoulder,” Hertz says.

In the beer industry, where men vastly outnumber women as business owners and head brewers, Hertz’s story is far from unusual. “The pressure of being a female in the industry is a little bit different,” she says. “You really have to know what you’re talking about. You have to know the most of anybody in the room.” But, thanks to Holidaily, Hertz has been kicking ass and taking names in a male-dominated field— and she’s not alone.

In our beer-loving state, and across the country, women have begun reclaiming their historical role in beer making. From the dawn of civilized brewing (around 7000 B.C.) all the way up to about 150 years ago, beermaking was a female-dominated field. While men were out hunting, women were gathering the grain that could be turned into beer (or bread, for that matter). The oldest existing beer recipe, which dates to ancient Mesopotamia, is part of a hymn to the Sumerian goddess of brewing, Nikasi. Even in Norse society, Vikings ceded the task of brewing to their women. But that all changed when brewing turned into a business in the 19th century. And by 2014, a Stanford University study found that of the 1,700 breweries surveyed, only 4 percent had a woman as the head brewer or brewmaster—despite the fact that more than 30 percent of all American beer was being consumed by women.

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Today, Hertz concedes that “When I walk into a room of all brewers, I’m one of the only ones without a beard.” But there is definitely a shift in the air. In Colorado alone, Kim Jordan is co-founder and CEO at New Belgium; women co-own such breweries as Odell, Strange Craft, Black Sky, and Alternation; and Hertz’s brewery, Holidaily, is one of three in metro Denver (alongside Brewability Lab in Stapleton and Lady Justice Brewing in the Highlands) owned solely by women.

Each of the three has its own unique tale, but they all share some striking plot points: guts, clever problem-solving, a dash of madness, and an abiding devotion to the quality of their brews. “The beer has to be really good,” says Betsy Lay, one of the co-owners at Lady Justice Brewing. “We certainly don’t want any naysayers at festivals to taste our beer, think it’s bad, and say that’s because we’re women brewers.”

Hertz, a survivor of both melanoma and thyroid cancer, got into brewing for personal reasons: When she started drinking gluten-free beer as part of her recovery, she quickly found that “it was all terrible.” So she learned how to make her own. “The gluten-free thing is what really drove me to figure it out; I started homebrewing because I wanted to make good beer.” Her passion for brewing slowly evolved into a homegrown business—one aided by the fact that in Colorado, it’s legal to distribute your own beer. “We started in Whole Foods in Boulder, and then I began knocking on doors—liquor stores and restaurants, adding accounts.” Soon Holidaily will have a 600-barrel capacity, and it’s the only 100 percent gluten-free brewery in the state.

Lady Justice’s story is equally dramatic: With $20,000 secured through an Indigogo campaign, Lay set up shop in a 300-squarefoot room in Mountain View with her business partners, Kate Power and Jen Cuesta. Because the space was too small for a taproom, they compensated by inventing a communitysupported brewery membership model, much like a CSA, in which customers paid a fee and stopped by once a month to pick up their beer, with all profits over cost donated to Colorado organizations that support females. Lady Justice finally moved into a new taproom space last fall but it remains as committed as ever to its founding community. “Our members have been such an integral part of us from the beginning,” Lay says, “so we brew our taproom beer but we also brew beer exclusive to our members.”

As for Brewability Lab, Tiffany Fixter, a former special education teacher, got into the business after deciding to teach her students, adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, how to home brew. After buying an older brewery, fixing it up, and rebranding, today she uses a model never before tried in the U.S.: She hires disabled employees to help make and serve her beer. It hasn’t been without its challenges. “There are people who are not happy because they don’t think that people with these disabilities should be around alcohol, so I’ve gotten some backlash,” she says. “But I also see a lot of customers have an ‘aha’ moment when they realize, ‘I used to bully these kinds of people, and now they’re my bartender.’ They see my employees in a whole different light, and I’ve seen customers drop to their knees and start crying.” (Fixter, aiming to duplicate the success of Brewability, just opened a pizza parlor in Cherry Creek called Pizzability that also employs adults with disabilities and—of course—serves beer from its sister company.)

All three breweries are thriving, just as beer-focused community interest groups, organized by and for women, are growing. There are currently dozens of clubs operating in Colorado for women who appreciate beer—from Barley’s Angels, which promotes craft beer education, to the Pink Boots Society, a group that advocates for women working in the brewing industry.

The upsurge in female interest makes sense. “Women have been a missed demographic in the craft beer market,” says Laura Bruns, who coowns Factotum Brewhouse in Sunnyside with her brother Christopher and hosts women-only educational events, including brewery tours, where she teaches women how to use terms like ABV and IBU and how to pair beer with food. “From a business standpoint, it’s just plain stupid to not reach out to this demographic.”

Though, as Lay points out, the scene can still be a bit of a boys’ club— “We constantly get guys trying to help fix a problem. If a keg is pouring foamy, they’ll assume we don’t know how to do it”—she, along with Hertz and Fixter, have been successful because they know beer, they know how to run a business, and they remain fiercely, maybe obsessively, devoted to their work. Next summer, Fixter plans to sell both of her houses (one in Denver, one in Kansas City) and move into her brewery full-time.

“I guess,” she says, laughing but not joking, “you could say I’m pretty dedicated.”