Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Fearless Sarah Brews Fearless Beer

By Bennett Johnson, Writing Solutions

In the age of liberation and equality, there are few remaining career paths that are ‘women-less’. Yet the art of brewing beverage from grain, yeast and water (beer) is practiced almost exclusively by men. Even in Beervana, otherwise known as Portland, with more breweries than any other city in the world, less than a handful of brewers are women.

Don’t bother telling that fact to Sarah Billick, who recently signed on as brewer at Fearless Brewing Company in Estacada, Oregon. She thinks she has the perfect job. Sarah, a small town girl descended from pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail, didn’t want to spend her days working at a desk job. Raised in the agricultural and logging community of Paisley, Oregon, Sarah could only see herself in a job that was physically active while providing an outlet for her aptitude in science and math.
“This job offers a lot,” claims Sarah. “It requires mechanical knowledge, math, chemistry, creativity and lots of physical activity. I never get bored.”

Sarah, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Food Science with an option in Fermentation Science from Oregon State University, first became interested in food science while participating in Future For Agriculture (formerly known as Future Farmers of America). Her club took fourth place in the national FFA food science competition, and that experience set the stage for her blossoming interest in all things that ferment.

In college, Sarah originally majored in math, expecting to become an engineer. For fun she joined OSU’s Food Fermentation Club where she and other club members learned to make beer on the college’s two barrel brewing system. “We couldn’t actually ferment the beer to drink on campus,” said Sarah. “So we brought our own personal carboys and filled them with the wort (the liquid produced after grain is steeped in water) and added the yeast at home. It was like home-brewing without the hassle.”
That summer, Sarah started experimenting and creating home-brewed beer on her own. Before long she was hooked and switched her major to Fermentation Science, a degree offered through the OSU Department of Agriculture. Though Sarah is also qualified in wine fermentation, she is a devoted fan of craft beers and prefers working with grain over grapes.

After graduation, Sarah was accepted to the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX), which is a program jointly sponsored by the United States and Germany to provide exposure to career opportunities for young professionals from both nations. The program involves language instruction, academic preparation and on-the-job-training for German and American youth between the ages of 18 and 25, and pays nearly all of the costs involved. “It was an awesome opportunity,” said Sarah.

Sarah lived with German families while learning the language and studying brewing theory at Technical University Munich Weihanstephan, a college that is sponsored by the famed Weihanstephan Brewery, the oldest brewery in the world. She then interned at Isarbrau Brewery, just outside of Munich. “They gave me free lunch every day,” said Sarah, “as well as all the beer I could drink and a free keg at the end of the internship. I threw a going away party with the keg.”
After completing the exchange program, Sarah returned to Paisley hoping to find a job brewing near home or in a small town. But no one was hiring. Sarah was not to be deterred, however. She offered to work for free at a small brewery in McMinnville, and the owner accepted. Shortly afterwards she was offered a paying job as a brewer in Klamath Falls.

In March, 2009, Sarah accepted the position of Assistant Brewer at Fearless Brewing Company, working with owner/brewer Ken Johnson. Her skills were quickly evident, and she was advanced to ‘brewer’ status before long.

“Sarah is really a trooper,” said Johnson. “We were worried that she might find the job too taxing, but she said she could do it, and she does. She hauls those grain sacks around like a professional wrestler. We really enjoy having her here.” “Ken still sets the brewing schedule,” said Sarah, “but at this point I am brewing pretty much on my own.”
Johnson agrees. “As time goes on she will be more and more independent, and that gives me a chance to go out and sell beer. We are very pleased that she is with us.” In the last year Fearless Brewing Company’s market has increased west to Spirit Mountain Casino, east to Bend and south to Eugene. The brewery is best known for its signature Fearless Scottish Ale. “We have new accounts coming on board every day,” said Johnson, “and we plan to start canning beer in the spring.”
Sarah, whose long range plan is to own her own brewpub, likes her new job for all of the learning opportunities it offers. “It is not a big corporation with outside people making the decisions,” said Sarah. “Here everything is controlled by only two owners and they run a pretty tight ship. I get to learn both sides at Fearless, the pub and the brewery, and observe close-up how things are done and how decisions are made.”
When asked if she had any words of wisdom for women who want to pursue a career in brewing, Sarah offered this advice: “Get out there and talk to brewers as much as possible. Ask them if you can come in and help with the brewing. Network and immerse yourself in the beer culture. The college and technical background is good experience to have. Also, join the Pink Boots Society (a national organization of women brewers). And it doesn’t hurt to lift a few weights!”

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