Mary McGinn trudges up to Orlando Brewing's chain link gate. She produces a jangle-y keyring from her satchel, and after a brief struggle with the padlock, rolls the hulking thing open.
"Well, it's go time," McGinn says.
It's 7:30 a.m. and the cool October sun is just breaking, casting a low yellow glow across the brewery's riveted exterior. It's the kind of crisp fall morning that portends a dandy of an afternoon sipping beers on a swell porch or patio somewhere.
And McGinn and I are here – why else? – to talk about beer. Particularly, this morning's brew: the third and final run of Orlando Brewing's Girl Stout. It's a dry, peppermint-chocolate stout that bears more than a passing likeness to a Girl Scout cookie you may have tried once or twice.
Girl Stout's also the most popular entry in the Babes Brew series, featuring beers crafted start to finish by Orlando Brewing's deep and talented female staff. Marketing, public relations, graphic design, community outreach and, of course, brewing – they tackle it all. McGinn, for instance, runs the brewery's PR and serves behind the tasting room bar. But today, McGinn's the eponymous "babe." That's part of the concept, set by former brewery operations manager/proto-Babe Megan Cheek and sustained under current taproom manager Crystal Jones: A female Orlando Brewing employee must participate while a Babes Brew beer is, well, brewed.
"I'd never brewed anything before sitting on the Babes Brews, and now I absolutely love it," McGinn says. "The smells during the brews – it's like fresh-baked bread. In the early morning, there's nothing better."
We enter the brewery, where the brewmaster, Graeme Lay, has begun the mash. That aroma of barley and malt, just as she described, fills the air. McGinn sits at a card table-turned-desk by the door, retrieving the brew's ingredient list from a drift of charts and manifests before her. She'll need sacks of peppermint and two-row barley, caramel galore, a potpourri of hops and a whole mess of chocolate.
"Of all the Babes Brews I've been on, Girl Stout is definitely my favorite," McGinn says. "It's a great beer, of course, but it's also sentimental for me. I was a Girl Scout growing up. I would sell those cookies door to door. And I know many of our customers feel the same way."
Babes Brew releases have become some of Orlando Brewing's most anticipated events. And "events" – connoting occasions, happenings – is the appropriate word, especially for Girl Stout. The first batch tapped last year became the brewery's fastest-selling beer ever.
Cheek dreamt up Babes Brew during her time overseeing daily brewing operations – ordering the hops, setting the brew schedule and noticing a distinct lack of female compatriots in the brewery.
"Before Babes Brew, I was the only girl working in brewing," Cheek says. "But the other girls, serving behind the bar or in the office, would ask me questions about the brewing process, and eventually the light came on, that we needed to get them back [in the brewery]."
Cheek pitched the Babes Brew series to the other female employees, who quickly bought in. The women then spent weeks meeting off-shift, brainstorming recipes and beer names and label designs until Cheek's crew, eventually, home-brewed what would become Girl Stout. The rest is minty, malty history.
And the Babes Brew's Girl Stout arrived at a turning point in beer's history. According to the Brewers Association, women aged 18-35 now make up more than 15 percent of craft beer drinkers. A 2015 Gallup poll shows that craft beer has supplanted white wine as the libation of choice for women within that age bracket.
"It's not really surprising to me," Cheek says. "New breweries are popping up left and right. Craft beer is all over the place, and if you're around it enough, you're going to find something you like."
There's something else going on here, too. Whenever a domestic commodity or service traditionally provided or performed by women experiences an economic boom – think "artisanal" coffee or top-shelf wine, cooking and, indeed, brewing – it seems like men step in, say "We'll take it from here," and block women, intentionally or otherwise, from the most prestigious positions within that industry.
Big Beer in America certainly followed that pattern. Brewing powerhouses furnished with Busches and Coorses and Juniors and Seniors rose to prominence in the mid-19th century, dominating for a century and half what had historically been a woman-run activity.
"The first brewers in human history were women," Cheek observes. "I have a tattoo of the Mesopotamian hieroglyph for 'brewer' – and it's of a woman brewing. Throughout the Middle Ages, women owned the majority of pubs and brewed most of the beer. It's nothing new, but we do need to see more of it today."
Which we are. With craft beer, we're watching a multibillion-dollar industry's gender imbalance correct itself. Women aren't only drinking more craft beer. They're founding breweries – such as Denizen's Brewing in Washington, D.C. – taking executive positions at America's largest craft breweries – such as Christine Perich, New Belgium's ascendant CEO – and, as the Babes can attest, brewing more beer.
McGinn hands me a mesh bag of peppermint the size of a football. She and Lay are weighing the cocoa nibs and other ingredients, scooping them into mesh steeping pouches like oversized teabags to pitch into the brew. The two brewers then put on their protective eyewear and walk onto a metal platform to check the brew kettle. McGinn sticks her head in the opening, taking a deep whiff of the mash. She breaks into a smile.
On a personal level, Cheek and McGinn both say working on the Babes Brew series bestows a sense of pride in Orlando Brewing's female employees. They're not just the faces of Orlando Brewing anymore, Cheek says. They are the brewery. And they have the beer to prove it.
"After brewing the first Girl Stout, they knew everything about it. They had ownership of it," Cheek says. "Not only are the girls behind the bar pouring it and serving it to customers, but they can also say 'I brewed that, and you're drinking it right now.' It feels great."
Thirsty yet? Check out Orlando Brewing's Girl Stout release party on Saturday, Nov. 14.
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