The Women Behind the Beer at Birdsong Brewing
The majority women-owned-and-operated brewery employs women in all stages of production and distribution
For more than a century, beer has been overwhelmingly thought of as a masculine product — made by men and for men — due in large part to early marketing campaigns that portrayed beer as the elixir of masculinity.
After Prohibition was repealed in the United States, beer was thought of as the “manly” alternative to the feminized cocktail. During World War II, advertisers framed beer as a domestic comfort for which soldiers risked their lives.
Beer marketing in postwar America played into the strict gender roles of the 1950s by creating an image of beer as a man’s drink. Women were valued as promotional vehicles and over time have become increasingly sexualized in beer advertisements as the commercial beer industry uses heteronormative sex to sell beer to men.
Today, the masculinity of beer is so ingrained in our culture that it’s perceived as a social norm; men and beer just go hand-in-hand. But that wasn’t always the case. The vast majority of ancient brewers were actually women.
From the Sumerians to the Vikings to the Egyptians, women brewed ale —and later, beer — both for religious ceremonies and as a calorie-rich, staple beverage. Fermenting was a routine household task and some women sold their brews in the marketplace.
Men only replaced women as brewers once production breweries spread across the world and industrialization picked up — in other words, once money got involved. Since then, female brewers have been trying to get back into the industry they were pushed out of, often working harder than their male counterparts to prove themselves and be faced with less opportunities.
Birdsong Brewing Company, located along North Davidson Street in Charlotte’s Optimist Park neighborhood, is proof of what history has already told us: Women can make beer — good beer. At Birdsong, that includes year-round favorites like Jalapeño Pale Ale, Paradise City IPA and Rewind Lager along with seasonal, small batch and limited release brews.
Co-owned by husband and wife, Chris and Tara Goulet, Birdsong employs women in all stages of its production and distribution, including Mikala Pratt and Andrea Frohlich, two brewers who make up half of the brewery’s four-person production team.
In a mainly male-dominated industry, Birdsong is flowing from a different tap.
A place where females thrive
Prior to opening Birdsong Brewing, Tara Goulet was managing a local bakery while her husband was working in the corporate world. Both were ready for a change and turned to their friend, Goulet’s co-worker at the bakery, Conor Robinson, who was learning how to homebrew.
The couple thought Charlotte was missing a small neighborhood brewery — Olde Mecklenburg Brewery was the only craft brewery in the city at the time — so they invited friends over to pitch a business plan and serve Robinson’s beer. That’s how Birdsong Brewing began.
With Robinson’s help, Birdsong Brewing opened in 2011 next door to NoDa Brewing’s original location on East 26th Street, where Seoul Food Meat Company is today.
Goulet said the initial idea for Birdsong was “a little taproom and to distribute some kegs to a handful of restaurants around the city.” That’s as far as they ever thought the business would go. However, the brewery quickly outgrew its first space and moved up the street to its current location at 1016 N. Davidson St. in 2016.
Goulet said they didn’t set out to hire women specifically, just whoever was the best fit for the job; in several instances those hires happened to be women. She said Birdsong’s first hire was a woman for the taproom and another as the brewery’s first salesperson, and it just kind of snowballed from there.
“I don’t know if we were attractive to women that were in the beer industry or interested in getting into the beer industry, but we definitely have just naturally, organically, been a brewery where females have just thrived,” Goulet said.
Prior to joining Birdsong three years ago, Frohlich got her start in the beer industry in Miami. She said the scene there was dominated by men and she didn’t know any women working in production, which made it difficult to break in.
While bartending at a brewery, she created her own opportunities by voicing her interest in production and showing an eagerness to learn. She also networked with bartenders and breweries in her area, which opened some doors, but not many.
“I would volunteer to just be back there like washing kegs,” Frohlich said.
A few people helped Frohlich along the way and little by little she began to gain experience, eventually assisting at the brewery and experimenting with recipes through homebrewing.
Frohlich ended up leaving Miami because there wasn’t enough room for her to grow in the industry and she wanted to get paid for her work. Hiring breweries were looking for people with real production experience, but no one was willing to offer her any.
“They didn’t specifically say male, but you’d wait a couple of weeks, and then they hire a guy with, like, 15 years experience,” Frohlich said. “No one was giving me any opportunities anymore so I had to move on.”
When Frohlich moved to Charlotte, she took a bartending job in the taproom at Birdsong Brewing, though she made it clear in her interview that her ultimate goal was to work on the other side of the glass. It wasn’t long before she was given the opportunity to dip her toes in, splitting her time between bartending and production before fully transitioning to brewing.
Frohlich said she’s noticing a shift in the industry and it’s becoming more normal to see a female brewer, which helps show others the job is an option.
Such was the case for Pratt, who had never worked in beer production prior to joining Birdsong but liked the idea of a physical job that was also creative.
“You definitely have to learn a lot of new things, and it’s definitely very physical what we do back there, but some women like that,” she said.
With only bartending experience under her belt, Pratt had to learn everything about the brewing process on the job. She said Birdsong has been a welcoming environment and the other brewers have been inviting.
“I never felt like I was a burden to anybody. They were all very willing to help and teach me everything and that’s how I got started,” Pratt said. “And here we are, almost two years later and starting to brew.”
Brewing isn’t glamorous
On a typical day at Birdsong Brewing, there are four people working in production: Frohlich, Pratt, Robinson and Jack Bannon.
“They all share pretty much all of their responsibilities back there other than brewing on the big production system,” Goulet said. “So it’s Conor, Jack and Andrea taking turns on the big system and everybody has a chance to brew on the pilot system that wants to, even outside of the production department.”
Goulet explained that the big system is 30 barrels and used for making Birdsong’s year-round staples, plus seasonal and limited releases. The pilot system is only a barrel and a half, so it’s used for one-off and experimental brews. Birdsong releases a new batch every week in the taproom on Thursdays, which means the brewers are always testing out new recipes.
Frohlich has brewed a beer with oysters, called Clustershuck Oyster Stout, and another with popcorn called Chaise Lounge — a light and refreshing cream ale with fruity, floral aromatics and a hint of toastiness from popcorn.
“I was in the kitchen popping popcorn for like eight hours,” she said. “It was so worth it.”
Last fall, Pratt and Frohlich collaborated on State of Grace Red Ale, which was dark red in color with flavors of light roast, malt and a hint of toffee.
Pratt recalled that they didn’t order the ingredients they really wanted to use in time, so they had to make due with what was on hand. Their main goal for the red ale was just to make it red.
“I think we used like five different malts,” Frohlich said. “That was quite a challenge because Conor was like, ‘It’s not gonna be red.’ And we’re like, ‘Well, watch.’”
Frohlich and Pratt said they often get told by people not in the brewing industry that their job is cool and they’re so lucky. While they agree and love what they do, they insist it’s not glamorous; there’s a lot of sweating, moving heavy hoses, squatting and bending, burning yourself and being on your feet.
“It’s like, 80% of brewing is cleaning,” Pratt said. “It’s not you come into work and you’re brewing all the time. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
Goulet gives the brewers credit for how hard they work behind the scenes.
“It’s very physically challenging,” Goulet said. “People look at it as a unique industry to be in and a unique job to have, but you know, let them come in and do it for a day and see what they think.”
While Pratt enjoys the people and the atmosphere at Birdsong, Frohlich’s passion lies in creating recipes and the scientific side of brewing.
“I find it fascinating, just the whole brewing process really. My favorite thing to do is just be out there,” Frohlich said, referring to the production area. “I call it my zen zone.”
Anyone can brew
Frohlich and Pratt say people are surprised to learn they’re brewers and not just bartenders, which shows the stigma women face working in the brewing industry.
“We need to normalize the fact that we can all make beer,” Frohlich said. “I wish that we could stop the whole [shock] reaction of ‘Oh my god, you’re a girl and you make beer?’”
“They give you the look and it’s just like, what did you want me to say? I’m just here to serve you and to please you?” Pratt added.
“They see you and they already put you in this box, like this is probably what you just do and that’s the only thing,” Frohlich said. “It’s really annoying.”
Women are often doubted for their strength and, due to the physical nature of modern-day craft brewing, are assumed to be less capable than their male counterparts. Frohlich said this stereotype, and others, are breaking down as more women join the industry, put in the work and teach others.
Goulet said it’s important that people see that it can be done — women can make beer and operate a brewery at all levels.
Goulet thinks it’s trending that way, at least in Charlotte. She’s one of a handful of women owners in Charlotte’s brewery scene, including Suzie Ford at NoDa Brewing, Rachael Hudson at Pilot Brewing, Amanda McLamb at Resident Culture, and Sarah Brigham at Sycamore Brewing, all of whom are part of a husband-and-wife team. Hudson also serves as Pilot’s head brewer.
“It is a very community-oriented industry and I think it’s welcoming because of that, and I’m optimistic that the industry will continue to shift and be more inclusive,” Goulet said.
“The stereotype is that women can’t do the job, but it can be done and we’ve been really successful,” she added. “I want those other breweries that might be not sure about bringing women on to see that it could be only good for you. You should try it.”
To any women interested in brewing, Pratt and Frohlich say just go for it. After all, as history tells us, women were involved with beer in the past, so why leave its future up to the men?
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.