At 21, Ashleigh Arnold had an epiphany.
Growing up in the St. Louis area, she'd been surrounded by the Budweiser family of beers but she chose to celebrate her milestone birthday with a pint of Old Courthouse Stout, a roasty, creamy ale brewed in St. Charles, Mo.
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"Once I got past knowing that not all beer tasted like Budweiser, I was hooked," says Arnold, 26, recalling the deep cocoa-coffee notes that washed over her palate that evening.
She started working at a beer-centric bar and soon was learning how to craft small-batch beers at a microbrewery.
Today Arnold works for Two Brothers Brewery in Warrenville and is among the growing number of women entering this once male-dominated world on the professional, hobbiest and enthusiast levels.
Beer brewing wasn't always a male-dominated business; actually it wasn't always a business.
In ancient times, women made ale as part of their cooking and housekeeping duties. Once brewing moved from the home and became commercialized (around 1600 in England and a century or so later in America), men took over production.
"Women were the keepers of the beer until men took over the commerce of it all," says Christine Jump, executive assistant with Portland's Rogue Ales and Spirits and director of Barley's Angels, a women-only beer appreciation group.
"It has come full circle," she said.
At the professional level, 876 women are members of the Pink Boots Society, a collective of women in the beer industry. That's up from 60 just five years ago, says Teri Fahrendorf, president and founder of the group.
"And those are just the ones we know of," she says.
Ray Daniels, instructor at Chicago's Siebel Institute, director of the Cicerone Certification Program and president of the Craft Beer Institute, supports Fahrendorf's assertion.
"Yes, there definitely seem to be more women in beer and brewing. My most recent class in the advanced brewing course at Siebel had three women in it and I have seen a lot of women in the more basic courses," Daniels says.
"We have a lot of women in the cicerone (beer sommelier) program: Two of our six master cicerones are women and many, many of the certified cicerones are women -- although we don't keep a tally by gender," he added.
So what's behind the increase? Industry insiders credit the artisan and local food movement.
"Better beer enjoyment is part of the general American trend toward enjoyment and celebration of gastronomy," Daniels says. "No longer is fast food and frozen dinners enough for us. … Today there's a huge interest in fresh, high-quality foods.
"So Americans in general are more interested in food and beverages and in exploring their unique flavors."
Julie Herz, craft beer program director at the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, echoes Daniels.
"With the advent of craft beer and the localization of beer, in the last two decades more women have gotten into the fold," Herz adds.
Because women are most often the ones doing the grocery shopping, Herz explains, they're the ones grabbing the heirloom tomatoes from the farm down the road, the chickens raised a county over and locally brewed beer. As more microbreweries and brew pubs pop up across Illinois, we in the suburbs have more opportunities to drink local.
"Women are into flavor and they like to know the producers behind the beer," Herz says. "Craft beer is re-claiming beer's place at the dinner table."
"Food and beer go hand in hand," Jump says, adding that the many flavor dimensions of craft beer make it a natural for pairing with food.
She adds cost is a factor as well in craft beer's rising popularity. Families on a budget can add a couple of great beers to the menu for a fraction of what a good bottle of wine can cost.
Still, some women are intimidated to walk into a bar and order anything besides a light beer. (According to Chicago-based trend tracker Technomic, light beer is women's top pick with craft running a close second.)
"I think for some women they feel excluded at some places; all the men with their beards and their bellies," says Lorna Juett, a 30-year-old Chicago bartender. "I know I've been talked down to (about beer); I've felt that men do not accept me as a beer connoisseur."
So in 2012, Juett started a Chicago chapter of Barley's Angels. The female-focused beer appreciation group started in Portland in 2011 and already has chapters around the world. The Chicago group boasts about 250 members.
Juett originally planned to host four gatherings a year, but the demand for beer education was so great the group now meets monthly. A tasting last summer attracted 400 women.
The meet-ups allow women to taste beers and learn what they like and don't in a nonjudgmental setting. Juett's events have focused on topics including pairing beer with cheese, chocolates and barbecue, and opening women's eyes to whiskey.
"I've always loved craft beer but know it's a men-centric business," she says. "Some girls want a place to make a mistake and feel comfortable."
When Kristen Kuchar, a Chicago-based writer, attends beer events she notices that servers tend to direct the conversation to her husband. Yet she's the one with bylines in Draft Magazine and CraftBeer.com.
She has noticed more women branching out from wine and cocktails.
"I see an increase in women ordering beer for sure," Kuchar says. "I see other girlfriends ordering beer, expanding their palates and trying something different."
For some women, fruit or fruit-flavored beers (like yeasty Belgian ales or those actually brewed with raspberries or peaches, for example) provide a transition from light beers to craft beers. Stouts -- dark, creamy beers with chocolate notes -- entice others grabbing a pint.
"Stouts surprise people; it's out of the realm of what people think of as beer," Kuchar says.
The desire to drink more of what she liked drove Eileen Uchima of Naperville to brew her own.
"I've liked beer since college and my husband needed a hobby, so 15 to 20 years ago I bought him some basic (home brewing) equipment," said Uchima, 50. "He wouldn't make mead (a honey-based beer), so I did."
Valerie Delligatti got into it for the same reason.
"I don't think Miller Lite is the worst thing ever, but most of the time I'd rather have something else," said the 25-year-old who lives in Round Lake Beach but grew up in the craft brew mecca of Portland, Ore.
"Someone told me, 'why not just make your own?' I was skeptical about my own ability, so I bought equipment with a friend and we shared it," Delligatti says.
With a day job in research and development and a mother who was a pastry chef, Delligatti says she knows the science behind brewing can be intimidating.
"Just relax and do your best," says Delligatti, who hopes to add beer judge to her resume.
Uchima encourages others through her job at Brew and Grow in Bolingbrook. She also belongs to two suburban home-brew clubs and enters her homemade beers in competitions, like the Drunk Monk Challenge held in Aurora earlier this year.
She says women approach brewing differently than men do.
"I know a lot guys who just crank out their beers; the women I know seem to put a little bit more time and thought into it," Uchima said. "Maybe women obsess about it more where men just do it."
Says Delligatti: "Women tend to have more sensitive palates; we can sense chemicals and different flavors."
Siebel Institute's Daniels says more women brewing at home follows a natural progression.
"Home production of all sorts of foods is up: bread making, pickling, barbecue, cheese making and all kinds of ethnic cooking," Daniels said. "With more women interested in beer, more want to learn about beer and eventually more want to home-brew. Home brewing leads many down the road to wanting to make beer on a commercial scale."
Arnold says Two Brothers is the third microbrewery she's worked for, and she feels like she's always been treated like one of the guys.
"I've never encountered any sexism in my career," she says. "I get yelled at just the same as a guy."
Still there are challenges that she attributes more to her size than her gender.
"A 50-barrel brew house is not built for someone who is 5-foot-6," she says, describing tall brewing tuns and hefty bags of grains. "The job is physically demanding."
So while the interest is growing among women, Fahrendorf says brewing is a popular field and one that's tough to break into professionally.
"I don't think gender parity will happen in my lifetime," she says.