Witches brew: Witch Hunt works for women's equality in craft beer

Frannie Seitz gets brewing at February's Witch Hunt brew day

Frannie Seitz gets brewing at February's Witch Hunt brew day Kurt Stafki, Surly Brewing Company

Last October, a curious coven gathered at Fair State Brewing Cooperative. Ravens circled as the witching hour approached; thick mist clouded the Northeast air. A black cat arched its back, hissing before darting across the beer garden. Stevie Nicks was probably swaying somewhere nearby.

As darkness descended and clouds obscured the full moon overhead, the group tapped a cauldron of a dark-as-midnight, bitter new brew: a powerful cascadian dark ale called The WitchHunt. Its malt had been blackened over fires fueled by the eternally suffering bodies of the damned; its bitterness came not just from a swirling spell of Cascade, Amarillo, Simcoe, and Tahoma hops, but from the collective rage of every persecuted witch.

The ABV? It was 6.66%, of course.

The witchy potion wasn’t tapped as part of a collaboration between Fair State and some niche pagan brewery in Northeast (though, the way things are going, can one be far off?). It was born from a brew day held by an organization that now calls itself Witch Hunt—a group that was, at the time, a somewhat nebulous collective of women and non-binary folx in the Midwest beer industry.

Here, we should back up a bit, because The WitchHunt actually wasn’t the first beer Witch Hunt brewed. That was Pantsuit, released on Inauguration Day 2017, an amber lager that came about when Fair State Brewing Cooperative events and education manager Sarah Williams was visiting former Thirsty Pagan head brewer Allyson Rolph at the Wisconsin brewery the preceding fall. The two got to talking about the challenges of being a woman in beer—especially if you’re a woman who wants to work in brewing.

“There’s the strange dynamic of—as a woman in the industry who’s not in production—it feels like there’s sort of a barrier,” Williams says. Actually, there’s literally a barrier: “There’s that brewery door. And sometimes it’s not comfortable to cross that threshold, for various reasons … But there are reasons that are rooted in the patriarchal status quo of our culture.”

Kurt Stafki, Surly Brewing Company

Kurt Stafki, Surly Brewing Company

Their talk resulted in the brew day for Pantsuit, for which they invited friends and women from around the area. It didn’t matter if you worked in the industry or not—Rolph made it clear that anyone was welcome. (“Actually, what she said was, ‘Any woman in the industry who’s not an asshat can come.’”)

At that first meeting at Thirsty Pagan and many times over the months following, they had a realization: This is a thing that people are responding to. Loose, informal gathering begat growing Facebook group begat more in-person meetups. There were beer shares and there were get-togethers—but there was no overarching goal, no explicitly social mission. “Just acknowledging that this space was welcome and necessary,” Williams says. They didn’t know what the collective actually was, per se—but they wanted it to be something.

So they decided to do it again, organizing a brew day for The WitchHunt—this time, at Fair State, with brewer Katie Nolan. Serendipitously, the Northeast brewery held a seminar called “Girls to the Front” just a few days later. The panel was made up of women working in assorted male-dominated industries (like production). And at the end of the day, WitchHunt brew day participants wound up asking those who were brewing beer on the other side of that imposing door how they got where they are now.

“Every one of them said: relationships,” Williams says. “That there was someone who noted my interest, was receptive to my interest, brought me on in an internship role, worked with me in XYZ way. And for all of them, those people were men. Because that’s who’s brewing. That’s where the current power lies.”

It wasn’t long after that Williams, along with Barb Gettel (co-founder of the Northeast Beer Association, former “maker of parties” at NorthGate Brewing) and Rose Picklo (“aspiring yeast whisperer”), opted to formalize their organization—and thus, Witch Hunt was born.

Adopting the moniker they bestowed upon their second beer, they officially created a group dedicated to educating and advocating on behalf of the industry’s women and non-binary members. They founded a 501c3, and they held another brew day last month at Surly’s Brooklyn Center brewery. They’ll release their latest—a dry-hopped tart ale called The Familiar—in the Surly taproom on Thursday, March 8, for International Women’s Day.

Williams notes that, while technically formalized, Witch Hunt is a responsive project. They’re crowdsourcing suggestions from members of their admittedly ambiguous group, asking questions like “What is it about this that you connect to?” and then filtering those conversations down as though they were crisp, clear-finishing lagers.

One thing that seems certain: Phase one for Witch Hunt will be educational opportunities, the foundation of which (or of witch?) will be more of those brew days. “Not because we think you can only be in production in craft beer—there are women and non-binary folks in every department,” Williams is quick to clarify. “But no matter what your role is or what your department is, feeling more comfortable behind that brewery door will help you. Because that’s it. That’s the product.” They’re lucky, she says, to be headquartered here in the Twin Cities, where there’s already a collaborative beer community, and where sharing information and helping others—whether they work for your brewery or not—is the status quo.

“That tendency to support and advise and mentor already exists here in this industry,” Williams says. “But it’s a closed circuit. It’s still insular, and it’s still who you know.”

Soon, who you know could be a coven of powerful, beer-brewing witches.

Witch Hunt Preview
Thursday, March 8, 2018 from 5 to 8 p.m.
Surly Brewing Company
520 Malcolm Ave. SE, Minneapolis