A lot of people drink their way through college. Lee Hedgmon brewed her way through it.
“I started homebrewing just to keep me sane, as procrastination while writing my dissertation,” she says. Back when the Portland, Oregon native was in grad school for feminist studies at the University of Minnesota, craft beer was hard to come by. When she wanted a taste of home, she’d find a bar that had Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale. Or she and her friends would brew it themselves, rotating houses since the hops would stink up the place.
Hedgmon moved back to Portland to teach women’s studies at Portland State University, but fermentation kept calling, and now—“Well, I am not in an academic job,” she laughs. Today, she’s a distiller at McMenamins’ Cornelius Pass Roadhouse Distillery, crafting whiskey, rum, gin, herbal liqueur and brandy.
“I absolutely love it. We do everything from grain to bottling, so I have the opportunity to be there for every step of the process.” On a typical day you might find her hauling sacks of barley, carefully monitoring a bubbling mash tun, or out in the garden at 6:00 AM picking botanicals—though the setting isn’t always as idyllic as it sounds: “We’re in a barn that’s over 100 years old, and it’s not insulated. It’s got this great history, but I could do without being super cold and spiders dropping from the ceiling.” It’s not so bad, though, when she gets to taste the product as it comes off the still. “That’s fun and challenging for me, coming from a beer aspect. It’s not a higher level of expertise, just different.”
Hedgmon’s level of expertise was already high. Before McMenamin’s, she had been an assistant brewer at PINTS and later brewed gluten-free beer that didn’t taste gluten-free for Ground Breaker—positions to which she worked her way up, from washing kegs and sweeping floors. “I think I’m one of the last people who got a job by volunteering in a brewery—and then liability became an issue.” She landed on the Portland craft beer radar through Coalition’s homebrewer collaboration program (a program she went on to run) with the release of an impressive amber ale. “Getting that perfect amber color was my goal. It’s the difference between a painter buying red paint or mixing their own red.”
Food is the inspiration for her brews, though surprisingly, she absolutely hates to cook. “The rule at my house used to be, if it was in a to-go box, it was safe to eat. You had to ask, because who knows what weird mad science experiment it might’ve been. I was like, ‘I’m not making chicken for us to eat, I’m going to put it in a beer!’”
She has two holy grail beer recipes that she’s been tinkering with for years. One is a schwarzbier with Japanese togarashi spice. “My blend is garlic, poppy seed, chili flake, nori and…” She reconsiders giving away her secret ingredients. “Three more. It’s this really nice umami flavor with a hint of pepper.” The other is a braggot made with buckwheat honey. Hedgmon keeps a hive of bees and has a thing for honey, which she has recently translated into a passion project producing small-batch, barrel-aged honey under the name The Barreled Bee.
Her brews may seem experimental now, but when she first started brewing, Hedgmon set to schooling herself in all the classic beer styles. As a woman of color in an industry that still skews white and male, “I didn’t have the luxury of saying, ‘I don’t believe in styles, I can do anything I want.’ Because the first thing that someone’s going to do is start throwing technical stuff at you as a way to trip you up, and I was never going to give anybody the opportunity to discount me. You have to know the rules in order to break them.”
For the most part, though, she’s received more pushback from the casual mansplainer at the bar than from fellow brewers. “If you work in an industry where you do the exact same job as the guy next to you, how much of an asshole can they be? On an everyday basis I have to climb a ladder to dump 50-pound sacks of grain into the mill. It’s like, ‘I do your job too, man.’ I just don’t make as big of a mess as you do because I know how to pick up after myself.”
Broadening ideas of who can be successful in brewing is what motivates Hedgmon to take on visible roles in the homebrewing community, like as the former president of Oregon Brew Crew. She was the first African-American woman to hold the position.
I learned when I was teaching that students don’t think something is possible if they don’t see someone that looks like them.”
“Brewing is a real capital-intensive industry to get into, so that hasn’t necessarily been something that communities of color have had access to. Many cultures have a history of making fermented beverages, it just doesn’t get seen in the same way.” The craft beer industry is changing, though; she sees more and more African-American-owned breweries popping up, as well as a Black beer festival in Pittsburgh called Fresh Fest.
“There’s still not a critical mass,” she says, but there’s more access now, especially for female brewers. “I think the Pink Boots Society [an international group supporting female beer industry professionals] is really really wonderful.” After joining her local chapter, Hedgmon helped found SheBrew, a festival showcasing female-identifying members of the brewing community as a fundraiser for the Human Rights Campaign. “It’s just so much fun. It’s accessible, not hoity-toity like if you drink Bud Light you’re not going to be able to appreciate it. It satisfies everybody’s need to enjoy themselves and relax and drink beer,” she says.
Last year, SheBrew added a homebrew competition expecting to get 50 entries—and received about 100. And this year, there were 129. “Over half the judges said afterwards, ‘It was so hard because the caliber of the beer that was submitted was probably the best we’ve ever tasted in any competition.’” For Hedgmon, that was bittersweet. “What played out for a lot of people was, ‘I didn’t enter because I didn’t think I was good enough.’ That’s the thing: Women and minorities, we’re not going to enter this competition or submit this job application until we know that we’re 95 percent qualified. That’s why the most important thing for SheBrew is to give good feedback.”
This is where Hedgmon’s background as a distiller barrel-aged in academia shows; she hasn’t stopped educating. “I always put myself out there, because I learned when I was teaching that students don’t think something is possible if they don’t see someone that looks like them. My focus was on pedagogical theory—and every time I make that student loan payment I think about going back. But I love what I do and people can’t say that about everything. I may not make a lot of money, but I get to do something that makes other people happy.”