category-iconWomen of Beer

How I Built a Brewery for Everybody

May 28, 2019

By Samantha Lee, May 28, 2019

After almost a decade of dreaming, in early 2016 I opened Hopewell Brewing Company in Chicago with my husband Stephen Bossu and our good friend Jonathan Fritz. It was my first professional venture in craft beer and I was immediately drawn to how the industry intimately connects with the daily lives of so many people. Beer is ultimately about enjoyment, about shared moments between family and friends. Being able to help foster joy is one of the most gratifying parts of my job. But like many women who drink beer, I still think of myself as a craft beer outsider.

I’m a Korean-American woman, and it’s no secret that craft beer is largely a white male space. It is also a space the emphasizes a need for expertise, leaving many (like myself) feeling unwelcome or at the very least out of place. Take a quick Google image search for “craft beer drinker.” The results looks like a bad joke: white men, usually wearing the type of denim that can’t be laundered. If you do another search for “craft beer taproom” the results are somehow even more homogenous. All of this performative masculinity is exhausting, and it feels like a wish for a time when things were simpler… at least for men.

There was a bar we frequented when we lived in Portland, Oregon several years ago. It had one of the most extensive beer lists in town. They also had every beer cliché in the book: white dudes sitting at a reclaimed wood bar while listening to unfathomably loud metal music. It was not my vibe, but I figured it came with the territory. At the time, if you wanted to go somewhere with a good craft beer selection, you didn’t really have a choice, even in a craft beer hub like Portland. This meant that I simply got used to feeling slightly uncomfortable. Many women and people of color know this exact feeling of walking into a place that was not built with them in mind.

On top of the visual cues that beer is somewhat of a boys club, as with other niche interests, craft beer is an arena in which knowledge is flexed ad nauseum. This makes it difficult for new drinkers to get excited about craft beer and, honestly, for me, less fun. Perhaps this is also why I’ve never quite identified as a “craft beer drinker.” I don’t obsess over original gravity or IBUs or strict style categories. None of these attributes inform my love of beer. I avoid beer rating websites and apps for the same reason. I often hear my beer-drinking female friends apologize for using incorrect beer terminology, I take this to mean that at some point they’ve felt insecure or intimidated about their lack of knowledge.

Prior to opening to Hopewell Brewing Co., I worked in nonprofits—most recently the Open Society Foundations. My transition to business ownership felt like a dramatic pivot. It was hard finding the connection between those two experiences. I’ve since come to realize that nonprofits and small businesses actually have a lot in common. They are both built around ideas of close-knit teams with collective commitments to a shared mission. Because of this commitment to a mission, this often means that the bottom line is not always the best way to measure success. If our goal was to make as much money as possible and grow as quickly as possible, then starting a small craft brewery was definitely the wrong move.

Our mission is not just to make great beer—that’s a given and something we always work towards. However, beer in and of itself does not make a brewery, and measuring how much beer we sell is just one metric. There are other questions we ask ourselves on a continual basis: Are we doing good by our employees, the ones are truly keeping things running? Are we responsible community members? How can we, as owners, incorporate our personal ethics and values into our business operations and practice? As a young business, we have the exciting yet daunting job of building our company culture and setting the groundwork for good business practices. This work never ends, and we know that we must always strive to be better.

To us, this groundwork starts with paying a fair wage. In Chicago we have a tipped minimum wage of $6.25 per hour, compared to the standard minimum wage of $12 per hour. Seventy percent of tipped workers are women, and over 60 percent of women in the industry report experiencing sexual harassment while at work. Many women in the industry find that they must  put up with sexual harassment from customers, co-workers, and management since they depend solely on tips. These women find themselves in a particularly vulnerable position, where they risk retaliation from both managers and customers if they don’t act a certain way, which ultimately affects their final pay. To combat this, we are currently on track to pay $15 per hour for taproom staff by the end 2020. (Another great resource is Healing to Action, an organization that helps people experiencing workplace sexual violence and harassment.) We offer healthcare, paid vacation, and sick leave.

This is not a list of the ways that make us perfect—far from it—but fostering a safe and fair work environment is one way we measure success.

Recently, I had the privilege of leading a “Beer 101” workshop at The Wing, a women’s co-working space in Chicago. I was struck by the level of engagement, warmth, and consideration within the group. There were various levels of beer knowledge, but everyone gave space for one another to ask both basic and advanced questions. It was truly one of the best public speaking experiences I’ve ever had, especially during my time in the beer industry. I was asked questions about why we use certain types of malt to what makes sour beers sour. During the workshop I was also asked how I handle situations where I am one of the few women in the room. The answer is, unfortunately, I shut down. I talk to people I know and find my safe and comfortable network. It was astonishing to find my energy completely shift when I was in a room full of women. The fact that it was an all-female space was no small part of this welcoming environment—I personally felt more comfortable and more authentically myself.

Authenticity is something that is very important to us at Hopewell. Often when people find out I co-founded Hopewell Brewing Co., they comment on how fresh and unique our branding and taproom design are. I love hearing this, because it means we’ve succeeded at making our physical space and visual identity cohesive expressions of who we are. The goal is to be thoughtful but playful and approachable, and never too precious. The same can be said of our beer. We like to have fun with our packaging using light-hearted artwork, bright colors, and not listing IBUs. For example, we recently launched Lil Buddy, an 8 oz can of lager, for those (like me) who often just want a little bit of beer. It’s fun, cute, and a little goofy.

Beer is meant to be enjoyed and shared with friends, so we hope that—through our design, space, and, of course, beer—we communicate this sense hospitality. As someone who often feels alienated in much of the existing craft beer world, it’s empowering to think about how I can actively be a part of an overall shift, even in a tiny way.

Photos by Jim Vondruska

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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