In 1961, the United States Brewing Association ran a series of ads aimed at “normalizing” the consumption of beer for women. The ad, reminiscent of something you’d see Don Draper propose in “Mad Men” over an extra-dry martini, featured two stereotypical mid-century homemakers enjoying what appears to be a tall glass of sparkling pilsner with the headline “Who says beer is a man’s beverage?”
The text follows with “Men do, ourselves included” and goes on to affirm beer’s suitedness for the apparently-delicate constitutions of the women of yesteryear.
Such an idea may seem absurd today, but it was pervasive for centuries. Despite women taking active roles in brewing since time immemorial — the archaic term “alewife” comes to mind — beer was often considered as something masculine, only to be consumed by men in billiards halls, bars, bowling alleys or out on the dock fishing. A boy’s first sip of beer was considered a coming-of-age ritual. Women may have made the beer, but it was the men who drank it.
Fortunately, times have changed and one look at a brewery taproom, restaurant or beer festival shows a diverse group of beer drinkers. Beer is everyone’s drink and this is in part due to the overwhelming options available. At the time the June Cleaver-esque ad series was published, the brewing industry was stagnant with fewer than 90 breweries operating in the U.S., mostly mass-producing tepid, malty and thin substances.
The craft brewing boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s catapulted alternative styles onto the scene, the most famous being Russian River Brewing Co.’s groundbreaking Pliny the Elder triple IPA. Now there are more than 8,700 breweries in the United States and that number is growing every day.
With this, it’s no surprise beer attracts all kinds of people. With the craft beer boom came home brewing groups, meetups, clubs, information and materials available for all consumers to understand the styles and science behind beer. The internet has allowed for techniques, ideas and best practices to be shared instantly across the globe. And increasingly, entrepreneurs with a vision and the grit to create something new find themselves able to realize a dream to open their own spaces.
BREAKING INTO BREWING
One such dreamer is Emma Whelan, a longtime resident of Silver Spring, Maryland. English by birth and a lifelong, self-described foodie, Emma spent her career in marketing and business development, serving in senior roles at major grocery chains, restaurant groups and community theatre groups in the United Kingdom. She also served at the British Embassy here in Washington as a trade officer, focusing on the American market.
Over a pint of beer one rainy evening, she and Matt Cronin — a New Zealander now on this side of the world, home brewing and seeking to break into the brewing industry — hatched a plan to create their own brewing space which became Astro Lab Brewing.
Aside from the usual systemic challenges female entrepreneurs face, there is a skewed perception about women in brewing as a profession. The Brewer’s Association, a trade association that represents brewers and operators, estimates only 2% of brewers themselves identify as women.
Along with the traditional bias regarding women and beer evident in the early advertisements, there have also been some major scandals in the last decade regarding sexism and discrimination in the industry. The Cicerone program, beer’s vaunted analogy to the Court of Master Sommeliers, suffered an especially humiliating scandal of this sort.
But this isn’t the whole story. While the craft beer industry is collegial — and I’d like to think such discriminatory attitudes are the exception, not the rule — there are groups that exist explicitly to support women in the brewing industry. For example, Whelan is part of the Pink Boots Society, a nonprofit organization founded in 2007 to empower female brewers and operators by providing a community to collaborate, train and share best practices. Named for trademark bright pink boots worn when brewing, the organization has almost 2,000 members nationwide and continues to grow each month.
A SPACE UNITED BY BEER
Emma’s vision for Astro Lab can be found in the nature of the name: a reference to the astrolabe, a complex astronomical instrument intricately crafted (like beer can be). It’s also a nod to the Astrolabe Reef, a coral reef not far from the Bay of Plenty in the North Island of Cronin’s native New Zealand.
The space itself is nestled on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, not far from the Silver Spring metro stop and on the doorstep of D.C. A former record store, Cronin and Whelan renovated the space completely and connected an adjacent warehouse to become the brewing area. The public-facing areas facing Georgia Avenue are clean and chic with smooth concrete and exposed piping.
The pair envisioned a community space united by beer — and designed purposefully to that end. The space is wide and open with communal tables, high tops and a limited bar area. They even decided not to install televisions in the bar, instead hoping the austere interior would draw patrons to the liquid poetry in their glasses without distraction. The sweeping windows provide lots of natural light in which to admire the brews.
Astro Lab’s focus is mainly IPAs, although Cronin has been exploring new styles recently. Their IPA lineup, long focused on East Coast IPAs, has some variance now. When most consumers say a beer is hoppy, they usually mean bitter — the piney, resinous flavor. That’s a classic flavor note of a West Coast-style IPA, whereas Astro Lab is better known for New England-style or East Coast: hazy, juicy, citrusy and soft with a dash of sweetness. Whelan affirms Astro Lab is a hop-focused brewery and that’s reflected in a small but important detail on the menu — for each beer, they list the hop strains on the menu.
ALL ABOUT THAT HOPS
Why is this important? Hops are one of the most important ingredients for beer and beer lovers will know various hop strains will heavily influence the flavor profile of the beverage. Educated consumers can use this information to deduce what the beer might taste like and to help narrow down their preferences.
For example, Citra hops are known to impart a juicy, soft texture, whereas Galaxy hops remind one of guava and pineapple. Nugget hops are more tangy and bitter. Other common varieties you’ll find in beer are Falconer’s Flight, Simcoe, Amarillo, Centennial, Azacca and Golding. Don’t worry if you can’t memorize all of them — there’s over 100 varieties of hops in use today, with plenty more in development. All have their own flavors and textures.
In my past life as a beverage director for a specialty bottle shop, I’d run into people who would make broad proclamations.
For example: “I don’t like Chardonnay” or “Merlot is terrible” or “I can’t stand IPAs,” despite having one bad experience somewhere and assuming it’ll happen again.
With alcohol, you can never judge the whole on one experience. For IPAs, there’s such a wide catalog of styles, flavors and textures that one bad experience isn’t indicative of the genre as a whole. So having the hop bill listed is a great way to explore the IPA genre and perhaps find something that an avowed “IPA hater” might like.
I’m a pretty seasoned beer drinker but it’s important to investigate fully, so I visited the brewery in primetime on a Friday night. Tasha and Jerrod took good care of me at the bar and I sampled some of what they had on draft.
Some favorites from my visit: Battle of Nantes, a 5.20% ABV schwarzbier that is malty and clean; their delicious and crushable Rock Creek pilsner, with bready notes of honey and malts; and their Gorgeous As, a 7.40% ABV collaboration IPA that’s super hazy, fruity and buttery smooth. Honestly, everything on draft is worth trying.
Outside of IPAs, Astro Lab has a sour, a pale ale and an under-the-radar stout. They don’t do super sweet stouts, though, so fans of drier dark beers will be pleased. They’ve got wine, a limited food menu (with a super tasty savory meat pie, which I highly recommend) and plenty of merch and beer to go. In the back, Cronin’s got a few new things on deck for the coming months: an export helles lager, a German festbier, an Irish stout coming out next month — followed by lighter European fare like a spring kolsch — a saison and their first witbier.
BEYOND THE BEER
Whelan hopes Astro Lab will continue to serve as “Silver Spring’s living room,” drawing neighbors and beer enthusiasts to make use of the open floor plan and abundant free space. In a way, breweries like Astro Lab are the new neighborhood coffee shop: a place for friends and family to gather, enjoy a beverage and spend time with each other.
Brewpubs are great places for first dates, business meetings, company happy hours or even a place to do a few hours’ work. This can only be done with close connections to the community and Astro Lab was designed purposefully to integrate with the city: the taproom and tables open up right to Georgia Avenue by way of roll-up doors, with street-facing tables perfect to people-watch and enjoy the hustle and bustle of downtown Silver Spring. The space is both baby- and dog-friendly and the bar staff know their stuff. Astro Lab has a long, bright future ahead.
As for women in the brewing industry, Whelan’s seeing great growth potential for young women who are ready to move forward and break into the industry. The DMV has a good number of women in the industry and Whelan believes positive steps can be taken here at the local level to enhance the role of women in the industry.
This doesn’t just mean access to capital or collaborations, or even being hired at a brewery. We need strong female role models willing to mentor and lead by example so aspiring women in brewing can say, “I can do that, too.”