By Elyse Wild | Photography by Two Eagles Marcus
Fifteen years ago, Laura Houser’s life was changed by a pitcher of beer.
“It was one of the very best beers I had ever had,” she expressed, enthused by the recollection of her very first taste of Porter, a year-round staple in Founders Brewing Company’s all-star lineup.
Today, Houser is a veteran brewer at Founders and one of the only women making one of beer city’s most iconic drinks.
Houser was hired to work security at Founders in 2004, back when in the brewery was less than a decade old, had just dodge bankruptcy and was located on Monroe Ave. For her, it quickly became home, and not just for the phenomenal brews that defied conventions.
“It was so familial,” she said. “Everyone that hung out at Founders knew each other, and a lot of them made craft beer. I loved it.”
Houser was hired to work on the bottling line in 2004. During that time, there wasn’t enough work in production at the now-thriving brewery for her to fill a 40-hour work, and she checked IDs at the door on Tuesday nights to supplement her income. In 2010, two years after Founders broke even for the first time and hit its stride, she transferred to brewing. An English literature major with a knack for science she found the perfect marriage of her skills.
“I love the creativity and the scientific aspects of it,” she commented. “I pride myself in brewing the best beer I can, every day. For people to love it so much is humbling.”
Houser trains all new brewers hired by Founders. The company brews 24 hours a day to keep up with increasing demand, and brewers must be versed in each step of the process. To date, she estimates she has taught at least 50 people how to make the company’s beloved beverages on a variety of systems. Her approach to training is hands-on.
“I am probably going to annoy the hell out of someone, but I am going to make sure they learn and know exactly what they are doing.”
As a woman in brewing, Houser is something of an anomaly. While the craft brewing industry today is dominated by men, anyone who enjoys a cold, frothy mug of the good stuff has women to thank: An ancient clay tablet dating back to Mesopotamia in 1800 BC inscribed with The Hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian Goddess of Beer, indicates that the world’s first brewers were women. For thousands of years, women were the only ones allowed to make beer, brewing in their home kitchens and selling the surplus. After the discovery of the preservation benefits of hops and the surge of ins and hotels popping up all over Europe, brewing slipped into the hands of men, who had the social and legal resources to finance the growing industry.
Today, according to a 2014 study conducted by Stanford, women make up just 4 percent of master brewers. That isn’t’ to say that women aren’t enjoying the surge of everything craft beer: Women consume 32 percent of craft beer by volume. A study conducted by Craft Brew Business in 2018 showed that they spend more than men per brewery visit, averaging 6.9 percent more.
As a woman in an almost exclusively male industry, Houser says she has had to work twice as hard to ensure her credibility as a brewer.
“When I started, I was scared and unsure,” she expressed. “I felt uncertain of myself, but that is part of being raised as a woman.”
She adds that her male counterparts are less inclined to admit a gap in their knowledge.
“If someone asks me a question and I don’t know the answer, I will say I don’t know,” she said. “It’s better—you learn more that way. As a woman in a male-dominated industry, I will say that men are less quick to admit when they don’t know something.”
According to a 2017 study conducted by the Brewers Association, Michigan ranks 11th in the country for craft beer production, and craft breweries contributed nearly $2.5 billion to the state’s economy in 2017. As the industry continues to grow and accessibility to brewing increases with the popularity of home kits, homebrew supply stores and brewing certification courses, Houser encourages other women interested in a career as a brewer to put themselves out there.
“Keep showing up at the brewery you want to work at,” she said. “Let them know you want to be a part of what they are doing, and schedule a time to come in and help brew. Be persistent.”