Female brewers? Yeah right

By Megan Singleton

Beer brewing is a little muckier than these young women would suggest. Photo / Supplied
Beer brewing is a little muckier than these young women would suggest. Photo / Supplied

Yeah right is right. Kiwi girls are taking on the boys and brewing some of New Zealand's finest ales. But, and this might devastate some, they don't - as some Tui ads might lead you to believe - wear bikinis to work.

"I'd give everyone a shock if I bloody did," says Pru Bishop the 29-year-old brewer at Invercargill Brewery. With her rolling southern "r" she instantly shattered my stereotype of bimbos on killer heels sashaying around the factory. She poetically explained that the art of making beer is a hot, sweaty, stinky job, "and you're covered in crap". Nice.

But not being afraid of hard work has meant Bishop, who started three years ago after asking owner Steve Nally for a job helping out, is now one of New Zealand's handful of female brewers. She even has an award-winning beer named after her.

Smokin' Bishop, originally brewed in 2007, was the first commercially available smoked beer in New Zealand. Described as a big German-style beer made with manuka-smoked malt, it was Bishop's first production after Nally decided his apprentice should try her hand at producing a 50-litre brew.

The beer rapidly gained a legion of fans and secured a gold medal and Best in Class on debut at the BrewNZ Awards in 2007.

The boutique brewery went into larger production the next year and in 2009 pre-sold two batches before they even started brewing. Smokin' Bishop has now been selected to feature in a new international publication, 1001 Beers You Must Taste Before You Die, due out in March 2010.

All this should come as no surprise because beer brewesses are famous throughout history.

Nin-Kasi, Mesopotamian goddess of beer, was chief brewer of the gods. Skip forward a few millennia and before the industrial age of vats and factories, home-brew beer was a staple in every home.

When hard-working housewives baked bread they would also make what might best be described as a big bowl of fermented slop. In this bowl they tinkered with yeast, wheat, barley and rye malts, threw in hops, swished it around, and by the time their hunter and gatherer came in with a wild boar over his shoulder, his domestic goddess had not only put fresh hot bread on the table, but an intoxicating ale to match. Thus began the concept of beer and food matching.

In New Zealand, the first brew can be traced to Captain James Cook who ordered a pint in 1773. He hoped his crew would follow suit, with the ale helping to ward off scurvy.

New Zealand's first beer was made from the bark of the rimu tree along with molasses and wort. Today, this country is home to more than 50 breweries, from the boutique to the behemoths: Lion Nathan and DB Breweries, who between them control 90 per cent of the country's output.

Beth Park is another female brewers who has worked up through the ranks and to be national beer quality manager at DB.

When your dad is a keen home-brewer and you have a penchant for sciences, the journey to beer brewer is paved with amber. Growing up tasting beer head "fluffies" or tiger's milk, as her dad called it, Park decided to pursue a career in the craft. She headed to Massey University to study food and beverage science and found, rather more literally than some of her study buddies, that the pub was her real training ground.

After a stint at Frucor she applied for a job as brewer with DB and her course was set.

Her mum altered her oversized overalls and she set about learning all there is know about beer brewing. And there's a lot to know.

Beer is more complex than wine as there are thousands of yeast strains. The trick is matching the malt with the yeast, hops and the right water.

Varieties of malt change the colour and flavour. Take wheat beer for example, the brewer can bring out banana flavours or even bubblegum, says David Cryer, chairman of Brewers Guild NZ which runs the annual Beervana beer tasting and awards event. Hops add the spice and water provides the integrity.

Put it all together, boil it, cool it, clarify it, let it ferment, mature it, filter it and voila: 133 billion litres of beer are produced each year worldwide.

Beervana, held in Wellington each August, has seen a healthy increase in female attendance so it's great to see the female brewers there too, says Cryer. The event also includes chefs competing to provide the perfect beer match to their menus.

In fact, beer and food matching is the next big thing. Bishop recommends you drink her namesake with strong cheeses and smoked meats and over summer.

David recommends a Harrington's Rogue Hop with your barbecued chicken, Epic Lager with your sausages, and Mac's Great White with your freshly caught crayfish.

- Herald on Sunday

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