She’s the first female head brewer in the history of Founders Brewing Co., the 14th largest brewery in the country and the largest in Michigan. But even with the title firmly in her grasp, 32-year-old Natalie Iseli-Smith still has to convince people she’s the one making the calls at the Detroit taproom when they show up looking for the person in charge.
“Even when I would say I’m the brewer, I’d be dismissed on sight — until I started saying technical terms to them and providing proof of what I’m talking about,” says Iseli-Smith, who worked with Founders in Grand Rapids before landing in Detroit.
It’s an all-too-common story among the still relatively few women in the craft beer world — whether it’s the women behind the scenes who brew it or those sitting down to order a clean, crisp Munich dunkel at the bar. A survey by the Brewers Association trade group shows that only 7.5 percent of breweries in the United States employ even one woman in the role of brewer. Iseli-Smith isn’t the first woman to brew beer for Founders in its 24-year history, but she’s the first to hold the title of head brewer with the company.
“It’s not that I’ve had to prove myself as a woman,” she says. “It’s that I’ve had to prove myself in the industry — period.”
Her journey started at Brew Detroit, where she was hired as a bartender in 2014. The contract brewery in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, which also makes its own small-batch varieties, had plans to double-train bartenders as brewers.
“I was working on the bottling line,” IseIi-Smith says. “I helped organize their brewhouse laboratory,” which measures things like Co2 volume and alcohol by volume, or ABV — essentially the key stats of any beer.
She ended up being the only bartender to jump into brewing in those early days, ultimately creating a beer that caught the attention of Mark Rieth, the owner of Atwater Brewery in Detroit, which was acquired by the massive beer conglomerate Molson Coors last year. It was a sessionable English pale that impressed Rieth’s taste buds with its biscuit and caramel malt tones and an earthy hop profile. A modified version of IseIi-Smith’s Echobase ESB (extra special bitter) is now on tap at the Founders taproom in Detroit. “Within a month, I was brewing on [Atwater’s] 20 hecto-liter brewhouse,” which can produce about 16 barrels of beer, or about 520 gallons, per batch.
Iseli-Smith’s love for “nerdy science” — “I won a lot of science fair awards in middle school,” she’ll proudly tell you — plus a penchant for the arts (she often designs her own labels for her beers) and a degree in cultural anthropology propelled her interest in craft brewing, which marries all three. “I just want to push the boundaries of creativity while still paying respect to traditional styles,” she says. “My goal is to explore new flavor pairings.”
As a belated celebration for International Women’s Day, Iseli-Smith dreamed up a mint mocha oatmeal stout named U.N.I.T.Y., which borrows its moniker from the Queen Latifah song of the same name. It’s on tap now at the Detroit taproom. She describes the beer as having a “heavy body” with hints of toasted malt, chocolate, and a slightly minty finish. A sister beer of U.N.I.T.Y. will be produced at the Founders Grand Rapids location (but expect a bit more cinnamon in that one), with a portion of sales from each unit going toward Pink Boots Society, a national nonprofit working to grow the number of women working in the fermented beverage industry.
Iseli-Smith’s path from bartender to brewer is common among the relatively few women now working in the craft brewing industry, says Annette May, who is on faculty at the Brewing and Distillation Technology program at Schoolcraft College. She teaches beer styles and sensory evaluation as well as beer service and draft management — stuff like how to get a perfect pour with a 1-inch head. “A lot of women entered the industry the same way I did,” says May, who started out bartending in Chicago in the mid-’90s at one of the few bars in the city at the time that specialized in a wide variety of brews, including early craft beers and unusual, high-end imports.
She built a reputation by studying the various styles and becoming a go-to source for all things beer, especially brews that had yet to become commonplace. She’s now an advanced cicerone, a trademarked certification for beer that mirrors what a sommelier does in wine. She’s also a founding member of Fermenta, a Michigan-based nonprofit that mirrors the national efforts of the Pink Boots Society here in southeastern Michigan. The volunteer-led group has awarded more than $16,000 worth of scholarships for women to further their careers in brewing.
The question for May and other women in the industry is: Why are such efforts still necessary?
“That’s a really big mystery because, as most people know, women were the original brewers. At some stage in history, it changed,” May says. “In modern times, there’s been a whole persona of beer as a men’s drink. Being an actual brewer is a physically taxing job. Women cope just fine with it.”
Iseli-Smith has coped, she says, by “keeping up” with her male peers.
“People ask me all the time: ‘What’s it like being a female brewer?’ ” she says. “It’s the same as being a male brewer. It means using your head and your hands to bring out your heart. It’s about bringing people together. We just happen to be representing underrepresented communities.”