Since Leah Huss was the part owner and manager of the now-shuttered Papago Brewing, she has seen the beer industry evolve.
“For probably a good 10 years, there were not many females in the industry,” says Huss in the quaint Tempe taproom of Huss Brewing Company, her venture with her husband, Jeff.
“It has slowly started to expand in Arizona, but much like everything else with beer, the state is a little behind the eight ball. Other states are pretty far out. There are different stellar women getting involved.”
For Arizona Beer Week, which starts February 8, women brewers and brewery owners from around the state headed to Lumberyard Brewing Company in Flagstaff in early January to create a sudsy special for the event. Murder She Oat is a throwback oatmeal IPA.
“All of the participating breweries will have it on tap,” says Kelly Hanseth, whose family owns 8-year-old Lumberyard. “We’ll have 40 barrels, which is about 80 kegs, statewide.
“Today we’re creating a women’s collaborative beer. This event is a lot of fun. There’s good camaraderie, with 50 women coming in and out all day to help support and participate.”
According to a 2014 Auburn University study, women account for 29 percent of U.S. brewery workers. That same year, Stanford University reported out of 1,700 active breweries surveyed, only 4 percent had a female head brewer or brewmaster. Still, discrimination is apparent
“I looked past it for a lot of years,” Huss says. “I was working a business deal and a man sent over paperwork, I read through it and responded. He said, ‘Did you want to run that by your husband and team?’
“I can super easily be offended by this, but I just responded and said, ‘We’re good.’ I think more now than ever I’m aware of it, but I don’t take it personally or put that much thought into it. There’s something to be said about not having an attitude or being hyperaware or hypersensitive. I don’t think you get very far by creating a thing.”
Huss and her husband have juggled their family, which includes their 7-year-old daughter, Lola, and the brewery since August 2013. The couple founded the brewery with Lola in mind.
“From the time I came here full time, we just kicked it into high gear,” Huss says. “It was always meant to be our family’s fun project, and the legacy for our daughter. We came up with the idea of it when I was four months pregnant. The whole idea of it revolved around her.”
Huss has years of brewery experience. She graduated from Scottsdale Culinary Institute with a degree in culinary arts. She and Jeff share a love and passion for American craft beer and its culture.
Huss sent her three-female sales squad to Flagstaff, but her staff also includes brewer Rubi Lugo.
“Rubi is pretty sassy. I let her just come in, with her own energy and attitude, and the guys love her,” she adds.
Huss is surprised about her company’s success. When Papago closed, Huss bought the brand, including the iconic Orange Blossom. Huss, who has four sisters and two brothers, was made to be a business owner.
“The girls are the strong leaders of the family,” she says.
“We look at it like we’re careening down the highway,” she says. “No one’s really driving the crazy ship. Everybody has their crazy bits to keep under control. Hopefully, we can continue down this crazy path of growth. We are setting out to put deep roots in Arizona and be that iconic Arizona brand.
“We want a sense of community and collaboration. We want to be a part of Arizona and what’s happening. I’m loving where everything is going with craft beer in Arizona.”
The expanded taproom in Tempe is part of that mission.
“We specifically sought out a neighborhood space where people could go,” she says. “I feel like it’s changing neighborhoods in Arizona. People just want to shut their garages and go in the house. I never wanted any TVs in the taprooms, but I lost to my husband. People don’t want to talk to each other anymore. I used to get calls at Papago asking me what beers we have on tap. I would tell them, ‘How about coming down here. There are people in here, you should come down and talk to them.’”
During Arizona Beer Week, Huss will release Ro Sham Beaux, or rock, paper scissors, double IPA. It goes along with Huss’ mantra of being “every person’s brewery.”
“We have very approachable, very drinkable beer,” Huss says. “It’s super high quality and consistent. My husband is a crazy person about quality and consistency. We have something for everyone.”
Laura Hansen is passionate about her Goodyear restaurant/brewpub Saddle Mountain Brewing Company, which offers airplane-themed beer. She participated in the women’s collaborative beer event in Flagstaff.
“It was the first time I was able to meet some of the women,” she says. “It’s nice to meet each other. We ask questions of each other. We’re like-minded individuals. One of my biggest draws is to meet the women in the industry.”
Hansen enjoyed hearing her peers’ take on employment issues, and getting advice on taprooms, as Saddle Mountain is a full-service restaurant.
She and her husband, Jacob, owned the area called Wintersburg by the Palo Verde Nuclear Plant. After selling it in 2006, they used the money to open Saddle Mountain. After some time, Hansen learned she wasn’t the face of the brewery.
“I learned women do a lot of the work and get very little of the notoriety,” she says. “One of my floor managers was out in the world on his day off. He was talking about the brewery and mentioned my name to a customer. He said, ‘Who’s Laura?’
“I’m just back in the hole, doing paperwork, solving problems and getting creative with the chef and the brewer. What I found, talking with the women here, is the bandleaders are in the front, and we pick up the back and carry this forward. Women do a great job of things, but men are loud about their great jobs.”
Saddle Mountain will release its gold medal-winning beer, the Taildragger Clan-Destine, at Strong Beer Festival this month. They’ll also have kegs of barrel-aged Toasted Pecan Doppelbock. Hansen will push Murder She Oat as well. After all, the camaraderie made an impression on her.
“I didn’t know many of the women there,” Hansen says. “But it was great to get to know everyone, and to get together once a year for this event.”
Lumberyard Brewing Company
5 S. San Francisco Street, Flagstaff
Huss Brewing Company
1520 W. Mineral Road, Tempe
Saddle Mountain Brewing Company
15651 W. Roosevelt Street, Goodyear