Moments after Laura Cohen pries the lid off a white plastic bucket labeled “Ale Pale,” a bright, herbal aroma begins to fill her dining room.
The group of 10 women standing nearby crane their necks to peek at the murky liquid inside, and offer a chorus of “Oooh!” Lady Brew Baltimore, the city’s first female homebrewing club, is about to bottle its first batch of gruit, a medieval ale made with herbs and spices instead of hops.
“I think it’s going to be really intense,” says Cohen. She would know. Since founding Lady Brew in February 2012, she has helped make more than a dozen beers, from a chocolate lavender porter to a spicy peach pilsner.
Cohen and the other members of Lady Brew are part of a growing number of women who, in the past couple years, have been elbowing their way into the boys’ club of craft beer. Last year, Sacramento resident Annie Johnson became the first woman since 1983 to win Homebrewer of the Year in the American Homebrewers Associations national competition. Hop Bombshells in Salt Lake City and other all-female clubs are bubbling up across the country. And Barley’s Angels, a social craft beer club for women founded in January 2011, now has almost 100 chapters around the globe—including one in Fulton, Md.
“People think beer is just for men, and that’s not the case,” says Lauren Smith, who opened the Maryland chapter in May 2013.
On the last Thursday of the month, more than a dozen women pay $10 to sample six brands of craft beer at I.M. Wine in Fulton, where Smith is the manager. They tried wheat beers last October, and stouts in December.
“Sometimes people just taste Bud Light and are like, ‘Oh, I don’t like beer,’” says Smith, 26. “It helps people realize there are other beers than that.”
Cohen became interested in home brewing four years ago, after graduating from the Maryland Institute College of Art with a master’s in community arts. She liked the way brewing brought together chemistry and creativity, and the seemingly limitless possibilities. Why make a traditional ale or lager when she could add whatever flavors she wanted? Ingredients that make a tasty soup or dessert often work in beer, too, she found.
“I thought, ‘You know what would be great together? Chocolate and cherry,’” she says. ‘“I’m going to make a chocolate cherry porter. Boom.’”
Not long after, a few of Cohen’s girlfriends also started brewing, and as the number grew to include people she didn’t know, Cohen decided to make it an official group.
Lady Brew, which meets every other month to brew and bottle, is as much about beer as it is about socializing and meeting like-minded women. At the gruit bottling, which took place on a Sunday afternoon in mid-January at Cohen’s house in Mayfield, members drank tea and coffee, and shared their own home brews. Cohen, a natural-born teacher who by day directs the community art department at Baltimore Clayworks, goes over each step of bottling with the group.
When Erin Mellenthin moved to Baltimore from Wisconsin in June 2012, she wanted to meet new people, and learn how to make her own beer. In Lady Brew, she found both.
“Lady Brew is a small piece of what Baltimore is—a lot of folks trying to create communities, whether through brewing or activism or biking,” said Mellenthin, a 24-year-old who lives in Better Waverly. “It’s a wonderful way to meet people and understand Baltimore.”
While Lady Brew isn’t exclusively female, its members take pride in creating a women-friendly space—and offense when other beer events don’t. In December, they took a stand against the name and imagery of local homebrew competition Barley Legal. They voiced their opinions to the event’s organizers, who agreed to disagree.
“It’s not like we go looking for things to fight,” says Cohen, 28. “But it’s important when this stuff comes up not to be silent.”
Joining Lady Brew costs $20 and includes membership to the Maryland Free State Homebrewers Guild and 10 percent off at local homebrew stores Nepenthe and Maryland Homebrew. Members also receive a copy of “Lady Brew Baltimore Homebrew Quick Guide,” a book Cohen wrote and illustrated.
Lady Brew meets twice for each beer, usually on a Sunday at Nepenthe or one of the members’ houses. The first session is for brewing—usually a five-gallon batch. Members bring ingredients they want to use, clean and sanitize the equipment, boil the ingredients, let the mixture cool, add yeast and let it ferment for seven to 10 days. Then they meet again to bottle the beer, usually forming an assembly line to sanitize, fill, cap and label the individual bottles.
Members, who are mostly in their 20s, 30s and 40s, chip in $10 to take home a six-pack. The group is also planning more events in the community, hopefully starting with a monthly Lady Brew night at Liam Flynn’s Ale House in Station North.
After bottling their first five gallons of gruit, named “Phlebotanist,” Cohen and the other members pour the final pint into a tumbler and take a sip.
“You can really taste the juniper berry and the coriander coming through,” Cohen says. “It’s amazing.”
Lady Brew Baltimore’s next brewing session is March 2 at 2 p.m., with a bottling on March 16 at 2 p.m. Membership costs $20, and a six-pack of the beer is $10. Go to http://www.ladybrewbaltimore.com
The Maryland chapter of Barley’s Angels meets on the final Thursday of each month at I.M. Wine, 8180 Maple Lawn Blvd. in Fulton. Tastings are $10 each, or a yearly membership is $25. Call 240-456-0330 or go to http://www.barleysangels.org