Tradesman Brewing BREWSTER event

Tradesman Brewing Company's Sara Gayle McConnell (far right) is a co-founder of BREWSTER. File/Kathryn Ziesig/Staff

The brewery is named in homage to the everyman laborer, but Wednesday evening will be all about women at downtown Charleston's Tradesman Brewing Company. Tradesman vice president of operations Sara Gayle McConnell says a female-focused fermenting project just makes historical sense.

“Women brewed beer for 4,000 years before guys took it back over,” said McConnell, who sold beer alongside her husband Scott on James Island until they moved into their roomy, modern brewhouse/taproom on The Neck in 2018. “And we were called brewsters.”

At 5 p.m. Wednesday, McConnell and Tradesman will host an event celebrating not just brewsters, but BREWSTER. (Or, if you prefer the scenic route: "Building Relationships + Empowering Women Striving To Exist Responsibly.")

The “Women in Beer" fete is a chance for Charleston women who like craft beer to learn the basics of the brewing process. This, while drinking the fruits of that labor and “networking with some like-minded bad-ass ladies,” as the event page puts it. The party falls at roughly the halfway mark of programming for the seventh-annual Charleston Beer Week

BREWSTER, which McConnell in spring 2015 co-founded with Macey Martin (then at Frothy Beard Brewing), was borne of a basic chicken-or-egg question that flummoxed them as female brewing professionals. “How do you actually know you want to get into brewing if you don’t know what it’s about?” she said. The organization aims to close the knowledge gap for female craft beer enthusiasts — and hopefully draw more of them into the Lowcountry’s burgeoning beer workforce.

“We got women who sit on the other side of the bar and enjoy craft beer to come back into the brewhouses with us and actually make the beer,” said McConnell proudly, describing early BREWSTER efforts.

(Quick aside on language: There’s some debate over whether “brewster” is explicitly a female brewer. It’s a bit of an etymological rabbit hole. It's fair to say that the term was often used to describe women who brewed beer, though.)

Regardless what you call female brewing workers, South Carolina does not appear to have many of them. Brook Bristow, executive director of the South Carolina Brewers Guild, told me that the organization does not have demographic data on the gender makeup of the state's brewing workforce. But: "I can tell you it's incredibly skewed (towards male workers) as of now," he said via email. He added that the guild was seeing more women get involved in brewing in the Charleston area. 

"The growth is positive, but we're not anywhere close to where we need to be," Bristow continued.

Nationally, "around 10 percent of production workers in craft breweries are female," said Bart Watson, the chief economist of the Brewers Association. As the country's largest craft beer trade group, the BA made headlines in 2018 when hiring its first-ever "Diversity Ambassador" to push the industry beyond "white dudes with beards"

But why should the average drinker fret about whether their suds are made by man or woman? Beyond equality — that old chestnut — there’s the boring, essential matter of human resources to consider. Like breweries throughout the country, Charleston’s producers have sometimes struggled to attract and retain skilled brewery workers.

Meanwhile, women “that might be good at making craft beer, they’re very leery” of trying their hand at a male-dominated industry, McConnell said.

On that tip, the Pink Boots Society has been instrumental in strengthening the female brewing community. But the organization, of which McConnell is a member, is only for those women who are already touching beer, or in the industry,” she said. She hopes that BREWSTER can help attracted women further upstream: “It could feed into Pink Boots."

Still, the two programs are entirely separate, and McConnell’s grassroots effort is tightly focused on making an impact in South Carolina. To do that, BREWSTER taps (beer joke!) into the state’s brewery network (82 strong, per the BA’s 2018 tally.) Any and all of them are welcome to participate by hosting women to join in for special BREWSTER brewing days.

“The middle month of each quarter is the BREWSTER month,” McConnell explained. Whether the participating brewery is in Greenville, Columbia or Myrtle Beach, it’ll hold its BREWSTER brew day during that month. Tradesman typically picks a Sunday afternoon, when it’s not in production for its regular lineup. If you're keen to attend a future session, find more details on the group's Facebook page

These brew days are the real thing, with actual labor and real ingredients. Depending on the size and sophistication of the hosting facility, there may be shovels involved. The idea is to give attendees who “always wanted to know how, but never wanted to buy a homebrew kit” a feel for what brewing actually takes, McConnell said.

Real brew days yield real brews, too. Tradesman’s first BREWSTER session yielded Don’t Monk With Us, which went on to medal at Kentucky’s Commonwealth Cup. Later, a version of that beer took gold at the 2017 US Beer Open. At Holy City Brewing Company, said McConnell, “their first BREWSTER brew took off so well, they started canning it.” That beer, Madam Basil, is still on shelves and taps around the Lowcountry.

That’s the beauty of the BREWSTER model, says McConnell. It empowers craft beer-loving Carolina women with experience and industry knowledge, and creates a product people love. In keeping with the organization’s values, $1 from every pint of BREWSTER beer sold in participating breweries’ taprooms is donated to a charity focused on women’s issues.

My Sister's House, Florence Crittenton, and other “local, smaller nonprofits that might otherwise not have gotten ‘airtime’ so to speak,” have been benefactors of BREWSTER largess in the past, said McConnell. “In the past four and a half years, we’ve given back close to $15,000 to local women’s non-profits," she estimated.

"Bad-ass ladies" coming together to reclaim physical and professional spaces long dominated by men, using that labor to lift up marginalized women… BREWSTER sounds like the stuff of progressive dreams. Still, McConnell is reluctant to explicitly conflate the group with feminism.

“I sound like a raging feminist, and I’m not,” she told me.

“There’s a difference between being argumentative, and just being a strong woman,” McConnell said later, responding to a follow-up on her "raging feminist" aside. “Any strong woman who wants to get involved in their community is going to get involved in their community.” BREWSTER, she said, is just another, sudsier way to do that. 

At the "Women in Beer" party, the outdoor container bar will be pouring 10 BREWSTER beers, each collaboratively crafted by professional and amateur female brewers at outfits including Frothy Beard, Cooper River, Westbrook, and more. Rather than a buck per pint, the brewers will donate 100 percent of the sales from “Women in Beer” to the Undergarment Society, a non-profit that collects underwear for women in need. 

“With the lot and the space, I think we’ll be able to pack it in,” McConnell said. “I’m hoping we can really get a lot of ‘bang for our buck’ and give back to a great local charity.”

And you don't have to be a brewster to support BREWSTER. All are welcome at the party Wednesday evening: man, woman, whatever. Tradesman Brewery is located at 1647 King Street Extension.

Reach Dave Infante at 843-937-5320. Follow him on Twitter @dinfontay.