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Big brewery on North Main announces Columbia's first female head brewer

A forthcoming brewery in Columbia’s North Main district that says it will be the largest in the state will have the Midlands' only female head brewer when it opens next year.

Along with revealing the name Peak Drift Brewing Co., the owners of the operation announced that Ashley Kinart-Short, a Wisconsin native, would head up brewing operations at a press conference on July 13. According to the South Carolina Brewers Guild, Kinart-Short will become just the second woman currently working as a head brewer in the Palmetto State.

The Middleton family — who own the brewery along with a hefty portion of the 1600 block of Main Street and healthcare business LTC Health Solutions — announced that Kinart-Short's beer will also be served at their forthcoming restaurant and microbrewery Smoked along their increasingly stacked block downtown.

She is the first and only woman thus far to lead a brewing operation in the Midlands. It's an equally significant move nationally, with the brewery's website citing statistics that show that just 10 percent of head brewers nationally are women.

A 2014 Stanford study cited by industry advocate group Women in the Craft Beer Industry shows an even lower number, putting the percentage at 4.

South Carolina Brewer's Guild, the statewide industry trade group, doesn't keep official statistics on the state's gender makeup in the industry, said Executive Director Brook Bristow. However, he said that only one other woman, Amelia Keefe from River Dog Brewing in Richland, heads up a brewing operation in the state. 

"It's interesting, because historically, way way historically, women were the brewers," Bristow said. "It's more of a recent thing that it's a completely male-dominated industry."

"It's certainly changing," he continued. "Whether we're talking, between gender or race, there's certainly a need for more diversity in the industry top to both." 

The Middletons plan to open the roughly $35 million brewery in 2022 and the restaurant Smoked this fall. Greg Middleton said he hopes the brewery makes a statement about the Capital City.

The name Peak Drift is a cheeky nod to the city’s location two hours from the beach and two hours from the mountains, Middleton said. The brewery was first announced in February 2020, with plans for it to be sports-themed and span roughly 65,000 square feet.

They plan for the beer to be distributed regionally across multiple states, and also contract out their brewing and canning capacity to other, smaller South Carolina breweries.

Kinart-Short comes with experience in the Midwest, having worked at Capital Brewery outside of Madson, Wisconsin. It opened in 1984, making it one of the oldest craft breweries in the country.

She graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a biology degree. Kinart-Short later attended the World Brewing Academy through the Siebel Institute, studying both in Chicago and Munich, Germany.

“My science background really gets me excited about the science of innovation,” she explained. “All of the weird things I might not understand when a style first comes out, once I really dig into the science behind it there’s a lot of cool stuff that makes a lot of sense so I think a lot of my enthusiasm springs from that.”

With her new role in South Carolina, she hopes to bring “what’s hot” in the frequently shifting craft beer scene to Peak Drift, while also offering traditional European styles. She pointed out the hazy IPA as a trend she’s “really loving” for its emphasis on flavor, which makes it accessible to many people.

“I think it’s going to be a balance of really good traditional stuff but also keeping an eye on what’s fun and cool,” Kinart-Short said.

She grew up in Milwaukee and recalled driving by the large macro breweries Pabst and Miller. The state has a well-established craft beer scene, which Kinart-Short knows very well through her previous role at Capital Brewery, which distributed throughout the Midwest. Still, she said Peak Drift “will be a much bigger project.”

“Wisconsin has a lot of breweries but I think South Carolina has a lot more room to grow,” Kinart-Short said.

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