Nerd of the Week
Meet Lorna, a Beer Nerd
Interview by Terra Olsen
You’re a self-proclaimed ‘beer nerd.’ How did beer spark the ‘nerd’ in you?
From my first sip of Labatt Blue, I knew I really liked beer. Not just the intoxicating effects of the beverage, but the taste itself. In college, a good friend introduced me to a couple of Michigan craft brews (Bell’s Two Hearted, and New Holland Dragon’s Milk, to be exact) and my exploration of the subject grew from there. I love wine, but unlike wine, beer isn’t as limited in the ingredients and styles you can use in production. The creativity of brewers truly knows no bounds, and that’s evident the more you look into the culture of brewing and beer. Once I tasted the frontier beyond pale, fizzy, bubbly beers, I was hooked on exploring what beer could offer my palate, and ultimately my career.
How has beer impacted your life?
It took me a few years to realize that I could turn my love of beer into a viable career. I worked in restaurants all through college, which granted me access to the growing craft beer scene, and deepened my appreciation for the beverage. When I graduated, I thought I had to go into an office job, but I still supplemented my income as a waitress at a small brewery. When I moved to Chicago, I swore up and down I would never wait tables again, but the allure of the food and beverage industry proved too strong, and after working as a salesperson for two different caterers, I left the desk behind and found myself behind the bar at one of the country’s most incredible beer bars, Local Option. I also have the fortune of covering the beer beat for Chicagoist, which means I get to meet all sorts of people in the industry, from other servers, brewers, reps, and fellow nerds. It’s been a lot of fun realizing I belong in this industry, and making it happen.
I can only imagine that being a female ‘Beer Slinger’ has its challenges (reader, please see Lorna’s article). What other challenges does one face as a female beer nerd?
Modern brewing and beer culture in general is very male-dominated, which is the exact opposite of how the brewing industry began. Pharaonic Egyptians claim the much lauded Goddess of “drunkness and dance,” Hathor, first created beer, and the Finns claim three women (Osmotor, Kapo, and Kalevatar) worked together to make the very first beer out of bear saliva and honey for a wedding celebration.
Until the industrial revolution, European women were in charge of brewing beer for their households. Once beer could be mass-produced and delivered to pubs, men claimed the taverns for themselves, and pushed women out of both the practice of drinking and brewing beer.
Women were the original brewers! Somewhere along the line, men barged in and took over. So, it’s my personal vendetta to get our validity in the industry back. The challenges I’ve faced seem to stem from my just being a girl. My male co-workers trust my opinion and knowledge, but sometimes my customers do not, including other women! One of my favorite, and least favorite things, about serving beer where I do is that we have an incredible draft list that is unlike any in the city of Chicago, so our patrons are often dumbfounded and need a little guidance. This leads me to ask what style of beer a patron is in the mood for and guide them through the list this way. Often, people accept my advice, and get a beer they really love. Sometimes, I get halfway through this process to be told, “wow! You really know your stuff!” Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive, but I’ve never seen any of our male servers get such surprised looks when they wax poetically about our beers.
Clearly, that challenge is touched on already in the Chick Beer article, but I would say it’s the biggest stumbling block I have at this point. Honestly, I think being a woman will work in my favor as I progress through the industry, and I plan to make sure I use my lady-hood to my advantage wherever I can.
Any advice on how to face those challenges?
Education! That’s what women interested in beer must focus on. Learn as much as you can, try your hand a home brewing, taste beer all over town and understand the basic differences between styles. Find a group of women to drink with, and share bottles with. I’ve started the Chicago chapter of Barley’s Angels, a women’s beer appreciation group for this very reason. We held our first meeting last week, and the women who came were smart, passionate, and interested in beer. We discussed some basic belgian-inspired styles, learned the vocabulary to explain what you’re seeing, smelling, and tasting when you have a beer, and just had a great time.
I struggle a bit with the fact that Barley’s Angels meetings must consist of all women, because I’ve felt excluded at beer events before. But I think it’s important for us to have a safe space to drink beer and not feel judged or talked over. It’s just about feeling comfortable, and allowing yourself to make a mistake or ask a question.
Where do you want to take your passion for beer?
Ideally, I would love to be an educator. I met a man recently who works as an independent beer consultant to restaurants all over the country. He helps restaurants build their beer portfolios, educate their staff, and expand the general attitude toward beer as a high-end beverage. Having the opportunity to do something like that would be pretty great. That takes a lot of luck, and even more connections. For now, I’m happy learning about the industry and figuring out where I fit.
What advice would you give to others interested in exploring beer?
Keep on exploring. Drink everything you can get your hands on, even if you don’t think you’ll like it. You can really surprise yourself that way. My depth of knowledge grew when I decided to become a regular to my local beer bar. I would stop by with friends, but most often alone. I would pick slower evenings so I could bullshit with the bartenders, ask questions, and taste as much as I wanted. Find a place you are comfortable in and patronize it as often as you can! If that’s a local liquor store with a depth of knowledge, or your corner bar, find it and use the resources they provide. Other nerds are always looking for people to nerd out with.
Favorite moment or memory exploring beer/breweries?
In Chicago we have a very vibrant craft beer scene. I’ve had the opportunity to tour a few breweries, and everyone is so passionate and happy to do what they do. While I don’t have a specific anecdote about a brewery, one of my favorite members of this scene is Pipeworks. What I love about them is that Chicago beer nerds have watched them go from two guys with a couple of carboys and a Kickstarter to now having a fully operating brewery staffed by eager volunteers, and a devoted and seemingly insatiable customer base. They truly went grassroots on it, and have been able to let their delicious beer be the selling point. These guys also self-distribute, and not having to be chained to a particular distributor allows them to be picky about where their beer ends up. It’s also a lot of work to drive your beer all over town, but the relationships they make this way are deep and priceless.
They also are the nicest guys, too! Just this week they rescued a kitten while out and about delivering beers, covering themselves in mud in the process. It’s these kinds of communities that are found within the craft beer scene that warm my heart, and make all of this worthwhile. Well, that and the beer!
Lorna graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in Communications. Now living in Chicago, Lorna is a Beer, Spirits and Food Contributor for the Chicagoist, as well as a Beer Slinger for Local Option. She is also the local chapter leader of Barley’s Angels, a national club for women who are passionate about beer.
Please read Lorna’s article, “Chick Beer”: A Lady Beer Nerd’s Rant.
Do you know a self-proclaimed nerd we should interview? If so, please contact Terra at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us about them.