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Empress of Hops : The Woman Behind Your Beer

Beer and lunch with a remarkable woman who brews beer for a living!

Frank Zappa famously remarked that “you can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline”, and thanks to craft brewing, we’re starting to agree. We meet up with one of only a handful of women brewmasters in India to talk about hops and happiness.

What is the world’s oldest written recipe? A form of alcohol, obviously! The first written recipe in the Western word is a 4000 year old Mesopotamian clay tablet describing the brewing of beer, and dedicated to Ninkasi, a Sumerian goddess.

The production of beer began in the domestic kitchens of Babylon, possibly a lucky by-product of bread. It was women who ruled these kitchens and presided over the brewing of beer, adding the ingredients and spices found in their kitchens to their beer-bread. But with the arrival of the Industrial Age, the production of beer shifted to the factories, and over the years the brewing of beer came to be recognized as a “Males Only” enterprise.

Not any longer, though. Thanks to the rise of craft brewery – the smaller, independent brewers who are the anti-thesis of mass produced beer – many more women are now re-staking their claim to this ancient art that was once their sole domain. The Pink Boots Society, founded by veteran brewmaster Teri Fahrendorf as a platform to encourage female beer professionals, has “936 members and counting”. We met up with one such woman - Julie Georgeanne Baggett, a veteran of beer making for nearly two decades – who is now in India to set up the brewery for Vapour in Gurgaon & Bangalore.

Julie, Can you tell us something about your background and how you decided to pursue a career as a brew master?

I am from Atlanta, Georgia and was a big fan of Scarlett O’Hara in my childhood – I admired her for surviving and thriving in a man’s world (Scarlett is the heroine of Gone With the Wind which is set in Atlanta -the city has an excellent museum dedicated to its author Margaret Mitchell).

I spent the first 10 years of my career as a healthcare professional, but I had been brewing beer at home as a hobby since I was in college. At my family’s suggestion, I enrolled for a formal education in beer-making at the University of California, Davis. I was then invited by Anheuser-Busch (makers of Budwieser) to join their headquarters at St Louise. I worked there for a year and then moved into the craft brewing industry, where I have been working for the last 19 years.

I’ve always been curious about the process of making beer – how long does it take you to make the beer that you serve at Vapour?

Well that depends upon the beer being made – brewing is both an art and science. The art is in the selection and combination of the malts and hops. I have an extensive flavour wheel in my mind that I draw upon to kick start the selection of my brew – this part is highly creative and is actually a lot like cooking. The science is in working with the temperature range and adjusting the hops so I get the desired color, taste and alcoholic content. Luckily these days there are software that help you do this – the one I have at Vapour is highly sophisticated and rare to find even in the best craft breweries in America.

To answer your question on how it takes to brew the beer – typically the ingredients are brewed for around 8 hours; the sugar is fermented for about 5 days (this is where the alcohol comes from!); the brew is cooled and the yeast removed; we age it from anywhere from 2- 7 days and finally it is carbonated and served! So around 15 days after we have finalized the ingredients and their mix.

Wow, that was a top class five minute primer on Brewing 101 – thank you! Can you tell us a bit about the beers you are currently brewing for Vapour, and which among these is your favourite?

I have six brews ready right now.

The lightest is the Rice Beer rice that I have made with fragrant Basmati rice – this is a great breakfast beer though it has the highest alcohol content amongst our brews.

Then we have the Premium Lager which is an all-purpose lager – this goes really well with Indian food, and makes a great beer for lunch.

The German Hefeweizen is a classic wheat beer with a unique banana and cloves flavour – it is particularly well suited for green salads and seafood.

The Vapour Valentine is loaded with exotic spices (including aphrodisiacs!) and is a must try. I call this the Happy beer – it’s the perfect beer for the festive season.

The Irish Red has a caramel toffee and is best paired with chicken and pork – I’ve used a Belgian variety of the hops here which has a sweet toffee flavour.

And finally we have the German Schwarzbier – it’s our darkest beer but has the lowest alcohol content. It goes really well with mutton and chocolate – you must try this beer with the rich chocolate deserts from our bakery.

I love all these brews and my favorite depends upon what I’m eating!

Julie looking at these beers is such a visual delight – from the pale yellow of the Rice Beer, the blondes and golds of the Lager & Valentine, and the luxurious rich chocolate color of the Schwarzbier! What makes a great beer in your mind, and do you see a difference in Indian tastes in beer compared with America?

I believe that any beer should pass what I call my 2 litre drinkability test – it should always have the customer asking for more! A good beer is not only solace to the soul but a delight to all visual senses – the color which is what you see first, the sweetness and aroma of the malt, the fragrance and finally the taste when you first take a sip.

I think Indians don’t like bitter beers, unlike the Americans who live by “The Hoppier the Better”. However, Indians do expect a high alochol content. So I keep these preferences in mind when brewing beer here.

What advice would you give to aspiring brewmasters in India? Any particular advice for women wanting to join this profession?

I think beer making is a very interesting profession for people who want to apply scientific knowledge in a highly creative environment! A Masters in Biotechnology/ Microbiology/ Biology should set you up – aspiring candidates can then opt for an online course or travel to USA or Europe for classrom training. The Siebel Institute of Technology is the oldest brewing school in America and has partnerships with universities in Germany & Belgium.

Apart from the technical skills, the life of a brewmaster requires a fair amount of stamina. Personally I have never felt any discrimination on account of my being a woman.

How has living and working in India been like for you? Have you worked in India before?

This is my first time in India and it has been a fantastic experience! I love Indian food – in fact I cook a lot of Indian food myself – so I’ve really enjoyed sampling my favourite Indian dishes (I can never get enough of Chicken 65). I also love shopping for the traditional Indian clothes. I’ve visited the Taj Mahal & Red Fort and would love to travel to Dharamsala & Goa if I get the chance.

I’ve greatly enjoyed working in India – Indian men are gracious and chivalrous . My boss (the owner of Vapour in Gurgaon & Bangalore) is extremely knowledgeable about brewing and is quite involved in the entire process.

Which is your favorite place in the world for great beer? What other drinks do you enjoy?

I love Belgian beers and that is my favorite beer haunt! Apart from beer, I enjoy drinking vodka & Irish whiskey.

What do you like doing in your free time?

I hardly get any free time when I’m in the midst of production! I enjoy cooking a lot – apart from Indian food that I talked about earlier, I also like making old fashioned British & German pub food.

I also enjoy hiking in the woods, surfing the internet and reading the old fashioned way – Kindle is not really my thing though it is remarkably practical for long travels such as this one. Stephen King is my favorite author and I recently discovered his son Joe Hill (Joseph Hillstrom King) who is as talented as his father.

Lastly Julie, there’s one question we like to ask of all our interviewees. If you could go back in time and choose to have dinner with one person who would it be and why?

I would want to have dinner with my deceased sommelier brother who turned me on to this path. We both enjoyed good food and good alcohol.

Post script: Julie was kind enough to let me sample all the brews. I’m not much of a beer drinker, but I loved the German Hefeweizen & Schwarzbier (I think it’s time to head to the Oktoberfest!). Alongwith the beer, we had an excellent meal of Sesame Chilli Lamb & Beer Wrapped Prawns for starters; Spanish Fish & Orange Chicken for main course; and the deliciously sinful Rum Chocolate Balls for dessert.


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