Breaking Beeriers with Laura Ulrich, Stone Brewing
Laura Ulrich, Small Batch Brewer at Stone Brewing and President of the Pink Boots Society, sits with us at HopCulture’s Breaking Beeriers dinner at Ivan Ramen. She talks about her beer career, being a woman in the industry and the "education ceiling."
What is an average day at Stone like for you?
I am part of Small Batch, so my current day-to-day job is at the barrel warehouse. So, I show up. It’s me and another guy at an off-shoot location that’s downhill from the main brewery, which is located in Escondido, CA. We fill barrels or we take beer out of barrels or we taste through barrels or we transfer beer from the brewery down to the off-shoot location or we transfer it from that location to the brewery.
That’s what we do right now, however, we’re a small team and there’s four of us. We split and two of us hang out at the brewery and two of us hang out at this barrel warehouse. The other two - every few months we rotate - are hanging out at the seven barrel pilot system that we have. That’s going to research & development. So if we’re changing a hop or changing a core recipe, we’re trying to just do a small batch of it. Seven barrels, that’s where we do that stuff. So an average day consists of manually making beer and manually kegging it all. Everything’s manual!
How has working with Stone influenced your career and how do you think you’ve influenced Stone?
I think Stone has influenced my career tremendously. Like I said, I’ve been there for 14 years. When I first started, I was in my early 20s and I don’t know if I was necessarily into beer as much as I should’ve been back then. I started off on the bottling line, so I’ve worked my way through my career via that. I learned a lot of stuff. I learned that I liked beer. I learned that I liked different styles of beer. I also learned that I wanted to learn other aspects of brewing because of them.
Working on the bottling line and looking over at the cellar, where they were running the filter, setting up lines and then where they were brewing - it kind of peaked my interest. What are you doing? What’s happening here? Early on in my career, they’d ask me, “Do you want to be a brewer?” And I’d say, “Well, no, I need to learn the cellar first. I want to learn what’s happening in the middle before I become a brewer.” Because back then, I thought a brewer was up here and cellar was in the middle and bottling was the bottom. I think it’s actually the opposite. The brewer makes the beer, the cellar makes sure it’s all good and cleaned up (or not, depending on if you’re making hazy IPAs), and packaging is ultimately the most important aspect of brewing because you’re the last person to touch product. So, I kind of went the other way - from bottling to cellar to brewing - and then realized, it all connects together. We all ebb and flow together. For me, Stone has been really important.
How did the Pink Boots Society influence your career?
With Pink Boots Society, I met the first female brewer ever. I didn’t know it was a career that someone could have as a female. I worked with guys, I just felt like I was hanging out with my brothers. It didn’t really click whenever I became a brewer that this was something I could do, something I could take to the next level if I wanted to. I just kind of evolved with it until I met Teri [Fahrendorf, Founder of Pink Boots Society].
When I met Teri, she said, “There are other women out there that don’t know each other.” I was like, “I feel like I just left St. Louis and came to work with my brothers. It’s kind of annoying. I want to have a voice and I just want to make really good products. And I want to be important.” I think from there, that’s how Pink Boots has evolved -- just from other women finding each other from 2008, when there were only 60 of us, to now where there are over 2,000 women in the industry. There’s got to be close to a couple hundred women who are brewing beer now.
Why is it important to you to be involved as President of the Pink Boots Society? Why is it important for you to participate in movements like Beers without Beards? And what could other women do to contribute to women’s empowerment specifically in the beer industry?
For me, Pink Boots Society has been really influential because it’s being able to have a conversation with a female that maybe could relate to a situation or a way to go about life. I’m kind of emotional, not in the sense that I cry all the time, but I’m really reactive. So to talk to a female, to have these emotions without it being negative, was a really positive aspect for me and the other women. To be like, “Yeah, I feel really passionate about this and this is how I want to go about it,” but it came off as “bitchy,” or a specific stereotype that they kind of denote to women.. I realized at that point that Pink Boots was there to not only open a door and also offer an open playing field for other women, but to kind of voice how they were feeling and what they need to get off their chest without being judged. Again, I feel like I work with my brothers and I always remember my brothers being like, “You’re super annoying. You’re super annoying. You’re super annoying.” I wanted a place where someone would say, “You’re not super annoying. You’re just going through however you feel and that’s just what you’re going through.”
For me, that was one of the most important things, knowing I could have an open conversation with a female about something that was going on or being able to ask a question without feeling like I’m being judged. I don’t want to feel stupid by asking a question or raising my hand and saying something, even though everyone else in the room might be having the same thoughts. A lot of times women refuse to ask the question because they don’t want to look dumb and I want them to stop that. I want to bring it to the forefront and at Pink Boots, we offer scholarships. Our main thing is offering education. We want to be able to offer an open playing field for women. We want there to not be a glass ceiling. We want there to be a reason for women to come in and we want to offer scholarships in all different aspects from Cicerone to technical brewing to distribution to all of these different concepts that would allow women to be a part of the beer world, which is amazing. Everyone should want to join it! So, we thought, “There’s no glass ceiling, there’s an educational ceiling.” So, if you’re able to stand up to a man with a resume that boasts who you are, then we want to be a part of that.
Laura Ulrich with Beers With(out) Beards Organizer, Grace Weitz
Did you ever doubt your ability to make it in the brewing industry? How did you get past that doubt to become the successful brewer that you are today?
Yes! I never give myself enough credit for what I’m doing or from where I’ve come or for what I’ve done. I’ve done some really amazing things with Stone. I was the first female brewer, I’ve been there for 14+ years. That’s not normal. With Pink Boots Society, I worked to help start an organization for women in the brewing industry. But I never think of it that way. I never put myself out there. So, I don’t necessarily know that I doubt myself. I just like to see other people who are able to be successful and I just hope that whatever I’m doing, I can help provide the mentorship or the leadership. I’m always an open ear.
So, no, I never thought I would be doing what I’m doing. I mean, I have a degree in English. So this is crazy that I make beer for a living and I do what I do, but I get some awesome experiences like this - to come to New York and participate. It’s been incredible. But I absolutely always doubt what I’m doing and I always doubt who I am. I never think that I’m good enough or I never think that I’ll be successful or make the right decision until after its been done. Then I’m like “Oh, that was absolutely the right decision,” or “That’s absolutely what needed to be done.” So, it’s always hindsight for me. I never go into it bullheaded, like “Absolutely, this is how it has to be!” I always think, “I don’t want to upset people. I don’t want to ruffle any feathers. I just want to make the best that could potentially be the best.”
Stone Brewing NYC Representative, Maria Furcal, with Union Beer Sales Team Representatives