"I just fell in love with it." Local head brewer wants more women to join her in the craft beer game

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Posted at 7:11 AM, Mar 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-05 18:38:01-05

HAMPTON, Va. - It was only a few years ago.

Rachel Howard was a Chemistry major at Christopher Newport University and she didn't know what she wanted to do with her life.

Then, her dad, who works in beer distribution, got her an internship at a local brewery.

"I just fell in love with it," she said. "Just combining the creative side of brewing as well as all the science that goes behind it just sparked a love in me and I couldn't stop.

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Rachel Howard, Head Brewer at Oozlefinch Beers & Blending, works on the brewery's latest beer, a mulberry imperial saison.

Just a couple years prior, in 2014, a study from Stanford University found of more than 1,700 surveyed breweries, just 4 percent had a woman holding the title of 'head brewer.'

Howard has since added her name to the list. After starting out as a bartender at Fort Monroe's Oozlefinch Beers & Blending in college, she worked her way up, becoming owner Russ Tinsley's Head Brewer a year ago.

"I handle all aspects from grain to glass," she said, minutes before lifting and pouring a heavy bag of grain into a milling machine. She's also monitoring the boiling of a batch of imperial saison that will get additions of mulberry.

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Rachel Howard lifts a heavy bag of grain into a milling machine at Oozlefinch Beers & Blending.

Being Head Brewer means balancing Howard's self-described "more reserved" style to Tinsley's tendency to go "all out." It's a recipe for success, it turns out, with Oozlefinch's sour beers garnering more and more attention.

"This brewery is on a fast train and I'm excited to be a part of it," she said.

And as more people find out about Oozlefinch, Howard tells News 3 more are surprised to learn the person behind the flavors is a woman.

"There's been several times that we've been out or people have come into the brewery and they'll assume that my packaging line guy is the Head Brewer," she said. "Sometimes I kind of play along with it and other times I'm like, 'nope, it's me.'"

Of all the other breweries in the Hampton Roads area, Howard only knows of one other where a woman is in charge of brewing.

"Michele (Lowney), she works at Maker's (Craft in Norfolk)," she said. "Another brewer in the area that I know really well is Elizabeth Sitarski. She works at Smartmouth."

But Howard says things are changing in the industry. She points to international organization Pink Boots Society, which champions women in craft beer.

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Taproom at Oozlefinch Beers & Blending, located at Fort Monroe in Hampton.

For what it's worth, Howard and Oozlefinch are doing their part to bring more women into the craft beer world. The brewer who assists Howard is also a woman. Howard says in recent years she's seen more women take on roles at breweries, telling News 3, "More and more women are becoming pretty aggressive in showing their capabilities and showing what they can do."

In the battle against perception, every bit of aggression counts.

A study released in 2019 from Stanford University found that when 200 volunteers were asked to assess a craft beer label, "when consumers believed the producer was a woman, they claimed they would pay less for the beer, and they had lower expectations of taste and quality."

As far as Howard is concerned, women are more than capable of brewing good beer. Not only does she want to see more women join her, she wants to see the industry become more inclusive with regards to race too.

"I think it would be really beneficial for breweries everywhere to create that inclusive environment and show we're accepting of everybody," she said.

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Oozlefinch is known for its sour beers.

As for anyone who wants to enter the world of brewing craft beer, Howard has this advice...

"There's a big difference between people who know what they're doing and people who are excited to be doing it and I think that's where the brewing industry is," she said. "If you go in and say I really want to do this and you work really hard at it, [breweries] see that hard work."

And it is hard work, but Howard wouldn't change a thing as she continues to break barriers in an industry where she intends to stay for a long time.