Cheers to the women brewing (and drinking) beer

Beer-making is too often seen as a man’s world but times are changing, says Sue Cooper, co-owner of Yorkshire’s Little Valley Brewery

One common misconception that still exists today is that beer is for men, to drink in pubs, with other men. Nowadays this could not be further from the truth.

It’s about breaking down the misconceptions that exist and showing women that the beer industry is a hugely rewarding career with endless opportunities. There are a whole host of female beer sommeliers now (take Melissa Cole and her girl’s guide to beer) who are really showing the world that beer really isn’t just for men.

Today, I am co-owner and director of Little Valley Brewery in west Yorkshire but my career didn’t start in beer. My degree is in Community Studies, which has taken me all over the world, working in challenging environments to help support the growth of the communities within them.

It was when I was working in Nepal that I met my current partner, Wim, who is a food scientist and master brewer. When my contract came to an end in Nepal I cycled back to be with him in England; rather than catch a plane or a bus I decided to take a slower journey by cycling overland to see a bit of the world.

Working at a brewery is a big change from what I used to do – it happened after a set of personal circumstances, and was guided by fate perhaps. The death of both of my parents (virtually at the same time) meant the little bit of time out I had after caring for both of them led me into the brewery.

Wim set up Little Valley Brewery in 2005 and I began spending my spare time there, helping out with various tasks. Once I got more involved it made sense to both of us that I should support on the commercial side of the business. I think a lot of the people and project skills I learned from my previous career were easily transferable and has hopefully been of benefit.

The whole craft movement over the past few years has brought beer out of the pub and into people’s everyday lives as a drink of choice. The variety of flavours and types of beer on the market is huge, so there really is something for everyone.

I am responsible for running the business, including sales, accounts, marketing, operations and strategy. I do, and have done, everything from painting the walls, cleaning the loo and licking the stamps. I’ve been involved with meeting a whole range of beer buyers, meeting politicians and other dignitaries, including Prince Charles, to speaking to publicans and doing tastings in big and small stores. Then of course there are the jobs like hand-peeling the ginger that goes into our ginger pale ale.

Generally it’s a bit too much, but that’s the way it is in a small business, it’s very non-departmental. At the same time I’ve always got an eye on strategy and the bigger picture. Balancing the day-to-day operations with the strategy is always a challenge in a small business.

The best part of my job by far, is producing a product that we genuinely love and believe in. I’ve always enjoyed beer, but prior to meeting Wim I only thought about the taste of it – what I liked and what I didn’t like. Since being involved in the brewery I have learned much more about what goes into making beer – it’s both science and art.

One of my favourite things about the job is being able to see our success when I spot our beers on the retailers’ shelves, or on tap in a pub being enjoyed by customers.

I wouldn’t say there are any “worst parts” about the job, but the hard work, long hours and sheer dedication that it requires is definitely challenging. Having been in this career for over eight years now, I have seen a time where the industry was completely dominated by men. Now, there are so many more women entering the industry, which is something I am really keen to see continue.

Sue Cooper is co-owner at Little Valley Brewery in West Yorkshire

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Sue Cooper

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