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Women make their mark in former 'boys club' of bartending, brewing

Rachel Wright of Mes Que loves experimenting with wild fermented ingredients. Sarah Tierney of Ballyhoo plays with rose water. Kerry Quaile of Buffalo Proper enjoys using dimmi. Jeannie Alexander of Community Beer Works geeks out over the science of brewing and Allie Ralbovsky of Rusty Nickel Brewing Company reaches for IPAs.

These women are part of a growing contingent of area female cocktail professionals and brewers who are a force in the industry thanks to their carefully crafted creations, organizations like Bar Biddies and the Buffalo Beer Goddesses, and the FemALE beer series.

The days of women being relegated to "servers" or "hostesses" is over. Not only is it common to see women behind the bar, they are working together to raise awareness that they can hold their own in the former boys club.

“Having a community of women now in this industry is not only a great achievement, but also an introduction to a different approach to cocktails and bars in general,” said Quaile of Buffalo Proper.

Kerry Quaile is a bartender for Buffalo Proper. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

And as Wright puts it, “The most empowering thing about being a female bartender is proving people wrong and breaking the stigma that the high-end knowledgeable craft cocktail bartender has to be a man with an apron and a mustache.”

Mes Que's Rachel Wright has been an active force among women bartenders in Buffalo. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Wright bases Mes Que's adventurous menu on education and experimentation, in equal parts. Quaile's self confidence and happiness in her job are contagious from the barstool.

As for Ralbovsky, give her a bitter over a fruit beer any day. The pretension that often pervades the craft beverage industry evaporates when these ladies are behind it.

To support each other, provide education opportunities and raise money for charity, Quaile started Bar Biddies. The group hosts events several times a year to raise awareness of women in the industry and to benefit such charities as Planned Parenthood, the United States Bartender’s Guild and the Asha Sanctuary. The next Bar Biddies event is March 7 at Panorama on Seven.

“Bringing a charity into the mix allows us to reach an audience we may not usually see,” Tierney said. “People may come to an event just to support the charity and then realize they like properly made classic cocktails, so its a win-win.”

At Ballyhoo, Tierney slings their signature sausages and craft beverages, especially the Old Fashioned - her current favorite.

"It’s cool to be in the minority in an industry generally thought of as being male-driven and showing that gender should not and can not limit how far you can go in this business,” Tierney said. In Bar Biddies, she said she finds a community of ladies who relate to the specific joys and challenges of the industry.

For Quaile, Bar Biddies is a reflection of something that had been missing in the Buffalo craft bartending community. "Women in our industry needed a way to get together, share ideas, get to know each other in a non-competitive atmosphere,” Quaile said. “Being able to raise money for charity while doing it has been an added bonus.”

Quaile said Bar Biddies also helps focus on foundations of cocktail culture for both participants and customers. Right now, she is loving the classic Negroni, although she recently crafted an Aviation that gave her the first “wow” cocktail moment in awhile.

“Each event we have features a classic [cocktail], a bit of its history and some product knowledge about the brand we have chosen to sponsor our event,” Quaile said. “The class we taught during Nickel City Drink was on ‘Women in Cocktail History.’ We spoke on several prominent women in the cocktail world dating back to the 1800s. We have some amazing role models in the women that forged their way in this industry.”

Kerry Quaile, who founded Bar Biddies, is a bartender for Buffalo Proper. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Buffalo Beer Goddesses is dedicated to both education and community for beer-loving ladies. It formed in 2013, to “increase the presence of women in the beer industry by providing educational and networking opportunities to Western New York women in order to elevate their knowledge of craft beer,” according to the BBG’s mission statement.

The group hosts meet-ups monthly, in addition to collaboration brews with local breweries. It also sponsors a scholarship for the Cicerone certification program which designates hospitality professionals with experience in selecting, acquiring and serving  beer.

Brewing a scene

Contrary to bartending trends, women in brewing are still vastly outnumbered. A 2014 study conducted by Stanford University found that of 1,700 breweries surveyed, only 4 percent had a female head brewer. Locally, both Rusty Nickel Brewing Company in West Seneca and Community Beer Works in Buffalo are bucking that trend.

Alexander was a home brewer who honed her own style before she started working at Village Beer Merchant. She now brews at Community Beer Works and finds the aftercare of beer to be the most important part of the process. “Proper sanitation and healthy, monitored fermentation are how breweries get tasty, consistent, stable products,” she noted.

Jeannie Alexander is an assistant brewer at Community Beer Works. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

While she still encounters some discrimination as a female brewer, she said the culture is improving.

“For the most part, at least locally, we seem to be in the process of moving away from the archaic idea that women aren’t physically capable of production labor and mentally capable of the science involved, but the female population in the industry isn’t enough that we can just be considered part of the industry and have it be normal,” Alexander said. “I really don’t see any other viable fix than education. I find it best to share a beer and a conversation, not an argument.”

Assistant brewer Allie Ralbovsky in the brew house at the Rusty Nickel Brewing Co. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

At Rusty Nickel, brewers show their staying power with a group of all-female brewed beers, the FemALE series which started in September. Portions of FemALE series sales also go toward charities.

“Our main goal for this series is to show the world that women are strong, women are tough, women can brew,” said assistant brewer Ralbovsky. “It’s a physically demanding and at times grueling job. It’s messy, it's by no means glamorous, but that does not mean it's just a guys’ world.”

Ralbovsky wiggled her way into the industry as a home brewer first, as well as being “a curious beer nerd."

“I'm the friend who doesn't shut up about beer but can make suggestions to all my friends based on their flavor profiles,” said the brewer, who also is part of the all-female Pink Boots Society, which supports and encourages women in brewing. Ralbovsky urges women interested in beer to get their hands dirty.

“Any beer nerds or homebrewers out there, you can do it. It's not pretty, glamorous, or easy. It's grueling and gross at times but the results are pretty amazing.”

Step into any local bar or brewery, and the chances of seeing ponytails alongside the beards are ever increasing. All of the women said it’s important for customers to keep an open mind.

As Alexander put it, “You have to support your community in order for it to prosper.” Wright asked for patience when waiting for craft cocktails to be carefully made. Quaile listed “How to Be a Good Regular” by David Wondrich as required reading.

“People in the service industry are deserving of the same respect you would give anyone else,” Tierney said. “And please don't ask me what my ‘real job’ is.”

Rusty Nickel employees, from left: Bartender Margaret Cavese, assistant manager Emily Melski, manager Katie Brown and assistant brewer Allie Ralbovsky. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Beerology [Sold out]

When: 7 to 10 p.m. March 4
Where: Buffalo Museum of Science, 1020 Humboldt Pkwy.
Who: Beer by local breweries served with educational talks by the Niagara Association of Homebrewers, Sultans of Swig, Buffalo Beer Goddesses and more, including the announcement of the next FemALE installment.

[PHOTOS: Smiles at Beerology, in 2016]

Bar Biddies Takeover
When: 5 to 7 p.m. March 7
Where: Panorama On Seven, 95 Main St., Buffalo inside the Canalside Marriott
Who: Guest bartending by members of the Bar Biddies
Charity: Donations will go to Planned Parenthood.

Buffalo Beer Goddess Social
When: 6 p.m. March 23
Where: Pearl Street Grille and Brewery, 76 Pearl St.
Who: Buffalo Beer Goddesses; new members welcome. (BBG socials are usually the third Thursday of the month, and are listed on the group's Facebook page.)

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