By Tim Fenster
When the founding members of the FemALE brew series first talked about making beer together, it was hardly out of any desire to rewrite alcohol stereotypes or cast light on the gender disparities in the brewing world. They were simply a group of friends and co-workers who shared a love for craft beer.
And they had the perfect opportunity. As “brew-tenders” at Rusty Nickel Brewing Company, their bosses, owners
Jason Havens and Dave Johnson, insisted they understand craft beer and the culinary science behind it.
“It just so happened [Rusty Nickel] ended up with an all-female staff. And we have a huge interest in beer, not just serving it,” said Katie Brown, FemALE brew founding member (and now a manager at Rusty Nickel).
“We’ve been talking about all of us coming together to brew almost from the beginning,” said Katie Kucala, another group member.
After about a year at Rusty Nickel brewing, the-then four brew-tenders had become semi-experts on craft beer. They were well-acquainted with the brewing systems in the back. They asked questions of Johnson, head brewer, all the time. They understood what certain ingredients, and brewing processes, produced at the end.
And it showed.
Customers appreciated and often complimented their in-depth understanding of the beers they were serving. And one former brewtender, Allie Ralbovsky, had moved up to assistant brewer.
“It just kind of fell into place. We all have this interest and we’re all female, and we said why don’t we brew together,” said Brown.
With the blessing of the owners, the four women — Kucala, Brown, Ralbovsky and Emily Melski — launched the the FemALE brew series (RustyNickelBrewing.com). As Brown points out, the effort was not entirely groundbreaking. Women handled brewing for years when it was considered a domestic chore, like cooking and laundry. And women have completely taken the reins of craft beers in plenty of other cities, too.
But theirs was the first craft beer in the Queen City to be entirely produced — from recipes to brewing to marketing — by women.
“It’s nice to break those stereotypes and to push the limits of where women fit in this industry,” Brown said. “As a group, I think our main goal is to show that…if you want a place in the brewing industry, know you have the support here.”
Once the idea was in place, the next step was creating the brew. It couldn’t be just any beer, though; they wanted to make a statement and to be different for more than just not being men, and they wanted to provoke thought and questions.
Then, during a trip to Cleveland, Ralbovsky came across a beer that nobody else was brewing in Buffalo — an albino stout.
“A lightbulb when off when we heard that it was a style that wasn’t really being made around here,” Brown said.
After weeks of kicking around ideas for a recipe, they began brewing 10-gallon test batches. They perfected the recipe after a few test batches.
“It takes a lot of work. But once you have that background knowledge of the science behind making the recipe and brewing the beer, it’s not going to take you 20 batches to figure it out,” Melski said.
They put equal thought into the name. It had to be something evocative that would announce: we are here.
Estrogen Ale was born.
That prompted a lot of predictable questions from customers. Why Estrogen Ale? Is it only for women?
But as Brown explained, there is actually a scientific basis behind the name.
“Little do people know that estrogen is in every beer,” Brown said. “That’s something we wanted to showcase. Hops are a female part of the plant, and that leaves a natural estrogen within the beer.”
The FemALE brewers released the beer last September. Because most beers would be sold in October, breast cancer awareness month, they decided to donate 20 percent of the proceeds to breast cancer research at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. They plan to continue this practice with the other five beers in the series; the charity will change, but will always be local.
The goal was to sell out within a month, but they sold all the nearly 1,000 gallons of Estrogen Ale after just three weeks. They still get requests, but the brewers are adamant that they’re looking ahead, not backward.
“There’s a temptation (to brew more) because everybody asks,” Brown said.
But instead they’ve been researching, testing and building recipes for several new beers to release this summer. If all goes as planned, they might even reach their goal of releasing a six pack’s worth of beers by September, a year after their first release. Despite not setting out to make any political statement, they take pride in what they’ve accomplished as women in a predominantly male-oriented business.
“We’ve all kind of pushed the envelope and said, ‘Oh, that’s what a boy’s supposed to do?’ Watch me do it better,’” Brown said.