Heart of steel

Award-winning brewer Jennifer Talley has muscled her way through chilly breweries to elevate the quality of the craft beer in Auburn

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Talley

The mill is roaring inside Auburn Alehouse, the family-run brewpub about 40 minutes outside Sacramento, and the whole place smells like malted barley. The entrance matches Old Town Auburn’s charm with warm lighting and exposed brick, but Jennifer Talley’s domain is stainless steel. She observes as the team brews a batch of Gold Digger IPA, one of the brewery’s popular standbys.

In the fall of 2014, Talley showed up here, tasted a few beers and decided she’d take a job. That plan probably wouldn’t have panned out for most individuals—especially since Auburn Alehouse wasn’t looking to hire—but luckily for Talley, she’s one of the best brewers in the United States.

“I thought the beers were really good,” she says. “It seemed like the environment I wanted.”

And Auburn Alehouse owner Brian Ford was happy to oblige.

“Of course I knew who she was, so we made a position,” he says. “I wanted more quality, more consistency. Jen has definitely helped us get there.”

Among her many achievements: 13 Great American Beer Festival medals and seven World Beer Cup medals, including five and three gold medals, respectively. She’s a beer judge for both competitions and frequent conference speaker. And she literally wrote the book on session beer—titled Session Beers—which will be released in September at the Great American Beer Festival.

In 2011, she received her biggest honor to date: the Russell Schehrer Award for Innovation in Craft Brewing. It’s the most prestigious peer-given recognition in the country, focused on brewers who have not only dedicated their lives to craft beer, but also shared their knowledge to help advance the industry as a whole. Talley is the first and only woman to win the award.

“I’m sure there will be others,” she says. “Right now, it’s just me.”

A hippie soul

At age 16, Talley went to her first Grateful Dead concert, and her love of craft beer was born.

She traveled around to see the band about 100 times.

“Being on Shakedown Street, having these big coolers open up: there’s Sierra Nevada, there’s Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, there’s brown ales,” she recalls.

From there, she started homebrewing and, at 21, she nabbed an assistant brewing gig at Squatters Pub Brewery, part of Salt Lake Brewing Co. She stayed put, eventually becoming Squatters’ brewmaster and the greater company’s research and development director, for 20 years.

“You do a lot of growing up between 21 and 41,” she says. “I just questioned myself and how much could I truly grow by staying at the exact same company.”

After taking some beer-oriented trips to Belgium and Germany, Talley segued to Redhook Brewery near Seattle, where she managed production of 140,000 barrels a year—a big jump up from Salt Lake Brewing’s 40,000. Ultimately, Washington’s gloomy weather and the brewery’s corporate structure didn’t jibe well with Talley’s personality.

“I didn’t realize what a small brewer at heart I was until I got to this really big pond,” she says.

From there, she went to Russian River Brewing Co., the Santa Rosa brewpub most famous for Pliny the Younger. After a year and a half, she decided she wanted to focus more on family.

Her mom, who had been taking care of Talley’s two young kids while she worked full-time, had grown ill. Cutting back to part-time and relocating to Grass Valley, with its easygoing vibe and excellent school system, seemed like the next best move. And Auburn Alehouse proved to be the ideal fit.

“Here, I’m able to put a lot of processes in place and do a lot of development and bring a lot of knowledge and experience,” she says. “I love teaching people.”

See: the Russell Schehrer Award, that top-honor for stepping into the role of team coach.

She’s also designing new beers, so Auburn Alehouse fans can expect to see some more experimental brews, starting with Sacramento Beer Week. The brewery will release Cheap Trick, a juicy, hazy, New England-style IPA with a hint of orange Creamsicle born out of a collaboration with High Water Brewing; and a collaboration with Peter Hoey, former brewmaster of Sacramento Brewing Co., will yield Sacramento Saison, a fruity farmhouse made with mandarins from Magnolia Hill Orchard.

“We’re definitely coming out of our comfort zone,” Talley says.

Chalk up that mindset to her Grateful Dead phase and hippie soul.

“Deadheads at the time—late ’80s, early ’90s—were very open-minded individuals,” she says. “In brewing, flavor profiles, tasting [as a judge], being open to new ideas, new processes and new ways of putting flavors together is important.”

Women who brew

Talley has never worked with another woman in a brewery. But she doesn’t blame the beer industry.

“I believe it’s parenting,” she says. “I think if young girls are raised differently to believe in themselves and believe any door is open to them, maybe we’ll see more of a shift.”

Talley thinks of brewing as a trade, like construction or plumbing—blue-collar fields that don’t draw many women.

“It’s usually a father who has the trade job and brings the son on. I plan to bring my children as much as they want into the trade,” she says, adding that her daughter right now is more interested in brewing than her son.

“Why aren’t women more interested in trades?” she says. “When you start at the bottom of any of these breweries, it’s not pretty.”

Talley remembers days at Squatters when it would be 0 degrees Celsius on the streets and negative 10 degrees inside the brewery. She performed a ritual of standing in buckets of hot water to warm up the steel toes on her rubber boots.

“Is there sexual discrimination? Well, yeah,” she says. “There’s sexual discrimination all over the world for women, but it’s no higher or bigger in my industry than another industry.”

It’s partially why Pink Boots Society, an international group geared toward advancing women’s careers in the beer industry, formed in 2007. Last summer, a chapter launched in Sacramento, proving there’s a growing force of local women in beer. Talley admits she hasn’t been a very active member.

“I think it’s wonderful,” she says. “But I’ve never seen myself as a woman brewer. I’ve always just seen myself as a brewer.”