Whose Brews?   Our Brews!

A place for musings, sharing stories, trying new things, and exploring the intersections of beer, social justice, and privilege.

Chris Nichols

Chris Nichols

Chris Nichols
Homebrewer and Senior Energy Workforce Advisor, US Department of Energy, Jobs Strategy Council

Mt Rainer, MD

How did you get into brewing?
I was young and had just moved to Washington. Some of the men in my church were brewing and eventually they moved on and didn’t want to take their equipment with them, so they offered it to whoever wanted it. This was probably in 1985. I took it not knowing a thing about how to actually brew. I enjoy all sorted of slow food processes, like bread, fermented foods, picking and preserving my own fruits and things like that, so I thought I’d just figure it out, not knowing that it was really uncommon for women to brew. This was also before the internet and before Charlie Papazian’s book. At the time, there was a little homebrew store way out in Rockville. I borrowed a car and drove out there and asked the guy there, “how do you do this?” He gave me a recipe book and I started brewing. In more than 30 years of brewing, I’ve only had one bad batch.

I’ve never aspired to be in the business of beer. I do it as a fundraiser for an organization I’m a board member of, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network. Every year I brew a bunch of beer and have a big party at my house and all the proceeds support PRKN. I want to expand that and develop a fundraising campaign with the breweries in the Potomac river watershed to give a constant revenue stream to the organization. Without clean water, you get no beer! and without Potomac RiverKeeper, no one is fighting for clean water. 

You’ve seen 30 years of homebrewing. How has the industry changed in that time?
Well, my goodness, a lot more people are brewing now. Certainly when the internet came in and there was the ability to research and share recipes and buy supplies online, that changed a lot of things. The biggest thing that I think has changed is the explosion of people experimenting with new hybrids of hops, new grain adjuncts and combinations, and the fantastic creation of so many microbreweries.

Do you remember the first beer you ever had?
I was in college and I’m sure it was a terrible beer like Budweiser. When I first moved to DC in 1982, I was in a group house and we could only afford Wiedemann’s beer - it was the cheapest beer available. Our house was even called the Wiede-women house because we drank so much of it.

What has your experience been like as a woman in a male-dominated industry?
I’ve tended to be a woman in many male-dominated areas. I just want to do what I want to do. I’m approaching everything with an open heart. We’re just gonna overlook the little social awkwardness that might creep into your astounded expression when you see me brewing beer!

So one of the ways misogyny has shown up for you is men’s disbelief in your ability to brew?
Oh yeah, when they are drinking it and enjoying it, and when I say, “I made it,” then you can see - if they don’t actually sputter - they say “no, really?” That was very common the first twenty years I was brewing.

What do you think it would it take to achieve a more inclusive craft beer industry?
Being a white person, it means working on your own racism. I do that for myself. I’m not perfect - I have plenty of ingrown, acquired “-isms.” But inclusiveness is more than saying, “we welcome all races and religions.” You have to go beyond that. You have to create an environment that is populated by the community you live in.

Are there specific ways you try to do that?
There is a white dominance in breweries that I try to overcome by brewing with friends of color and inviting my friends of color to come with me to the breweries. I have thought about how to bring older people, people of color, and other folks into brewing as a social activity just for fun. Now more than ever people of good courage need to share and create spaces where we can be safe, we can build community, we can enjoy and support each other in exactly who we are.

My wife and I, our vows were that we would of course love and support and honor each other, but our purpose as a couple was to build community. I definitely feel we’ve done that, but this is maybe the moment where I need to get more creative about that. I’m pushing myself to find that creative space of helping people enjoy this with me.

One thing that’s stood out to me as someone who is not straight is how heteronormative the beer industry is, and I’m curious what your experience has been like?
That is almost more offensive to me than the male-female bias. When my wife and I go to all the microbreweries around, I do feel that I have to be careful and on my guard. There is a male heterosexual preference and energy that is emboldened in a microbrew situation. There is an expectation that “hey, we’re all straight guys here.” It’s not just that they don’t want to be tolerant, they don’t want you changing that culture.

What style of beer do you think is most overrated right now?
I think everybody is calling everything an IPA, and you drink it and you think, “oh come on, this is not an IPA! It’s just an ale with a little hop forward to it!” Can't we just enjoy all beer styles for being true to style? Beer has enough variety to suit all tastes.

Is there a particular beer you think is overhyped?
You know what, I had a Pliny the Elder. I went with a friend because I was in San Francisco for a work trip. It was delicious. It was just a really good IPA. Maybe it was the first really good IPA. But you gotta remember that beer is just beer.

What was the last beer you drank?
I had a Perrin IPA from Grand Rapids Michigan. It was fantastic.

What beer is in your fridge right now?
I have a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA. I have a hard apple cider that I made. I have some homemade root beer. I have one more can of the Perrin. Oh, and my last Uptown Georgia Brown, my honey ginger recipe with a brown ale base.

What’s your favorite local beer?
I love the Atlas Rowdy. I love DC Brau, but I can’t say an individual beer - I love the ethic and the energy of DC Brau. You know, half price pints and people playing board games, all generations are there. Hellbender has a red ale that’s quite good. Denizens is also good in being a more inclusive brewery. It’s a women-owned brewery, and I patronize them for that reason. And they have good beer, so it’s not just a social cause.

If you were me, are there other questions I should be asking you?
Maybe why beer, why not something else?

Why beer, not something else?
You know, I always wondered why beer, not wine? So many women gravitate toward wine. For me, beer is the common beverage. Beer was preferred to water before sanitation because of the fermentation process. It was safer to drink beer than water for most of history, and it was much lower in alcohol then. And women were the brewers. Beer harks back to that historic root for me, that root in safety, comfort, and community. And it’s “paisano.” Beer is for everyone.

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