Women Lead Charlotte's Craft Beer Boom

This North Carolina city has a booming brew scene, and a pioneering group of women is making it happen.

WORDS Lauren Levine
June 2017

Photography Johnny Autry

When you think of craft beer makers in North Carolina, you might conjure bearded brewers in Asheville. Tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains, the city has long been known for its quirky culture and abundance of breweries. But Charlotte, its neighbor a couple hours to the east, is quickly catching up. Charlotte is currently home to 23 breweries, but the real twist to this Southern town’s beer scene is the prevalence of female brewers and entrepreneurs upping the game. 

Though the Charlotte beer scene is robust now, in 2011 it left something to be desired. Tara Goulet and her husband, Chris, who founded Birdsong Brewing Company, wondered why. “We’d visited other small cities that had so many neighborhood breweries,” Tara says. “We were like, ‘Why doesn’t Charlotte have this? This is crazy!’” 

Though the Goulets had a passion for beer, neither had a background in producing it. Chris worked at Charlotte-headquartered Bank of America, while Tara was a baker by trade. To get started, they recruited one of her co-workers, Conor Robinson, who’d dabbled in home brewing. Six years on, Robinson is still with Birdsong, as head brewer. 

“We didn’t really think anything would come of this; we thought it was a hobby,” Tara says. “To get started, we pulled together a very small amount of funding from friends in the corporate world who had money that they might want to see grow, and managed to open a brewery, but it’s grown more than we ever imagined.” 

Tara says the company has expanded by more than 700 percent from year one to year five, with production jumping from 750 barrels annually to 6,050. Birdsong’s products are now available in Charlotte, Western North Carolina, Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and,  in South Carolina, Rock Hill, Fort Mill and Columbia—demand that prompted a move to a 30-barrel brew house last year. 

As a former baker with a fine arts degree, Tara had never really imagined herself as a brewing magnate. Yet she thrives in her role as head of Birdsong’s sales and marketing. Sometimes when she’s making calls, though, Tara encounters those who are caught off guard upon discovering she’s more than an employee.

“They’ll say, ‘How long have you worked for the brewery?’ And I say, ‘I’m actually one of the owners,’ and there’s a little bit of surprise there, but not as much as you might think. More and more women in the beer industry are getting noticed for their work, whether they’re brewers or owners or sales reps,” she says. 

Venture into Birdsong and you’ll find that many of the beers have distinctively hard-rocking names. Chris Goulet, a die-hard Rush fan, dubbed their first beer Free Will, after the band’s 1980 song “Freewill.” Though the name was a musical tribute, Tara saw a more personal significance. “I was listening to the song, and it made me think a lot about opening the brewery and how hard it was to do and all the challenges, but how it was going really well. It made me think we should name our beers after songs.”  

In addition to Free Will, the brewery’s musically themed lineup includes Higher Ground (their best-seller), Fake Plastic Trees, Paradise City and Rice Rice Baby. Tara’s personal favorite? Lazy Bird Brown Ale with its rich coffee notes. 

The aforementioned bearded brewer is a stereotype familiar to Alexa Long, and one she’s happy to upend. The petite rock-climbing blonde is head brewer at Legion Brewing, located in Charlotte’s eclectic Plaza Midwood neighborhood. “A lot of times people are a little shocked. I think besides the fact that I’m a girl, brewing is kind of a quirky profession in and of itself. Obviously stereotypes exist. It’s a real thing. No one expects someone like me to be a brewer.”

Long began her foray into beer with five years of home brewing experience, during which time she worked at a store that sold beer- and winemaking supplies. From there she moved to a job at Charlotte’s Heist Brewery for almost two years, before securing her position at Legion.

Though the industry remains male-dominated, Long notes that more and more women are joining her. “We have a lot of females on staff at Legion, probably 40 percent or so on the marketing side. Slowly they’re getting more involved in the brew side.” She also notes there are plenty of resources out there for those looking to follow in her career path. “There are Meetup groups associated with craft beer, and women’s home brew days.”

If you’re imagining Long and her team spending their days casually sampling their frothy output, try again. Each brew session can last between six and 12 hours, and calls for intense physical labor. “When you’re brewing, you’re lifting. You’re on your feet all day. You’re sweating. Even when you’re not brewing, you’re lifting kegs and cleaning. It’s extremely physically demanding.”

Long tries to stay unbiased when it comes to her favorite beers, but she admits that IPAs are typically her first pick. “I’m also seasonal in terms of both what I brew and what I drink. I’ll drink light, sour stuff in the summer, and darker stuff in the winter.” 

If you pay a visit to Legion, Long would advise you to order a Juicy J. “It’s our flagship. It’s an East Coast IPA that’s 6.3 percent, and it’s one I’m really proud of. It’s my go-to style, so seeing it all around town is really cool.” 

Last year, Long had the opportunity to collaborate with another female power player in the Queen City beer scene, when she and Rachael Cardwell of NoDa Brewing teamed up to create two German-style goses. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the beers benefitted Pink Boots Society, which works to advance the careers of women in the beer industry through education and community.

Cardwell has been involved in nearly every facet of the craft brewing business. She began serving beer when she was 19, then learned to brew out of necessity in Richmond, Virginia, when the company she worked for became short-staffed—making her the only female brewer there. After her time at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Virginia from 2011 to 2014, Cardwell moved to Left Hand Brewing Company in Colorado in 2014, before arriving in Charlotte as a brewer at NoDa Brewing in July 2015. 

Regardless of the city she’s in, Cardwell has noticed several common misconceptions about the industry. “A lot of people assume that brewers drink all day. They think it’s lackadaisical and chill,” she says. “I’d love to, but we wouldn’t be able to do our job.
It’s actually mostly cleaning. People usually don’t realize how big the tanks are. You bring them up onto the brew stand and they’re climbing two flights of stairs to get there. They’re also surprised by how much beer we actually produce.”

Cardwell has been in Charlotte for almost two years now, and has seen drastic changes in the city’s beer scene. “It’s exploded with all of the small breweries that are opening and continue to open.”

Soon, Cardwell will contribute to that growth herself. In the spring of 2018, she and her husband will launch their own two-barrel brewery, featuring small batch creations like a Gin and Tonic Wit, a Café Latte Stout and a Bacon Brown Sugar Ale. By the sounds of it, fun additions to any beer scene.

When Carol Waggener worked for Tropicana, her supervisor had a nickname for her. “I’d walk in and he’d go, ‘Look out, everyone! Here comes the Bold Missy!’” Though the job didn’t stick, the nickname did. These days, Waggener is the creator of Bold Missy Brewery, an enterprise she launched last month in Charlotte after spending years as an analyst, account manager and sales manager at companies such as Anheuser-Busch, grocery chain Kroger and the aforementioned juice company. 

Though the consumption of beer might be fun, Waggener knows the business behind it isn’t always so. “It’s much more than just ‘Hey, let’s make great beer and see if people will buy it.’ The business part surprised me, how intense it can be. You have to have a great team around you in terms of accounting and taxes and legal.” But despite the challenges, Waggener’s own bold move is paying off with a slate of brews that celebrate pioneering women throughout history.

On any given Friday night in Charlotte, you’ll see a crowd gathered at the Sycamore Brewing bar, waiting for their Bumble date to arrive, or gorging on gooey grilled cheese sandwiches from the Papi Queso food truck. The place has emerged as a de facto gathering spot in the trendy South End neighborhood. Patrons turn out in droves for events like food truck rallies, pop-up yoga classes, oyster roasts and live music. There’s also great beer—their Southern Girl Blonde Ale was a 2015 medalist in the Great American Beer Festival. 

But Sycamore’s community vibe didn’t just happen; it’s a strategy for Sarah Brigham and her husband and co-founder,  Justin. “When we opened the doors, it was important to me that Sycamore not be just for beer nerds,” she says. “The beer is really excellent, obviously, but it’s about so much more than that. It’s really an experience.” The “more the merrier” mentality is part of what’s contributed to Sycamore’s success (they’ve grown over 200 percent each year since 2014) and will power their expansion. They’re investing in a new production facility, which is capable of making 15 times more beer annually than their current facility. Additionally, they’ll begin canning Sycamore beer, making it available in area bars, restaurants and supermarkets, as well as in cities beyond Charlotte. Early canning candidates include Countryside IPA, High Tide White Wheat and Sun Grown Fresh Craft Lager.

Even though the brewing business is competitive and physically demanding, the women of the Charlotte beer scene—a scene they’ve helped build—remain unflaggingly enthusiastic. “I’m passionate about brewing in general, of course,” says Legion’s Alexa Long, “but making a product that people love and that you get to watch them enjoy is really rewarding. I love everything about it.”


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