Samantha Dannen is a bit of a beer geek. She started her homebrewing when she was an art history major at UWM and she fell in love. But when she tried to find her job in the craft beer industry, Dannen found herself repeatedly passing the job to men with less experience and knowledge than her.
Eventually, she found a way to push her foot through the brewery door, Milwaukee’s first female craft brewer. She is currently a brewer at Third Space Brewing Company and serves as the Wisconsin chapter leader for the Pink Boots Association, an organization that supports women in the fermentation industry.
Dannen sat down (beer in hand, of course) to talk about her career, women in the brewing industry, and how beer relates to her art history major.
Why did you choose UWM to major in art history?
I chose UWM because I knew pretty early on in high school that I liked studying art. When I started researching more schools in Wisconsin with art history programs, UWM was listed as one of the best.
Most of the art history graduates I talk to are not brewers. What on earth happened?
My dream was to graduate with a degree and become a curator. I then took an internship and helped curate artwork with local artists for several exhibitions. I was so excited about it and got to choose the artists and decide how to present their work.
It turned out to be a complete disaster. I hated every second of it. Artists want their work to be seen the way they want to be perceived. The whole point of curation is for[artists]to step back and show their art in a way that evokes emotion through the viewer. You may not be presenting yourself. However, some artists are not very good to work with. I felt that it would take a long time to reach a level of respectability in my field.
I discovered craft beer while attending university. A friend and I started homebrewing together. The process of making beer is very similar to art history.
How does brewing relate to art history?
There are four ingredients: literally, malt, yeast, water, and hops. That’s all. However, there are many different types of these ingredients that can be used. What art historians do is take the components of art individually, talk about them individually, and then finally figure out how they fit together to create the finished product. For me, beer was very similar in that respect. You incorporate really beautiful things into your products. Take them apart, analyze them, love and appreciate them for what they are, then put them back together for the final product and appreciate them as a whole.
My mother always asked me, if I had to wake up every day and do something I loved, what would it be? For a long time, I thought it was about curating art. Along the way, she thought, “If I could brew beer every day of my life, I’d be the happiest person on the planet.”
I think it’s difficult to break into the brewing industry if you don’t have a beer-related background. Apparently it’s even more difficult for women.
When I was considering a career in the brewing industry, there were very few breweries around here. Only the main ones were: Sprecher, Lakefront, Brenner Brewing. And I didn’t know any women working as brewers in Milwaukee.
I had applied to companies such as Sprecher, but there were no open positions. I didn’t go into this blind. I read about beer and actually studied it the same way I study art. Because I knew I needed a knowledge base. you can speak the language. You can confidently say, “I can do these things.” I want to learn more. …and no reaction. The same thing happened many times. I have a guy friend who has never brewed home beer or doesn’t know anything about beer, and they applied for a brewing assistant position and got the job right away, so it was a slap in the face. became.
How did you get your big break and become the first woman in Milwaukee’s brewing industry?
I was helping a friend run a homegrown club at the Rumpus Room downtown. A lot of beer geeks gathered there. One of the people we introduced was George Breger, owner of Company His Brewing, who gave me my first job at the brewery. …His beer was very delicious. It was the best homemade beer I’ve had in my life and I was very impressed.
After a few meetings we hit it off and he told me he was going to open his own brewery. That was my moment. I thought, “I have to beg, beg, do whatever to get the job.” He hired me as a waiter, and when he needed a little help at the brewery, I was finally called upon.
How did you get from Company Brewing to Third Space?
I worked at Company Brewing for five years and eventually became head brewer there. I was very excited to be a part of that operation. I learned so much there and made so many great beers and great memories. The only reason I left was because I wanted to grow a little more in my career.
Third Space Brewing was my first choice. Because I felt like they really put their employees first. Also, the quality of the beer was excellent. The biggest attraction of coming here was that there were eight production staff members, four of whom were women, which was unprecedented in this industry at the time.
Interestingly, the first brewer was a woman. They were called witches at one point because they did that. Since I started in this industry, I have made it my mission to help other women and young women join this industry.
It seems like the perfect time to talk about pink boots association.
This is an international organization and it’s not just about beer. Intended for women in all fermented beverage industries. We have separate chapters and we do a lot of fundraising. All the money we raise goes toward scholarships and educational opportunities for our members.
I am the leader of the Wisconsin chapter of the Pink Boots Association. It allowed me to meet many women from all over the state who were just like me and had to overcome all of the same hurdles as me. It was so nice to finally feel that connection with a group of people. We strive to create fun opportunities throughout Wisconsin. We just had an (event) at Old World Wisconsin and they did the history of Beer Day with us. We spent a full day there learning what brewing was like in the 19th century. We literally brewed beer over an open fire.
Let’s talk about brewing. What does it take to become a brewer?
so much. One of the things I like about Third Space is that there is no hierarchy system. Most breweries start with packaging, putting the beer into cans, kegs, and bottles. If we’re lucky enough to be able to unwrap it, we usually move on to the basement. To do this, the beer must be processed before it can be packaged.
Next, you will be in the brewing position. Usually, you are in charge of brewing the beer. The malt and water are mixed together, all the sugars are extracted from the grain in a mash tun (a type of brewery kettle), the hops are added, and the yeast is added. Yeast eats the sugar and produces alcohol as a byproduct. That’s beer. After about 1 to 2 weeks, beer fermentation will be complete. The people in the cellar extract the yeast and add more hops. Transfer the beer to a centrifuge to remove any remaining solids. A canning line then carbonates the beer before packaging it.
At Third Space, everyone who works here does all of these things. Yesterday I was on the brew deck. Today I was in the basement. Tomorrow I will be on the canned food line. My favorite thing to do is brew recipes that I’ve never brewed before. That’s a challenge to you as a brewer. You can use your brewing art, skill, and knowledge to put it together.
Do you personally have the opportunity to create new recipes?
Yeah! I created a few recipes when I was at Company Brewing, and I’ve created many more since coming to Third Space. The largest beer we produce here is an IPA called “Like A Girl,” which is a collaboration beer with the Pink Boots Association. I had to help think of that recipe.
Have you ever walked into the grocery store, picked up a Third Space beer, and thought, “I made that?”
absolutely. I always look at the bottom of the can to see when it was printed so I can see if I was on the canning line that day.
What do you drink in your private time?
New Glarus. Any New Glarus is fine, but my favorite is Moon Man. This is probably my favorite beer of my life.