Rose of Shannon: A Conversation with Shannon Fink

While archaeologists are confident that the brewing of beer occurred in ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) around 3,500 BC there is some evidence that people living in the same region were quite possibly brewing beer as early as 10,000 BC. In these
ancient societies brewing was a task performed by women. In medieval Europe and colonial America much of the beer that was consumed was produced in the home, with women doing most of the brewing. In sixteenth century Europe the brewing of beer was a task done almost exclusively by women. Indeed in describing the household duties of Katherine von Bora (wife of the great sixteenth century Reformer Martin Luther) author Susan Verstraete noted that these included “paying the bills, gardening, raising livestock, running the household and even brewing beer for family use”. As European and American economies shifted from ones based on agriculture to ones based on manufacturing brewing gradually became industrialized. As industrialization gathered pace brewing left the home and was increasingly done in commercial breweries. As it did, men replaced women as brewers. Thanks, however, to the emergence and growth of the craft brewing industry in the United States female brewers seem to making a welcome comeback. While there appear to be no official statistics on the percentage of American brewers who are female estimates put the number at around ten percent. And although they comprise a relatively small share of brewers in the United States women play a considerably more significant role when it comes to consumption of beer, particularly craft beer. It has been estimated that female consumers account for approximately thirty-seven percent of all craft beer consumption in the United States (compared to twenty-five percent of total beer consumption).

Black Cloister’s Head Brewer Shannon Fink

A few weeks ago I sat down for a conversation with one of America’s female brewers. Shannon Fink holds the title of Head Brewer at the Black Cloister Brewing Company in Toledo, OH.. Shannon and I chatted over a glass of her award winning Helles Angel (a Munich Helles Lager). The previous week Helles Angel had won a gold medal in the Best of Craft Beer Awards. I was in the Black Cloister the day that the award was announced and Shannon was deservedly elated after hearing the news.

Shannon has been with The Black Cloister since it opened in March of 2015. Prior to that, for eleven years, she worked as a nurse. It was not a job that she enjoyed. In fact, during our conversation, Shannon spoke quite candidly about her dissatisfaction with nursing as a profession. She found the work to be stressful, overloaded with paperwork, and generally unrewarding. At that time, however, she was a single mother and nursing provided job security and a good income. Shannon searched for a specialization within nursing that would bring her the job satisfaction that she was craving but, being unable to do so, came to the realization that this was not the profession from which she would retire. Shannon’s experience with a  former occupation is not unusual in the brewing community. In a 2014 British study Thomas Thurnell-Read of Coventry University found that almost every craft brewer he interviewed expressed a significant level of dissatisfaction with the job they did prior to becoming a brewer; the majority of which were jobs that paid well. One brewer who was interviewed noted that he was “incredibly unhappy with banking, with the office world”.

Shannon with her father whom she credits with encouraging her to pursue her creative passions

Shannon does credit nursing with one serendipitous twist of fate – it introduced her to the world of craft beer. A nursing colleague brought some of his home brew for her to try;  from that moment she was hooked. She started reading books on beer and brewing, purchased a home brewing kit, and began making beer on her back patio. She started out using extract kits but quickly started using all grain and was soon experimenting with her use of ingredients. Indeed, in recounting those early homebrewing days Shannon likened herself to a Mad Scientist as she became increasingly creative with her recipes.  It is the opportunity to be creative that drives Shannon’s passion for brewing.  Shannon has always had a creative streak. She is a self-taught charcoal artist while her favorite course in college was the one she took in art. And while her father encouraged her artistic talents she never believed that she could make a living doing something that relied so heavily upon her creative streak;  until that was, she became a professional brewer.

Reading books about brewing has helped Shannon in developing her knowledge of the brewing process

So what is it that makes a successful brewer? The aforementioned research by Thurnell-Read identified two key characteristics that all successful brewers possess – skill and passion. Both are necessary and a lack of either makes it “impossible” to produce good beer. One of the brewers interviewed by Thurnell-Read noted that “there’s nothing to stop you technically being able to brew good beer, if you follow the rules . . . but I think that the thing that differentiates a lot of us is the passion for beer”. With regard to passion for beer Shannon has  it in abundance. It is clearly visible when you engage her in conversation – the sparkle in her eyes and the excitement in her voice are palpable when she talks about brewing. As to acquiring the skills that make her a top-notch brewer these have been acquired from a wide variety of sources – homebrewing, reading, formal training, and hands-on internship experience. In Shannon’s case more formal training was acquired by enrolling in and completing the Craftbrewers’ Apprenticeship Program that is offered by the American Brewers Guild. This is a twenty-eight week program that comprises twenty-two weeks of formal instruction in brewing science (e.g., chemistry and microbiology), a week spent at a working brewery, and five weeks interning at another working brewery. The brewery where Shannon spent her internship was Fathead’s Brewery in Cleveland, OH.

The physical side of brewing

I asked Shannon what she liked least about her job as a brewer. She struggled to come up with an answer and in the end could not. She commented that, as far as she was concerned, she was ‘living the dream’. In contrast to working in a hospital she described the Black Cloister as a ‘Zen-like environment’. Shannon was quick to point out, however, that there are parts of being a brewer that are far from glamorous. There are days when she spends ninety percent of her time cleaning equipment. Parts of the job, such as lugging  fifty pound bags of malted barley around the brewery, are physically demanding. And then there are the times when something goes wrong; when a beer develops an off flavor or when a beer is perfectly fine but does not taste as Shannon intended. How does she feel when these things happen? She feels pain. To her brewing beer is akin to raising a child – and like a child you want to see your beer “turn out good”. And when it doesn’t? Well, simply put, it can be devastating.

Customers at a busy Black Cloister enjoying Shannon’s beer
Rose of Shannon Irish Red Ale

One of the most satisfying parts of Shannon’s job is seeing the Black Cloister’s customers enjoy the beer that she produces. She occasionally sits incognito at the bar in the brewery’s tasting room where she can’t help but eavesdrop on what folks are saying about her beer – and generally they are  saying good things. Shannon is not alone in this respect. Again, one of the brewers interviewed by Thurnell-Read spoke of going into a pub and seeing people drink his beer – “I don’t announce who I am. I just sit back and observe people enjoying the product”. Another brewer stated that it was important to him “to see people enjoying” your beer. In an article about the production and consumption of craft products Colin Campbell of the University of York states that the producer of a craft product is someone “who invests his or her personality or self into the object produced”. It was quite clear from the hour or so that I spent with Shannon (as well as numerous other conversations I have had with her) that she does indeed invest of herself in the beer that she produces. One beer in particular, I believe, captures her personality – an Irish Red Ale. It was among the first beers that was available on tap after the Black Cloister opened and it is a firm favorite among the brewpub’s patrons. The name, Rose of Shannon, is a tribute not only the ale’s creator but also an oblique reference to the brewpub’s Lutheran connections. The seal of the Lutheran Church is a rose. Designed by Martin Luther in 1530 it is known as the Luther Rose.

Shannon credits Black Cloister CEO and Founder Tom Schaeffer with giving her the opportunity to pursue her passion

During our conversation Shannon expressed tremendous respect for Black Cloister’s CEO and Founder, Tom Schaeffer. In hiring her Tom bucked the dominant industry pattern of hiring male brewers. She described Tom “a pretty open-minded dude” who was more interested in her ability to do the job than whether she was male or female.  After Shannon completed the Craftbrewers’ Apprenticeship Program Tom promoted her to the position of Head Brewer. This effectively means that she has sole responsibility for the brewing side of the business.

When I talk to people about what they do for a living I am always curious about their escape valve; what they do to relax when they are not at work. Some people play golf, some spend time tending their garden, while others simply relax with family and friends. So what does Shannon do? She makes homebrew of course (dumb question really). She finds brewing beer at home to be relaxing. In her own words – “It makes me happy”. And as a customer of the Black Cloister I am happy that Shannon is happy in sharing her tremendous passion and talent for brewing beer.

Further Reading:

Campbell, Colin. The craft consumer: Culture, craft and consumption in a postmodern society. Journal of Consumer Culture, Volume 5(1), Issue 1, pages 23–42.

Thurnell-Read, Thomas. 2014. Craft, tangibility and affect at work in a microbrewery. Emotion, Space and Society, Volume 13, pages 46-54.

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