When Sarah Polkinghorne applied to become the head brewer at Black Kettle Brewing, her first interview occurred over Skype. That wasn’t a surprise to Polkinghorne, a Port Coquitlam native and graduate of the brewmaster and brewery operations management program at Niagara College Canada.
But then the North Vancouver craft brewery asked her to create her own beer—something she had never experienced before while seeking work.
“I actually developed a recipe when I was interviewing for this job,” Polkinghorne told the Straight by phone. “For the second interview, we made the beer. It got me the job.”
A year later, her Interview Beer is one of the beverages available at Black Kettle Brewing.
“It’s delicious,” she said. “It’s the one I drink the most.”
Polkinghorne is one of a handful of female brewmasters in B.C. The list includes Dogwood Brewing founder Claire Wilson, Julia Hanlon of Steamworks, Nicole MacLean of Twa Dogs Brewery, Heather Kilbourne of Salt Spring Island Ales, and Erin Dale of Barkerville Brewing Co.
Polkinghorne didn’t originally intend on becoming a brewmaster. She obtained a bachelor of science in chemistry at the University of Victoria before being hired as an analyst and later a laboratory technician at Maxxam Analytics (now Bureau Veritas). After a stint with a mining company, Polkinghorne became a quality-assurance technician at Coca-Cola’s plant in Richmond, later moving into a similar position at Northam Brewery in Kamloops.
“That’s when I fell in love with craft beer,” Polkinghorne said. “I had been working in quality assurance in beer for six months. I started doing a bit of home brewing and I really liked it because I got to use my science skills I already had. I was able to make up recipes, which uses your creative side.”
She decided to enroll at Niagara College Canada—then one of only three brewmaster programs in the country—because it had a brewery on campus. The Kwantlen Polytechnic University program opened its brewery after she had decided to move to Ontario.
At Niagara College Canada, Polkinghorne learned in her first year how to brew her own recipes in a five-hectolitre system. In the second year, she was given an option between two styles of beer to make. She chose a smoked hefeweizen.
“If you can brew on a small system, you can go and work at a big brewery,” Polkinghorne said. “They only get fancier and more automated.”
In 2019, a Brewers Association survey in the U.S. found that women filled 37 percent of nonproduction and nonservice staffing positions in the craft-brewery industry. However, only 7.5 percent of the female employees were head brewers, in comparison to 54 percent who were brewery service staff.
Polkinghorne is a member of the Pink Boots Society, an international organization that encourages women to advance their careers in brewing through education. It does this through fundraising for educational scholarships.
In that spirit, Polkinghorne created a Pink Boots 2021 Hop blend, with $1 from every pint going to the society. “It has been out for three weeks now,” she said.
So what sets Kettle Brewing apart from its many competitors, including nine on the North Shore?
“We focus more on traditional-style beers and making things we like,” Polkinghorne replied. “We have a mix of North American style, the hazy IPAs, and also traditional stouts, like bitter West Coast IPAs. And, of course, having a female brewmaster sets us apart.”