Watching Kelly Edward mix milled grain and water in a massive stainless steel vat, it’s easy to imagine a cackling witch stirring a bubbling cauldron.
Edward, head brewer at Bang the Drum Brewery in San Luis Obispo, welcomes the comparison. After all, she points out, many of the traits stereotypically associated with witches — black cats, broomsticks, tall, pointed hats — have their origins in medieval tradeswomen known as brewsters, or, alewives.
“Historically speaking, it was always a woman’s job to brew,” Edward, 23, said. “It’s so cool for me to be a part of history.”
As the only female head brewer in San Luis Obispo County, Edward is part of a steadily growing segment of the commercial brewing industry, traditionally dominated by men.
“As the number of breweries rise in the U.S., we continue to see more and more women brewers,” said Julia Herz, craft beer program director at the Brewers Association.
She pointed to a 2014 survey of more than 2,500 breweries, conducted by Stanford University, that found 21 percent had at least one woman in a top position such as founder or head brewer. Of those breweries, 17 percent had a female CEO.
“Seeing how many women are in (the industry) now is so rad,” Edward said, adding that diversity in hiring can only lead to innovations. “Hiring women in the brewhouse, you’re not always going to have the same kind of beer. And I think that’s pretty cool.”
Edward got her first taste of brewing after high school, when she and a boyfriend decided to make their own pale ale at home.
“I ended up being way more excited about it than he was,” recalled Edward, who grew up in Palm Springs. Three years ago, she moved to San Luis Obispo County and applied for jobs at local breweries.
“I walk in and I go, ‘I want to brew beer.’ They’re like, ‘The grain bags weigh as much as you do,’ ” said Edward, a petite, pink-haired woman who stands 5 feet 2 inches tall. “They just don’t take you very seriously.”
“My resume was very specific — I wanted to brew,” she continued. “They would look at it ... and then they would look at me and be like, ‘So, you want to work in the tasting room.’ I’d be like, ‘You can read, right?’ ”
Finally, “I decided to go the apprentice route. People love free labor,” Edward added.
After working at Artifex Brewing Co. in San Clemente, she landed a job at one of her favorite Central Coast hangouts, Bang the Drum Brewery. (The brewery, which opened in 2014, is owned by president Gary DuBois and his daughter, marketing director and Cal Poly graduate Noelle DuBois.)
“This place that I already loved so much wanted me,” enthused Edward, who officially replaced Jeremy Fleming as head brewer in April. “That was kind of perfect.”
As head brewer, Edward oversees all brewing operations at Bang the Drum — from recipe building to batch tasting — with the help of assistant brewers Liv Duner and Nick Piper. She’s also in charge of inventory, training team members and teaching the tasting room staff about the latest offerings from the brewhouse.
Treats on tap range from signature beers such as King Maté, an English-style IPA infused with yerba mate, and Draca, a spicy smoked porter made with chipotle peppers, to seasonal brews including a creamy, pumpkin-flavored white milk stout and Witches Brew, which gets its herbal aroma and slightly green hue from matcha tea.
A special offering for October — National Breast Cancer Awareness Month — is Hibitchin’, a Belgian-style saison brewed with red hibiscus flowers. Edward created the rosy beer in honor of her grandmother, a breast cancer survivor who underwent a double mastectomy.
For every pint of Hibitchin’ purchased, Bang the Drum will donate a dollar to the Keep A Breast Foundation, a Carlsbad-based nonprofit that provides breast health education and support to young people.
Edward said she loves the creative freedom that working at Bang the Drum, a so-called “nano brewery,” affords her. With a system capable of producing just three barrels (about 94 gallons) at a time, each batch has an unusually quick turnaround — about a week and a half from storeroom to taproom.
“We get to try whatever we want,” said Edward, who recently used jasmine flowers and green tea to create a fragrant pale ale called Magic Carpet Ride. “If you’re brewing in a 30-barrel system, you don’t have that opportunity —because it’s a lot of waste if something goes wrong.”
“It’s so fun to be allowed to play like that at work,” she said.
Asked what she’d like to brew next, Edward reeled off a lengthy wish list: a sour, an imperial stout, a barrel-aged beer.
“There are so many things I want to try. There are so many beers out there in the world,” she said with a wistful sigh. “It’s overwhelming.”
In addition to bumping up Bang the Drum’s brewing capabilities and expanding its tasting-room menu, Edward wants to see the brewery extend its reach. “In the next six months, we’ll be able to distribute (our beers)” in local stores, she said.
She hopes Bang the Drum can grow without losing its sense of community.
“We’re just a bunch of really good friends here,” said Edward, who helps Noelle Dubois field questions about beer as part of a weekly Facebook Live series, “At the Bar with Bang the Drum.” “There’s brewing everywhere, but I don’t know if you’d find this friendship that we have, with our customers and with each other (elsewhere).”
Edward has another, more personal goal: encouraging more women to get into craft beer.
“I’ve poured beer,” she said, but brewing it “is so much more fun.”