[EDITOR'S NOTE — Each week, this feature section, “Movers and Makers,” will feature the stories of the movers, launchers, entrepreneurs and makers who contribute to the vitality of the Mahoning Valley. This section is supported by our first community partner, Farmers National Bank.]
YOUNGSTOWN — Born and raised on Youngstown’s South Side, 38-year-old Hannah Ferguson first got her start in the craft beer industry three years ago.
Now she is the assistant brewer at Modern Methods Brewing Co. and the first Black woman to be named a professional brewer in Ohio.
Ferguson is a self-described “home cider and winemaker,” which is what initially piqued her interest in beer making. When Modern Methods Brewing Co. started in 2018, founder Adam Keck invited Ferguson to help at the brewery a few times. But Ferguson didn’t know her curiosity would lead to a career.
Modern Methods’ previous assistant brewer reached out to her with a job offer, and she accepted without any professional background in brewing, Ferguson said.
“I just said, ‘Yes.’ I was working somewhere else at the time, and I was just like, ‘I definitely want to do this,’” she said.
“My plan for the last four or five years has been to open up my own cider house and winery,” she added. “Then beer just kind of fell in there.”
Although she uses the skills she learned while making cider and wine, Ferguson said beer brewing has “more science and math involved,” and the process is calculated “minute by minute.”
The process starts with mashing a combination of grain and water. The mash is transferred to a boil kettle and brought up to a boil of 210 degrees. Ferguson said the type of beer determines how long the boiling process continues. After that, she puts the mixture into fermentors and adds yeasts for the fermentation process to begin.
In total, the brewing process can take six to eight hours. Although beer brewing is a fixed process, Ferguson said the amount of beer brewed depends on supply and demand.
“We usually try to brew anywhere between two to three days a week. Then we also have our production days where we're canning and kegging beer, and then some days we have a cleaning day where we take all of the beer out of the fermenters,” she said.
Ferguson said even though she didn’t anticipate being the first Black woman to be named a professional brewer in Ohio, the lack of diversity in the industry “is not surprising,” she said.
“There's not that many female brewers in general, like, nationwide,” she said. “Then when you just take those numbers for females and narrow it down to women of color, it’s even less.”
Ferguson told Mahoning Matters that she asked the executive director of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association if there have been any other Black women who are professional brewers in Ohio. The association was not able to find anyone else, making Ferguson the first.
“This is an industry that not many minorities, in general, are in or working in. But it's cool to be the first, and I’ve said before, I definitely don't want to be the last. I just hope people can see this is something that they can do. If I can do it at 38, anyone can do it,” she said.
Ferguson speculates that the lack of Black female brewers could be because it’s a labor-intensive job. “We tend to get that stereotype that, you know, just leave the heavy work to the men,” she said.
“But this is an industry that has grown and advanced over the years. So you see more and more women doing different roles and different things in the industry, which is definitely a plus for us. But again, it's like, there's still room for women to grow as brewers and also other positions in craft beer,” she added.
Last year, The New York Times reported that Blacks “comprise less than 1 percent of brewers, according to a survey by the Brewers Association.” Ferguson said, in her experience, craft beer isn’t typically accessible to communities with a high Black population.
Additionally, Ferguson believes the craft beer industry has difficulties marketing to diverse communities.
“When you look at things like liquor and wine, it’s easier [to market to minorities]. It’s [easier to have], like, a rapper to promote your liquor or something like that. But it seems like it's harder in the beer industry,” she said.
“I grew up always thinking beer was nasty, and it’s just based off of what we saw or even tried when we grew up. But guess what? Even still today if you go to a convenience store on the South Side of Youngstown … there are no craft beers in those stores,” she added.
To bridge the gap between minority communities and the craft beer industry, Ferguson was a key player in developing Black and Brew Youngstown, an organization with a mission to advocate for diversity in the craft beer culture.
“The full intention is to promote diversity in craft beer and to educate people of color, and also to educate the breweries that we visit,” she said.
“You never go into a brewery and you see more than maybe a handful of people of color at the same time. It's very rare,” Ferguson added. “When people see 20 or 30 men and women, people of color in a brewery, enjoying craft beer and having a good time, that helps the cause.”
Although the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to Black and Brew events in 2020, Ferguson encourages readers to visit the Facebook page for future events in 2021.
On Friday, Modern Methods Brewing Co. served up Black is Beautiful, an imperial stout from Weather Souled Brewing in Texas. Ferguson said she saw the brew on social media, and had unwavering support from Modern Methods to carry it at their brewery.
Modern Methods is adding a personal twist to the imperial stout by adding strawberry and cocoa nibs, she said.
“All of our proceeds [from sales of the stout] are going to go to a nonprofit, which is called United Returning Citizens. Their purpose is to help reunite ex-felons back into society,” she said. “We wanted to definitely show our support in the movement.”
“It feels great to be part of something that I felt was very important, and it feels good to know that it wasn't just important to me — it was important to the Modern Methods family in general,” she added.
At the same time, it appears Ferguson's brewing family is expanding. Penguin City Beer announced on its Facebook page Monday (Feb. 22) that Ferguson will become the first tenant at its new building in downtown Youngstown. Ferguson will become the head brewer of her own space, DOPE Cider House & Winery.
Penguin City Beer said the company will work with Ferguson to help her “build and distribute her brand.” Additionally, Ferguson will assist with brewing for Penguin City.