It’s nine in the morning, and Jen Kent’s mind is on beer. She’s not thinking of just one or two, though. Her focus is on 12 kegs of McMenamins’ crowd favorite, Ruby Ale.
As the brewmaster at Thompson Brewery & Public House — affectionately dubbed Thompson’s by locals — Kent is in charge of producing not only the Northwest chain’s three primary beers (Ruby Ale, Terminator Stout and Hammerhead) and the company-wide seasonal selection, but also the special brews she creates.
In a back room of the brewery, she begins the process of making 186 gallons of Ruby by positioning an electric mill at the edge of the large, stainless steel mash tun, a vessel where the starches in malt are turned into sugars.
After stepping into an adjacent room, she returns with a 50-pound bag of malt that she pours into three buckets. With a flip of a switch, the mill comes to life and Kent begins pouring malt into it.
With the mill grinding the malt into a mash, she lugs in another four bags. She smiles and mentions that this is a small amount of malt — other beers can require up to 400 pounds.
As the mash collects in the tun, along with a steady stream of boiling hot water, the air has a scent reminiscent of Malt-O-Meal. Kent picks up a stainless steel oar and begins stirring the mix. She monitors the consistency of the concoction to get the right blend.
Preparing the malt will take 45 minutes of labor this morning, and it’s only the first phase of brewing. She still has several hours of work ahead of her, and it’s not easy.
With a smile, the 38-year-old says, “I’m going to be a really broken old lady.”
Carving Out Her Place
Maybe it’s the laborious and physical work that brewing requires, or maybe it’s a traditionally male-dominated beer culture, but for whatever reason, female brewmasters are a limited group. In fact, Kent is currently the only female out of the 34 people brewing for McMenamins, and one of a small number of women who have ever held that role with the company.
While the number of female brewers is growing across the country and specifically in Oregon, women still represent a small percentage of the brewing community. This disparity confuses Kent, who believes the low numbers may be due to the way beer advertising targets men and the male-centric nature of the beer culture.
“I think, because it’s been such a male-dominated world for so long, that women don’t look at the whole history,” she says, noting that women were “monstrously there” in the early days of beer-making, creating brews as part of their other cooking duties in the kitchen.
“A lot of times, when worlds become male-dominated, women don’t necessarily want to go into that.”
Kent exudes toughness and confidence that indicate she’s not intimidated by anything — including entering a male-centric industry. On the other hand, she’ll also admit that it’s a career path she stumbled into.
In her younger days, she wasn’t overly aware of beer and was content drinking hefeweizen. One night, while she was hanging out at a pub, the man who is now her husband grew annoyed with her drink choice and challenged her to try a Guinness. It took her two hours to finish it, she says with a laugh, but the experience gave her a newfound appreciation for beer.
Then, 13 years ago, she started working as a server at Boon’s Treasury, Salem’s other McMenamins pub. She familiarized herself with the beers on tap and began to appreciate well-crafted brews.
When she moved to the Thompson location, she started hanging around the brew area and grew curious about the process. The brewmaster at the time, Gary Nance, lived in Eugene. Kent offered to take care of some of the menial tasks associated with brewing to prevent Nance from having to make the hour-long drive to work every day.
An opportunity to move to a McMenamins in Corvallis led Nance to push Kent towards the position as a full-time occupation. She accepted the challenge seven years ago, and although she originally didn’t know whether she would stick with it, she’s now firmly entrenched in her spot in the beer world.
“She has created many great spice- and fruit-flavored beers that the regulars love,” Nance says of his protégée. “When I started for McMenamins, I had seven years of brewing experience. Just to take on the production schedule at Thompson almost killed me. She took it on with maybe a month of training. No easy task.”
The Art of Brewing
At its core, brewing is based on science. Kent is quick to say that she doesn’t understand all the intricacies of the process, but she knows more than she lets on. Her conversation is peppered with comments about starch-to-sugar conversion, checking gravities and hop factors, but she considers these basics of the business. For her, brewing is more about “feel.”
“I’m a little heavier on the art side than the science side,” she says.
Her job requires her to produce McMenamins’ standard beers, but she also gets the chance to display her artistic talents by creating her own brews to serve at Thompson’s. Among some of her creative endeavors have been a s’mores porter, a chocolate chili stout and the Black Widower, intended to be the masculine counterpart to the longstanding Thompson’s favorite, the Black Widow.
Over the years, she has crafted beers inspired by spices and flavors she found on shopping trips, designed brews to honor long-time customers, and created concoctions in response to friends’ and customers’ suggestions.
This is another area where her husband, Shane Turner, has played a significant role. He taught her how to cook and, specifically, taught her about making soup. She believes that skill has been significant in her brewing.
“I think making soups was the biggest thing that helped me in making beer, of all things, because of the smells and flavors,” she says.
When Kent has struggled to create certain flavors, other brewers in the McMenamins system have offered her advice, and she’s even received tips from brewers outside the company. While some may see beer-making as a competition, she says that most brewers tend to be willing to share ideas — although she does find the occasional brewer who is resistant to her because of her gender.
“Most [brewers] are pretty cool to me, but some guys are a little condescending to me. A little ‘Ah, you’re a girl brewer, good job.’ That just makes me laugh because I’m like, ‘And?’
“It’s just that I have female parts and you have dude parts. That’s the only difference. It’s still just someone cooking beer. I still lift the same weight you do and do the same things you do. It doesn’t make me less of a person.”
Despite the occasional negative comments, Kent seems to have found her calling. The opportunity to create beers that surprise and satisfy customers motivates her, and she even imagines a day in the future when she could run her own pub and brew whatever beers she felt like having at that time.
For now, though, she’s happy to be taking care of a steady stream of customers at Thompson’s.
“In the fall time when the fire pit’s lit, and people have had their hard day at work, and they come to the pub and they sit and have a pint and they just talk — that’s like the best reward out of everything. They’re really happy with your product, and your product is making the end of their day really, really good. I love that.”
After years as a music journalist, Brian Blair has returned to school to take on a career in the much saner world of middle school mathematics.
Partner to Jeani, parent to Liam, William Bragg is a professional photographer. WilliamBragg.com.