Note: Originally appeared in Issue 49 of BeerAdvocate Magazine
Brewer’s have beards. This assertion has been made by the masses, who have seemingly been conditioned by Sam Adams commercials and photos in this magazine to believe that the mark of a brewer is a big, bushy beard.
Penny Pink is proof to the contrary. The brewmistress (her term) and owner of Portneuf Valley Brewing—a distributing brewpub based in Pocatello, Idaho—has long hair, but it hangs off her pony tail, not her chin. Although Pink is in rare company as a female brewer, that isn’t what sets her apart from the peers in her area. In fact, she does not have many peers in the area.
“Realistically, in Southeast Idaho, I am the brewer, not the female brewer,” Pink said.
Location, Location, Location
Every able-bodied businessman capable of reciting tired clichés can tell you that location is the key to every business. Tired as it may be the expression holds some kernel of truth, as a business must serve the needs of its local customers if it hopes to survive. Like so many breweries and brewpubs away from the Meccas and Medinas of the beer world, Pink’s operation in Idaho required patience and understanding with the local drinkers while their palates were slowly and steadily challenged by craft beer.
“The Grog, our IPA, 15 years ago when I started the business you practically couldn’t give the beer away if it had bitter in the name,” Pink said. “I couldn’t sell it before it went bad, and now I can’t make the beer hoppy enough.
“So there’s a lot of change that I see in the market, at least in this region in terms of what people have been exposed to, what they’re looking for. They’ve traveled other places and they’re looking for hoppy beers. If I brew some wacky, coffee porter or something, it will sell like hotcakes. People are looking for something new and something different. As a pub brewer, that’s real exciting for me.”
Building Portneuf to the full-fledged brewpub that exists today took many small steps for Pink. The company was born in the back of the now defunct Dudley’s Bar and Grill. Pink leased space in the back of the building and had five taps at the bar, but that situation did not last long.
The bar failed to survive the economic downturn that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and Pink was forced to find a new location in 2002. She found a new location, which needed to be completely remodeled, and began the process of rebuilding the company. She maintained her relationship with Intermountain Beverage—the distributor that handles her accounts—which helped subsidize the company while the pub was being built. However, outside accounts were barely enough to keep the business going, and Pink found herself working over 100 hours a week.
She spent a lot of time working for and commuting to the Idaho National Laboratory as an environmental analyst and consultant, then more time closer to home at the brewery. It was backbreaking work, and people around her were wondering why she bothered (especially since the work at the lab was well-paying and well-respected).
“My husband asked me the same thing many, many times,” Pink said. “In my other life, managing nuclear hazardous waste… I was working really long hours doing something that – I liked what I did but I wasn’t as passionate about it. To a large extent I’ve created my own playground here. I’ve taken things that I am really passionate about – brewing diverse, unique beers and good, fresh, handcrafted food. We have live music four nights a week, lots of special events, and I only have to commute a few miles”
A Woman’s Touch
Pink does not have a beard, but she doesn’t exactly sit in the field playing with daisies either. She isn’t masculine, but she is more than capable of handling the rougher and more physically demanding duties in the brewhouse. In fact, she laughs when somebody suggests that she brings a feminine touch to the brewpub.
“I’m 5’10” and I’m a pretty good-sized gal,” Pink said. “I can schlep around a 160-lb keg with the best of them. I’m not some dainty little gal.”
Still, it would be wrong to assume that her feminine side is lost amongst the heavy kegs and hot water of the brewery.
“I think even my friends would chuckle at me bringing a feminine angle to anything because I’m not that kind of gal,” Pink said, “but I’m probably a bit more open minded about taking feedback from my customers – the type of beer they’d like to see and stuff like that.”
Pink is a skilled collaborator, and it shows in the kitchen as well as the mash tun. As she says, she is always listening to her customers for feedback, and constantly tweaking recipes or devising new ones to keep them coming in. And while most of the recipes that come out of the kitchen belong to her, she also works with her team of cooks to devise new specials and new menu items.
Perhaps this is the reason why Portneuf seems to have struck a balance in its demographics, and why she doesn’t share the same problems that other pub owners face.
“I always hear people say ‘How can we get more women drinking beer,’” Pink said. “Easily 50 percent of my customers are women, if not more…. The type of fare on our restaurant menu is going to appeal to both guys and gals. It’s not all just greasy burgers and steaks and stuff.”
About the Beer
Most of the beer on tap at Portneuf Valley Brewing has been in Pink’s portfolio since her days as a homebrewer. Beers like Twisted Stick Amber and Belligerent Ass Nut Brown Ale have existed in their commercial form since the days of Dudley’s, but Pink is constantly in the process of experimenting and developing new beers.
Portneuf features 10 taps, with seven taps reserved for the regulars [see sidebar], and three taps for seasonals and specials. One such recent special involved an experiment with a new roasted wheat from Great Western Malting that is darker than traditional wheat with a rating of 15 Lovibond. Pink named the beer Nordic Wind Weissbier in honor of a local power company.
“It’s like a really light wheat beer with a burnt-toffee finish,” Pink explained. “You get this really cool, sort of honey, toasty, biscuit aromas and a caramely-toffee finish to the beer completely different to anything I had on tap.
“I make it a point to do that, and once a month or so I slip in something new. I probably brew somewhere between 12-24 brands of beer a year between seasonals and brewers’ specials.”
Pink describes her beers as “non-traditional” ales and lagers that are based loosely around the style guidelines. Like most brewers, Pink brews what she and her customers want to drink, not what the textbooks say she should brew.
The history of the pub and its owner’s gender make good fodder for conversation and for journalists, but ultimately it is the beer that defines Portneuf Valley Brewing. Pink’s hard work and dedication shine through to the end product, and her customers can drink comfortably knowing that no beard hairs found their way into the wort.
Sean Lewis is a freelance writer and a homebrewer. He is currently writing his first book