NC brewer explores the art, the craft and a little women’s history

Jen Blair holds a glass of the finished grisette that she began brewing on June 17, 2017. She is a home brewer who just accepted a job in the beer industry as the executive director of the Craft Maltsters Guild of North America. (Jenna Eason/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

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Jen Blair holds a glass of the finished grisette that she began brewing on June 17, 2017. She is a home brewer who just accepted a job in the beer industry as the executive director of the Craft Maltsters Guild of North America. (Jenna Eason/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

Boilers radiate heat as wheat showers into the hot water. After the last grain is dropped, a mixture of smells — like fresh-cut grass and summer rain — flows from the boilers into the garage.

Jen Blair, at home on a Saturday in June, is brewing a Belgian beer style named for the women in grey dresses who carried beer to Belgian miners at lunch: grisette.

An attorney in Charlotte, Blair, 36, began a new job earlier this month: executive director of the North American Craft Maltsters Guild. Although Blair said she is in the minority now as a woman in the beer industry, she sees more and more women entering the business. That’s fitting, she says, since women dominated home brewing until it became industrialized.

And that’s “inspirational for other women to see. It kind of takes some of the intimidation factor out,” Blair said.

Although Blair said people are becoming less surprised by women who are interested in beer, she still gets a few questioning glances.

“It’s sort of like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs. It’s not impossible, but you don’t see it very often,” she said. “Some people kind of react like that towards women and beer.”

Blair is a beer judge and certified cicerone — which means she has extensive knowledge about beer — but has her eye on becoming an advanced cicerone.

As a certified cicerone, Blair said, she needed to know more general information about beer, like the different types and names. To earn the advanced title, she needs to understand more complex aspects of beer: history, origins, the different ways to create each type of beer, and the reasons the beer came into being. Blair said becoming an advanced cicerone is like a Little League baseball player going straight into minor-league ball.

“There’s a big jump between certified and advanced in terms of the knowledge that you have to have about beer and the beer industry,” she said.

Blair said that after she passes the exam in November (she’s confident), she could be the fifth advanced cicerone in North Carolina and the only woman. That could also make her just the sixth woman of 49 advanced cicerones worldwide.

Her husband, Tom Crast, said Blair’s studying to become an advanced cicerone has taught him a lot as well.

“She’s always, always doing something new, and it’s exciting for both of us — because she keeps me from just sitting on the couch and watching TV,” Crast said with a laugh.

Blair also has an educational beer blog called Under the Jenfluence. She posts around twice a week about brewing terminology, experiences she’s had in the beer world, beer labels and other beer topics.

“When I’m writing, I try to really break down what I’m talking about, so if you are brand-new to beer, you can read anything on my blog and still understand what’s going on with it,” Blair said.

Heather Ramsey, a new home brewer, said she uses Blair’s blog to learn more about different aspects of beer.

“Her blog is a great resource for anybody who is interested in beer,” Ramsey said. “She puts a lot of time and effort into that to make sure that she is helping other people see why she’s so passionate about brewing.”

Blair said she participates in many beer clubs including the Charlotte Beer Babes, a women’s craft beer group. Blair served as a guide in a recent Beer Babes Ladies Brew Day.

Bethany Burr, who runs the Charlotte Beer Babes, said she saw Blair “in her element” when she was brewing and teaching other women how to brew.

“She is a very knowledgeable person, but like doesn’t drill it down your throat like some people do,” Burr said.

Blair said she has loved beer for years, and her sister had a hand in developing this passion.

“When I first was drinking, I was drinking Bud Light and things like that,” Blair said, “and she said, ‘That’s disgusting.’”

Her sister encouraged her to try Boulevard Brewing Company out of Kansas City, Mo., Blair’s home state beer.

“I started drinking Boulevard Wheat and that kind of showed me that there was a lot better tasting beer out there,” Blair said.

Blair started homebrewing with her husband about four years ago, when they lived in Chicago. When they moved back to Charlotte two years ago, they kept the hobby.

“I’m passionate about beer.”

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