Hopportunity Awaits is a brew on a mission to help highlight careers in craft beer, and inspire more of us to hold the door for the unique talent among us, creating more pathways for diversity, in every sense, across every role. Partial proceeds will benefit Craft x EDU as we work together to launch an educational grant for emerging professionals in craft beer.
On the cans, you will meet 10 industry professionals who are ready to tell their remarkable stories of how they got their start and paved their own path in craft, rules be damned. Without further ado…
Meet Caiti Sullivan, an artist turned brewer & brewery owner on a mission to create the world she wants to see through beer.
How did you discover the world of craft beer, or what inspired you to join?
I went to college for art and I was specifically interested in sculpture. I love the process of it. Making things, being creative, making a mess, and ending up with a final product that people could enjoy and interact with. I can connect the dots now, how easily my love of sculpture translates to my love of brewing. But when I graduated, I didn’t foresee my life as it is now: a brewer and brewery owner in Pittsburg, PA.
Growing up in Salisbury, MD, I was close to breweries like Dogfish Head and Burley Oak. I always enjoyed drinking craft beer in college, but I never knew the industry was as complex as I know it today. I didn’t know there were viable career paths. My only view of that world was seasonal taproom work.
After graduation and a lot of soul searching in the professional world, I ended up on a clearer path towards the craft beer industry. It started with a homebrew kit that very summer. Throw in some kombucha and pickling food projects while learning to homebrew, and I clearly had an interest in the science and creativity behind fermentation. So I left teaching art to work at Hex Ferments, a commercial kombucha production company.
I was getting more in depth knowledge on mixed fermentation while brewing saisons in my down time at home. This was before any sour beer craze took off. Moving on from there, I went to Millstone specializing in cider and mead. Sadly, they closed soon after I joined. I then moved to working in a non-profit for a brief time with “Future Harvest,” which was frequently supported by the two previous companies I had worked for.
While progressing through positions at these companies, I was accumulating a wide array of skills and knowledge that have all lended a hand in becoming a brewer and brewery owner. From using workshop tools to digital creative softwares in art school, fermentation science, production, and sales at Hex & Millstone, to learning how farmers think, buy, and sell and how to run events at Future Harvest.
It was at this point in my life I knew I could do it. I wanted to be a brewer. While I lacked formal school training on the brewing process, I made up for it in experience and a wide set of tools and skills throughout several departments like production, sales, and marketing. I was putting on my resume, “I know I haven’t done this before, but I know I can do this if you give me a chance.”
Within two months, I was brewing at Dancing Gnome. I had to learn the inner workings of the equipment, but there was no learning curve on brewing concepts. The position of brewer was perfect for me. I saw that there was endless creativity to be had in combining culinary ingredients and fermentation techniques with beer brewing. Somehow beer drinking started as a hobby for me, then a passion, and then a true career pursuing a creative life. Which has brought me to my next chapter, creating Coven Brewing.
Why start your own brewery instead of continuing as a brewer for others?
I wanted to make some beers that were outside of what Dancing Gnome was creating. So I established Coven Brewing in Pittsburgh, PA, where my husband and I have settled. Shifting from working for a brewery to owning a brewery is a big change that comes with a whole new set of challenges. I have pretty limited time for starters and everything is a numbers game, constantly penny pinching.
Coven Brewing is a very small ‘bootstraps’ company for now. The space was originally another small brewery filled with a bunch of converted dairy equipment. It’s been fun challenge to learn through experimentation and build something from the bottom up. Since moving in, the equipment has been DIY-ed into uses for brewing. A lot of beer here in Pittsburgh is similar. So I’m really excited to play with mixed culture, kombucha, non-stout pastry beers, etc. I want Coven Brewing to be creative, and of course a comfortable space for everyone to enjoy both each other and the products we’re making. As an owner, I’m also really grateful to be in a position where I have power to change the industry by who I choose to hire and invest in.
What do you love about the craft beer community? Where would you love to see it grow or improve?
I think many breweries are not focused on actively including diverse people into their brewery as consumers, employees, and partners. It’s very easy to work with people you already know. However, it takes thoughtful creativity to reach out to people who are different than yourself and ensure that they feel respected, relaxed, and included.
Just because people aren’t in the room does not mean they are not interested in a seat at the table.
Women, people of color, and LGBTQ people face unique challenges to access craft beer as a fun and welcoming experience. I’d like to see more breweries make an active effort to reach out to diverse people and welcome them into craft beer.
In Pittsburgh, there’s a Brewers Guild that’s creating a code of conduct for the guild and showing other companies locally what it means. I think this is a great step! Holding each other accountable is very important and I’m proud it’s happening here.
Do you have any advice for those who are looking to become brewers and don’t have formal training yet?
If you want to be a brewer but don’t have formal training, I would say, “Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.” When I say this, I don’t mean ‘vulnerable’ in the physical safety sense. I mean put yourself out there. Ask all the questions. Ask for help. Do not be apologetic, but be humble and learn. Meet new people and shoot your shot. Something I did was ask brewers if I could shadow them for a day while they brewed. Take a couple of minutes to email someone you admire. And though not everyone will answer you back, some people will. Because they’ve been there too, and someone helped them in that same situation. There is a network out there if you look for it.
I became the third female brewer in our whole county when I first moved to Pittsburgh. I was also the first woman brewer to own one. Now, that number has over tripled and is up to ten. This growth is evidence that the network has produced results. Diversity is growing. Slowly, but growing. It takes people helping each other to create change.
What types of skills have helped you personally succeed in this industry?
Curiosity and tenacity have helped me succeed. I love learning and I do not accept failure. There is a solution, perhaps multiple solutions, for every problem. Many are not quick or cheap. But I’ve always believed that I can learn skills, discover tools, and continue working on a problem until it’s solved.
If that sounds clear cut, it is. So many people have helped me throughout my career. However, I’ve long since learned that no one will solve problems for me if I’m not working to solve them myself. Brew days can take a turn, fermentation doesn’t going as expected, or equipment fails. These problems won’t go away by ignoring them. And they will not fix themselves. The only way to get the beer back on track is to apply the toolkit I already have, learn new skills to address new problems, and continue trying new angles to resolve the issue.
That has been my mentality throughout my career. While there are many things I don’t know and many experiences I haven’t had, I know I have the ability to learn and grow if I put in the effort. I try to learn as much as possible from other brewers who are generous enough to share their time and knowledge.
Who in the craft beer industry do you admire?
Breeze Galindo, Lead Brewer at Other Half, Creator of the OH Women’s Forum, and Board Member of The Michael James Jackson Foundation for Brewing & Distilling. We’ve never met, though I hope that changes someday. Breeze is very dedicated to her skills as a brewer, but she’s also dedicated to uplifting women–especially women of color–to find their rightful places in our industry. She is quite literally “doing the work.”
On top of her efforts as a brewer at a leading, innovative brewery, she’s also open about her struggles and aspirations. Breeze sets out to make the change she hopes to see. She inspires me to share my story, share my knowledge, and keep making an effort to bring more diverse people into this craft that I love.
On a local level, Judy Neff at Checkerspot was a big inspiration when I first started out, too. Knowing she existed was pretty huge for me. It was great to see a woman brewer and brewery owner. She was always super nice, generous with her time, and had a big impact saying, “Oh, yeah! You can do this.”
Megan Seastedt, the first women brewer in Allegheny County, is another. When I first met her, I was struck by the depth of her brewing knowledge.
What is the most memorable brew you’ve ever had?
That’s a tough question. I’ll have to settle on The Alchemist’s Heady Topper, 2014. Right after I graduated college, my partner and I planned a trip throughout New England. We were getting more and more interested in craft beer. While researching what breweries we would seek out during our trip, we’d read about Heady Topper. This was during the period when their pub was closed and they hadn’t opened their production facility to the public yet. Thus, the only way you could get Heady Topper was to track down a local Vermont delivery day at a package store and hope to get lucky enough to buy an allotment.
Lucky for us, beer sells slowly on rainy Tuesdays in central Vermont, so it became a fun scavenger hunt. I recall thinking it was funny to be tracking down a beer. Before then, I’d never really been into trading or waiting in line, and haven’t since. But we got a four pack of Heady, threw it in our camping cooler, and went to our campsite for the night.
I had very few expectations. At the time, my main framework for an IPA was West Coast: Stone, Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, Dogfish Head 60 Minute. I cracked the can, on the shores of Lake Champlain, no less. I’d never had anything like it. It was tropical and dank, with melon and ripe fruit flavors that were softer than the resinous IPA’s I’d had before. That was my first New England IPA, and it changed my perspective on what beer could be. I’ll never forget the feeling of tasting a new flavor. And I’ve been chasing that experience ever since.
The icing on the cake is that The Alchemist is a very admirable company. They invest in employee wellness, provide excellent wages and compensation, and have impressive support from the local community. With Coven Brewing, I aspire to follow their example of making excellent beer, taking care of the community, and investing in sustainability and diversity.
Pittsburgh is an up and coming destination beer city. The area has great dining and brewery selections. If you’re planning a trip here, I highly suggest coming in October. Pittsburgh Beer Week in the first week of October. There will be plenty of events including a ‘Stout School’ educational event with Pink Boots Society. Coven Brewing is also hosting a huge Halloween event at the end of the month on October 22nd.
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