Our lovely editor & badass owner here at CraftBeerAustin.com, Pam Catoe, has written the inspirational Women in Beer series since 2015. She has so graciously allowed me to write a guest article focused on an Austin woman in beer that inspires me every day.
Elle Thomas is the owner of AirBrewNB. She offers tours of up to 10 attendees or private sessions for up to 30. She & her topnotch Lady Brew Crew provide a personalized beer tour experience focused on education. Currently, due to the pandemic, they are offering Zoom Party rates. She recently rolled out a new virtual tour experience focused on the history of women in beer, which is awesome! Elle might have one of the most contagious laughs, is the epitome of perseverance, resilience, juggler of talents, & all-around rockstar. I wanted her to share her perspective on an alternative piece of the beer industry puzzle. Beer tourism.
“I’m all about promoting the great parts of craft beer.” | Elle Thomas
How did your craft beer journey start?
“My journey started when I was 17 years old living in Germany. I was an exchange student for a year. I had amazing kölsches, altbiers, and hefeweizens, but at the time I didn’t know any of that. I just knew it was a really good beer that I could legally drink. So, when I got back to the states (and within legal drinking age), I started drinking American mass-produced beer like Bud & Miller Light. I was like, ‘This is not the same, but why?… because beer is beer, right?’ That’s where my journey started.”
How long have you been working in the beer industry? What did you do before this role?
“I was a bartender when I was in college, & I think that allowed me to learn the very bare minimum of serving a beer. But it was like all the wrong things. It was like ‘keep the glasses frozen because the beer’s not that great.’ So, yeah, I knew nothing about the concept of rotation. When I was changing out kegs, I really didn’t know the proper technique or even how to properly pour beer. I just figured it out. It definitely wasn’t the same level of care that I take into pouring craft beer now.”
Describe your average week.
“So to be honest, it’s changed drastically because before March we were doing on average 3 to 5 in-person tours a week. Keep in mind I’m using “we” because it’s a group of female craft beer guides. It’s myself & 4 other women, we were just in the process of rolling out our 5th lady. This year we had planned to launch our Spanish classes to help open up the demographic even more, but unfortunately, we kind of had to reel that back in. We call ourselves the “Lady Brew Crew”. “Lady Brew Crew” (aka LBC) is a fun group of beer enthusiasts (who identify as female) that enjoy providing small groups with memorable craft “beerventures.”
On our tours, we are all about creating a personalized experience for each guest that highlights the beer styles they enjoy while talking about what makes craft beer special and introducing some of the local gems of Austin. In-person, we were talking about things like tasting notes that they enjoy, branching out to different styles that they might like, and teaching about the history of some of the Austin breweries, so now that is what we offer for the virtual tours. We’re focusing more on just beer itself.
What I realized in converting this from an in-person to a virtual experience is that we now get to walk through the basics of what is the difference between tasting a beer versus just drinking a beer. It was heartbreaking having to let the in-person tours pause for a while, but I realized that the whole point of it was to encourage individuals to try craft beer. So with the virtual tours, I still get to do that and connect your friends and family virtually while practicing social distancing. From the comfort of your own home. Before the tour, we send them a link to the Brewers Association that allows them to find a brewery within their zip code (or International). Go grab a craft beer, go support your community or small business. Go see what’s in your own backyard. Go discover something that’s new. It’s like bread, fresh is best. If you can, get it directly from the source. Just like our in-person, we have something for the hophead and beer novice. Now our market is any English speaker and not just people physically in Austin. It’s exciting!”
In terms of your business specifically, what are the accomplishments that you’re the proudest of?
“Creating a space where women who know the beer game feel comfortable educating others about craft beer and beer culture. The industry is a very man-heavy game and several people I have worked with have been very excited about working with a female group where craft beer, in general, is taken seriously. It was sad hearing comments from brilliant women in the industry like, ‘I felt like I was being pushed out,’ or, ‘I felt like I only belonged in the front of the house. That was it.’ It’s also nice to have a sense of, you know, female bonding and camaraderie.
I also feel like industry folks are starting to understand that beer tourism is a part of the beer industry. My goal is to show that beer tourism doesn’t have to just be ‘a party bus.’ Our personalized tours and virtual experiences are here to educate people on why what breweries create is phenomenal, why it’s art, & how to appreciate it.”
What’s the best part of your job?
“We’re about promoting diversity & craft beer. I started all of this to really introduce the fact that someone who looks like me is just as knowledgeable as someone who is what you would traditionally think of with craft beer.”
“I am constantly surprised, still to this day, that people are like, ‘YOU like craft beer?’ People on my tours have frequently commented on their surprise that as a Black female I know and care so much about craft beer. I’d like to break that stereotype. But also, in doing so, I get a lot of people on these tours who are like, ‘Oh, I’m just here for THIS person…THIS person likes craft beer. I’m just their plus one.’ I feel it’s my personal crusade to introduce them to what IS craft beer? They’re probably used to a very defined segment of American adjunct lagers. In Austin, we have such a great variety of craft beer, & being able to get it straight from the source with a proper pour and clean lines just make it better.
My goal is to create a feeling of inclusivity and diversity in the craft beer culture. Craft beer at its core is about sharing a great product with your community but when I would venture to beer venues in the US it was mostly a Cisgender male space. So in a small but impactful way, I feel like I am helping craft brewers sell more of their amazing product by introducing traditional non-beer drinkers to the diverse world of craft beer.”
If someone asked you to describe the current state of today’s craft beer climate what would you say?
“I would say the Austin craft beer scene is creative, & there is a wonderful sense of community here. Meaning, that you don’t always feel that in some cities. Sometimes it feels like a brewery is competing against each other, but Austinites are all about, ‘Great job, now try this!.’ I really enjoy the way they genuinely support and celebrate each other’s success. Everybody’s just doing their own thing in their ‘Keep Austin Weird’ way.”
With your platform being based on Airbnb, do you focus on tourists? Are your services beneficial to local Austinites?
“A lot of them are tourists, but I was trying to market towards even our locals. I took a family, a dad & three sons from Leander & they took my tour as a way of male bonding, love. The father had lived in Austin for 20 years, & he’s like, ‘You took me to three breweries I had never been to.” A lot of ATX breweries don’t necessarily distribute so if you’re not going to that spot, you wouldn’t know about it. I love that I could introduce somebody who’s lived here for 20 years to a new part of Austin.
With our virtual tours, we have another tour that’s geared more towards the history of women and beer and promoting the concept of learning more about glassware & why it’s important. Learning the basics from the beer services mindset so people can start having craft beer experiences that are more than just about how much can I drink because I think when they realize that they may be drinking the Monet of beer, it will change their experience. It’s also a fun way to safely socialize with friends across the US while social distancing!”
In a white male-dominated industry what are the biggest challenges you face as a woman of color?
“It is still very much a white male-dominated space and there have been many occasions, unfortunately, where I have been in craft beer spaces and had situations that I don’t think even the person I was speaking with knew that they were making me uncomfortable.
I do think it’s important that people share stories of what it’s like to live as X; whether it happens to be a woman, black woman, non-binary or any minority group to understand that even if it’s done with good intentions the impact is still there. I think that we all can do better & my personal goal is to make this the norm in the beer world. The craft beer community can be a starting point for those conversations because, at the end of the day, we all want to engage in great conversations while drinking good beer!”
What beer are you currently enjoying the most?
“Icy Boys hands down. That rice lager is just bangin.’ I’m so glad they made it a mainstay! I can’t get enough of it. When they first came out with it as a seasonal beer I was in love.”
Photo credit to Zilker Brewing Company
Final thoughts from AirBrewNB:
“It was the little engine that could. I had no idea it would be so well received. One of my favorite quotes I received from someone was that they signed up because they were less intimidated and they liked the idea that it was a woman running it. In the very beginning there were times I had to reschedule or I couldn’t make it for whatever reason & was having a male friend (who knows a lot about beer) take over the tour for me, but I received many cancellations from women who were like, ‘I don’t feel comfortable taking the tour with a guy.’ These were things I just didn’t really think about. The fact that I can provide that level of comfort. That level of not making you feel intimidated to ask a question….creating that entry-level comfort zone. For me, I love that people want to learn so the next time they go to a brewery they feel more confident. Come on in, let’s talk about it. This is a safe space. Literally & figuratively for you to enjoy your beer to be who you are to your true self.”
“I get paid to drink beer. That’s a good life.” | Elle Thomas
Check out Elle’s virtual tours here! What a wonderful way to learn something new while appreciating good beer with friends and family anywhere in the world?
[Feature Photo Credit to CraftBeerAustin.com]