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Women on tap: These are South Florida's queens of beer

At a recent South Florida craft-beer festival, assistant brewer Katherine Castro was tapping kegs behind the M.I.A. Beer Company tent when a man approached her. He asked if she were the girlfriend of a brewer.

“Hell no,” Castro recalls telling him. “I’m with M.I.A., and I’m representing the brewery.”

Castro, 26, says she hears the question too often as a woman working in South Florida’s exploding craft-beer industry, which is dominated by men. But as the number of microbreweries climbs in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties — from six in 2013 to 33 now — more local women are seeking careers in craft beer, helping the scene to evolve as brewery founders, head brewers and brewing assistants.

“The craft-beer scene here is so cool,” says Castro, who lives in Kendall but commutes daily to the Doral-based M.I.A. “I don’t have to show up to the brewery in high heels and a dress. I show up in jeans, a T-shirt and my hair in a bun, and it’s fine.”

On Sunday, May 28, the women who are rising in craft beer will be championed at FemAle Brew Fest in the FAT Village art district in Fort Lauderdale, where 15 female brewers will serve suds from South Florida and beyond. Castro, again representing M.I.A. Beer Company, will tap kegs alongside brewers from Barrel of Monks in Boca Raton, Accomplice Brewery and Ciderworks in West Palm Beach, J. Wakefield Brewing in Wynwood and the soon-to-open New River Brewing in Fort Lauderdale.

Although women are FemAle’s focus, the festival is designed for everyone, says organizer Frances Martineau, who operates the Fem Collective, a networking outfit for rising female entrepreneurs. As she scouted Florida and the country for female-driven breweries, Martineau says she was “surprised” by the surge of women in beer.

The statistics agree with Martineau. The Brewers Association, a trade group representing independent breweries, reports that 25 percent of American women drank beer in 2016, up from 20 percent in 2015.

“[Craft beer is] still definitely a male-dominated industry, filled with guys with big beards and tattoos,” says Martineau, of Fort Lauderdale. “But now, owners are coming in all shapes and sizes. Women just want more equality in the craft-beer scene.”

Here are four women who are part of South Florida’s new drinking class.

LISA SIEGEL

Co-owner of Riverside Market Café, Craft Beer Cartel and New River Brewing Company, Fort Lauderdale, TheRiversideMarket.com

Fort Lauderdale’s Riverside Park looked run-down in 2002 when Lisa Siegel and her husband, Julian, opened their convenience store Eastside Market in the neighborhood, selling hard-to-find beers and stimulating South Florida’s thirst for brews.

Fifteen years later, Siegel's alcohol empire has exploded: Eastside Market became Craft Beer Cartel, a supply store for avid homebrewers, and across the street is Riverside Market Cafe, a hub for drinkers stocked with 500 varieties of local and rare brews. The Siegels opened a second location, Riverside Market South, in Edgewood, with plans to launch a third in Plantation in September.

This fall, Siegel will open the 12,000-square-foot New River Brewing near the downtown Las Olas Publix with partner Adam Fine, a veteran Fort Lauderdale brewer, and the Restaurant People, the company behind YOLO on Las Olas Boulevard and Tarpon Bend in Himmarshee Village.

“Brewing is so much science, it feels like a 10th grade chemistry class,” Siegel says with a laugh, stirring boiling grains inside a stainless-steel mash tun on a recent Tuesday outside Craft Beer Cartel. “We ignited this neighborhood, and now our own local produce is helping to make beer.”

Siegel is mostly hands-off when it comes to brewing. She says she handles the “nonfun stuff”: marketing, menu creation, payroll and social media. But she still loves the beer vibe.

“How lucky am I that I’m not sitting in a cubicle all day?” Siegel asks. “I think my life is surrounded by passionate brewers.”

FELONICE MERRIMAN

Co-owner of Accomplice Brewery and Ciderworks, 1023 N. Florida Mango Road, West Palm Beach; AccompliceBrewery.com

After being laid off from her job as a graphic designer for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, the mother of two met her partner, brewer Matt Stetson, and the duo set their sights on craft beer. Stetson planned to open a brewery, but there was a catch: Merriman has celiac disease, which means she couldn’t enjoy Stetson’s gluten-rich IPAs, peanut-butter porters or experimental homebrews.

Merriman and Stetson compromised with Accomplice Brewery and Ciderworks, which opened in 2015 and brews gluten-free hard ciders, infusing apple, cranberry and strawberry into the fruity elixirs. Stetson learned the gluten-free technique from his German-born grandfather when he was 9 years old, swapping out wheat for grains such as millet, quinoa, sorghum and sunflower seeds.

“This was Matt’s hobby, and I helped turn it into his dream. Behind every man is a woman kicking him in the ass,” says Merriman, a Daytona Beach native who also owns and publishes PB Parenting magazine in West Palm Beach.

As Accomplice’s co-owner, Merriman helps with kegging new recipes, designing beer-can labels, booking beer-festival appearances and handling the company’s social-media presence.

“It’s not a glamorous job,” Merriman says. “It’s a lot of manual labor, and men are always trying to help, but I’m like, ‘I lift kegs for a living, buddy.’ ”

Later this year, Accomplice will triple its brewing capacity, from 1,200 to 3,600 gallons per batch, when Merriman and Stetson open a gluten-free brewery next door to its warehouse near Okeechobee Boulevard west of I-95.

“I can finally drink that mocha maple porter that Matt’s been promising me all these years,” Merriman says.

MARIA CABRE

Head brewer at J. Wakefield Brewing, 120 NW 24th St., Miami; JWakefieldBrewing.com

The Johnson and Wales University graduate worked as a pastry chef at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, the Biltmore in Coral Gables and Misha’s Cupcakes in Miami Lakes before trading it all for beer.

Last month, Cabre became head brewer at J. Wakefield Brewing. Reached by phone on a recent Tuesday, Cabre had just finished bottling the brewery’s Big Poppa, a coconut-and-coffee-infused imperial stout that’s “super-popular with the beer nerds around here,” she says.

She began her J. Wakefield career as a homebrewer, working under founder Johnathan Wakefield, and for two years has served as a brewer, whipping up new recipes, organizing distribution, cleaning kegs and organizing beer-festival appearances.

“Baking is a lot like brewing,” Cabre says. “It’s very precise, and it’s not just throwing a few ingredients together to see what happens. There are percentages and hop recipes and temperatures you have to follow. Johnathan lets me be very open with my creativity, and do a lot of funky treatments with our beers.”

KATHERINE CASTRO

Cellarwoman at M.I.A. Beer Company, 10400 NW 33rd St., No. 150, Doral; Mia.beer

July will mark two years at M.I.A. Beer Company, and one year working the night shift as a Doral brewery’s cellarwoman.

“My sister calls it beer babysitting,” Castro, 26, says. “I’m dry-hopping beers. I’m pushing yeast, tapping kegs, filling the brite tanks and basically caring for the beer.”

After graduating from Florida International University with a background in psychology and criminal justice, Castro turned to court reporting, but carpal tunnel syndrome forced her to switch careers. After a stint at World of Beer, the taste of M.I.A.’s Mega Mix pale ale lured Castro to apply for a keg-washing job at M.I.A. She found a mentor in M.I.A. brewmaster Mike Demetrius.

“I was intimidated, not because of all the men, but because there was so much to learn,” recalls Castro, of Kendall. “You pay your dues, and when you’re a brewery destination, there’s no room for error. To be honest, there aren’t many women in brewing, and I’m trying to show that hey, [women are] here, too.”

This summer, Castro will release her first beer in M.I.A.’s taproom: a small batch of gose, a German-style sour beer.

The FemAle Brew Fest will take place 2-5 p.m. Sunday, May 28, at FAT Village, 571 NW First Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Admission is $25-$35, $15 for designated drivers. Go to FemaleBrewFest.com.

pvalys@southflorida.com or 954-356-4364

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