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Women in Craft Beer: Heather Pilkington on What it Takes to Succeed

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(Photo by James Lee/Flickr)

By Tera Dacek

Traditionally, dating back to ancient times, women were the brewers, crafting ales out of their homes. In more modern times, women were often featured prominently in beer ads, but not as the ones creating the beer. Today, we’ve come full circle. As the craft beer market continues to grow, we see many women who are a part of this industry.

For our first profile in a series of four women in craft beer, we introduce you to Heather Pilkington.

UVM Instructor Heather Pilkington

Heather has over 15 years of experience in craft and large-scale breweries, with time spent at Labatt Breweries (AB InBev) earlier in her career and now with First Key Consulting in Vancouver, where she is currently in the role of Director of Projects. To address the challenges facing breweries in the fast-paced world today, First Key has assembled some of the most talented, interesting and globally experienced brewery consultants and malting experts to provide clients with independent evaluations, as well as comprehensive and integrated solutions in every area of their business.

First Key’s clients include Founders Brewing Company, von Trapp Brewing, Gordon Biersch, Beau’s all Natural Brewing, Creature Comforts Brewing Co. and many more. Heather will also be an instructor for UVM’s Business of Craft Beer Professional Certificate Program, which kicks off in February 2016.

I am sure you’re asked this all the time, especially around this topic, so let’s just get right to it: What’s your favorite fall beer?

I am sure you also get this answer all the time: So much great beer, so little time! Tonight I enjoyed a Muskoka Brewery Harvest Ale from Muskoka Brewery out of northern Ontario.

Can you talk about what barriers, if any, you’ve faced throughout your career in a male-dominated industry?

Early in my career, the biggest challenge was figuring out ways to network and collaborate in an industry that did not have many women. Historically, every sector in every industry has evolved its culture to include more women in decision-making roles, and the brewing industry was no different. Today in my current role with First Key Brewing Consulting, I have the pleasure of working with breweries coast to coast in a variety of settings, with nothing but positive and constructive experiences. It’s a great time for women in the craft brewing sector.

What do you see as the biggest hurdle for craft breweries today, and what can they do to overcome it?

I am fortunate to have a great bird’s eye view of the challenges that craft breweries are facing today. What I see are many creative and dedicated brewers wanting to turn their passion into a successful business. The craft brewing sector is becoming more competitive. Start-up craft brewers now face stiffer competition for local distribution rights from expanding craft breweries that may be building secondary breweries, from an increasing number of other local craft breweries, as well as from the largest commercial breweries. As consumers become more educated about craft beer, they not only expect a distinctive product, but a very high-quality product delivered with great consistency. To meet the challenges of the complex issues facing breweries today, having the foundational business skills and operations systems in place, in addition to a passion for their craft, are key to success.

How did you land your first job in the beer industry, and is this the industry you knew you wanted to be in?

After completing an undergraduate degree, I saw an inspiring lecture given by a female leader within the brewing industry and knew that was where I wanted to be. I aligned my graduate education to this goal with great passion and determination. I was able to get a foot in the door as an unpaid intern at the experimental facility within the local brewery of my hometown. I was like a kid in a candy store, learning about brewing and fermentation, how to swing a wrench on 10L and 16 hL scale equipment, and how to translate that knowledge to larger-scale breweries. Eventually, they started to pay me, which was even better.

What traits have you found to be successful for you professionally?

Being curious and able to dig into problems has served me well, learning from a great network of talented people in the brewing industry. Going a little “out on a limb,” trying something I’m excited about, putting energy into it, and eventually realizing some benefits from the effort.

Any advice for those who want to pursue a career in craft beer?

Think about what unique qualities, personal history, and strengths you bring to your craft brewery and use them with passion to build and contribute to the community of the craft beer industry as a whole.

Reinforcing my earlier points, you need to have strong business acumen, operational systems, and discipline, in addition to your passion and creativity.

This is our first post in a four-post blog series introducing you to just a few of the amazing women in the beer industry right now. Cheers to these women and their accomplishments, with hopes that all beer lovers who have been considering a career shift into the beer industry will begin to follow their passion.

Tera Dacek is a consultant and freelance writer. She most recently worked as Marketing Manager for Alchemy and Science. When she unplugs, she can be found at her local mountain or one of the many wonderful breweries in her home state of Vermont.

Business of Beer