In this modern age of craft beer snobbery it’s “guys with ponytails and beards who listen to the Grateful Dead” who represent America’s beer-making majority, according to people who know about these things.
Women brewers are rare – almost mythical creatures.
But at Three Floyds Brewery – the death-metal, Dungeons and Dragons-inspired beer factory in Munster, Ind. – there’s a lady in the brew house and she’s chucking 44-pound boxes of hops and buckets of vanilla and espresso coffee beans into giant boilers to make some of the best beers in the world.
“It’s pretty cool to have a woman brewing. It’s like seeing a black unicorn … and we caught her right in our net,” Three Floyds head brewer Chris Boggess once joyfully declared over a late-night plate of nachos and a third pitcher of margaritas.
Meet Abigail B. Titcomb, beer-brewing unicorn.
On a recent workday, the art school dropout and longtime bartender cases the joint in less than fashionable brown rubber boots. Her black T-shirt is splattered with mashed grain. Her flowing blond locks are tied back in a ponytail. She even smells like, well, a brewery.
“It’s not about men vs. women,” Titcomb says. “It’s always about being the best brewer, making the best beer possible.”
And at Three Floyds – Ratebeer.com’s “World’s Best Brewery” four years running – Titcomb has her hands in crafting dozens of beers including one of the most sought after Russian Imperial Stouts in the world, Dark Lord, a beer so special that thousands of beer geeks flock to the Munster industrial park on the last Saturday in April for an annual chance for a taste.
Titcomb can’t believe she’s part of the crew. Not too long ago, she doubted her chance at finding a career that made her happy. Photography didn’t work out. She lost interest in being a sign language interpreter before even getting started. Pouring a mean Manhattan at a late-night bar seemed like her only viable alternative. Even that was getting old.
Then, in a sober moment a few years back, she knew she’d only be happy in her working life if she did what she loved.
“It was an epiphany. I love beer,” she said. “Why am I not making beer? And that was it.”
She went back to school – a two-week brewing course at the Siebel Institute of Technology – dabbled with home-brewed concoctions and searched for brewery jobs.
Late one night at a hipster nightclub, Titcomb struck up a conversation with a “guy with gorgeous hair and face tattoos” who said he might have a line at a job bottling beer at Three Floyds.
“I was like yeah right,” Titcomb said. “It’s late at a bar and he wanted my number. … Whatever, I gave it to him. He actually followed through.”
Her first job was putting together boxes. She did a lot of that.
Boggess knew the brewery was on the verge of expanding to keep up with growing demand. He was looking for an eager young brewer to mentor. Brewery founder Nick Floyd, also a Siebel brewing school alumnus, and vice president Barnaby Struve promoted Titcomb to brewer last year. Since then Three Floyds has hired two more brewers – both men. This month construction crews are putting finishing touches on renovations to the brewery, which last year increased production by 40 percent.
“Why not have a diverse workforce. We didn’t want to be a vanilla boys club like it has always been,” Struve said. “She put herself through brewing school and that doesn’t guarantee you a job anywhere. We knew Abby had a passion for it.”
Titcomb had to prove her worth. She carried boxes of hops, lugged heavy hoses and followed directions. The Three Floyds boys club didn’t haze her, well, not too much.
After a few months, Nick Floyd asked Titcomb to come up with her own recipe. She had something hearty in mind, a black lager with a twist.
“I wouldn’t say a woman’s touch, necessarily,” she said “I just didn’t want it to be normal. I wanted a complex beer. I mean, this is Three Floyds and it couldn’t suck.”
Titcomb picked just the right hops and malt for what would become her namesake lager.
Boggess, Struve and Floyd kept close watch over her maiden 30-barrel batch of brew – crisp and malty without too much of a kick – that hit the taps at Three Floyds Brew Pub in January.
Das Kleine Schwarz Einhorn, they call it. The Little Black Unicorn.