Founded in Minneapolis in 2017 after a successful collaborative brewing project at Thirsty Pagan Brewing, Witch Hunt has been a standard-bearer for Women-led initiatives within the Twin Cities craft beer scene. Now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Witch Hunt has made it their mission to create opportunities and raise awareness for all people of marginalized genders and queer folks within the local beer community, and the organization managed an impressive list of accomplishments in 2020 despite the obvious industry-wide challenges resulting from COVID-19.
We checked in with Witch Hunt (full list of organizers at end of the article) to learn more about their recent chile-infused collaboration beer and a Maibock project they have on the horizon, along with the advocacy and social justice goals that the organization is targeting in 2021.
Beer Dabbler: It’s been a while since we’ve checked in, so let’s recap a little bit of what Witch Hunt has been up to over the past year. Who were the breweries that you collaborated with in 2020? Which beers stand out in your memory?
Witch Hunt: We had a total of seven different collabs this past year, which is wild given the state of the world. We are so grateful for all our partners this year and urge everyone to support them, as we know COVID is hitting our industry hard. It’s hard to pick just one since they were all special in their own way, but if we had to choose, it would be Season of the Witch since that was our first Fargo-Moorhead chapter beer!
- Tin Whiskers Witch Bot, German Inspired Hazy IPA (February 2020)
- ONE and Brewing Change Collaborative (March 2020)
- BlackStack Dear Mama, Hazy IPA (April 2020)
- The Lab Berry Inclusive, a tart ale brewed with elderberry (June 2020)
- Dangerous Man Sex on the Beach, a cocktail-inspired ale (September 2020)
- Unmapped Witch’s Garden, a saison brewed with jalapeno, basil and bittered with dandelion greens (October 2020)
- Drekker Season of the Witch, a mangonada sour (October 2020)
- Falling Knife Matriarch, a Brooklyn biscotti pastry stout (November 2020)
You also launched the Fargo-Moorhead chapter of Witch Hunt last year. What did that process look like? Do you envision more Witch Hunt chapters in your future?
WH: Our passionate organizers Sarah Pedersen of Drekker Brewing and Allison Slavik of Junkyard Brewing reached out to us after their 2020 International Women’s Day brew and expressed interest and a need for a Witch Hunt chapter in the Fargo/Morehead area. Given the growth happening in the Fargo-Moorhead craft beer scene, we decided to give it a shot!
Part of what influenced our decision was location. North Dakota has a long way to go when it comes to LGBT+ equality. The state legislature has voted down anti-discrimination bills pertaining to employment, housing, and public accommodations. Until last June, it was legal for employers in North Dakota to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The state does not track hate crimes perpetrated on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The North Dakota House passed a bill designed to attack transgender kids playing high school sports just last month. One of our founding organizers grew up in Grand Forks, so you could say it’s a little personal. We felt that by starting a Fargo-Moorhead chapter, we could create a safe space and community for LGBT+ folks in North Dakota brought together by craft beer.
With regards to future chapters—we feel it’s important to take it slow and let Witch Hunt grow organically. It’s all about community building and we want to make sure each chapter is sustainable before filing paperwork. We have had some interest in northern Minnesota as well, and are excited to see where that may go in the future!
Can you tell us about Witch Hunt Fargo-Moorhead’s recent collaboration with Doubting Thomas farms? Why were you excited to work with them?
WH: Doubting Thomas is a local farm that provides grain to local breweries in the Fargo-Moorhead area, and we’re all about supporting local! It was a valuable opportunity to connect grain-to-glass. Farmer Noreen Thomas is extremely knowledgeable, holding degrees in nutrition, microbiology, and chemistry; malt selection is integral to designing a beer and we were thrilled she was willing to share her perspective on grains with our members. We were excited to partner with Doubting Thomas because they also do a lot of outreach in the area, having kids out for educational events and hosting members of the Gifted Learning Project, a nonprofit dedicated to enriching the lives of those with learning challenges. Knowing about your grain, where it comes from, and the labor that goes into ensuring quality malt is used in your beer makes us appreciate it even more!
A big piece of Witch Hunt’s mission is to create education and community engagement opportunities, which is obviously a more difficult task in a COVID-19 world. How did Witch Hunt pivot to keep that programming going in 2020?
WH: We pivoted our platforms to mainly online with happy hours, webinars, and beer releases. Even though we can’t all be in the same space drinking, virtual happy hours have definitely helped bridge the gap (especially in the early days of the pandemic). It has been a little challenging at times, Zoom fatigue is real—and at certain points, we’ve had to press pause on our activities to give our organizers space to deal with the strain of the pandemic.
We do actually have a virtual beer and cheese pairing happening Monday, March 15, led by Ashley Hauf of Dual Citizen and 10K Brewing, and are super excited!
We encourage any interested readers to sign up via email and social media to stay in the loop about future activities.
Let’s talk about your recent collaboration with Lupulin Brewing, Seeds of Change. We love everything about it, from the awesome label to the barrel-aging to the well-balanced use of chiles. Where did the idea for that beer come from? What was the brewing process like, and what has the reception been from customers?
WH: Thank you so much! We’re glad you’re stoked about it, we’re pretty pleased too.
Lupulin brewer Aaron Zierdt actually reached out to us and invited us to come brew Night Witch, which is their annual Russian Imperial Stout named for the badass women belonging to the Soviet fighter pilot squadron in WWII. Night Witch features an overnight boil which permits additional Maillard reactions which add more flavor. We wanted to do a Witch Hunt variant using Night Witch as the base beer to truly make it our own. We stayed up late on the winter solstice of 2019, discussing issues in the industry with the Lupulin crew and ways we could work together to make the craft beer community more welcoming and inclusive.
After fermentation was complete, the portion of the beer that would become Seeds of Change was put into Sugarbush whiskey barrels (graciously donated by Vikre!) and left to mature for almost a year.
A lot happened between then and the summer of 2020, which was when we ventured back out to Big Lake to taste the beer and decide our next steps. We wanted to create something beyond the typical vanilla/cacao nibs/etc., and someone pitched the idea of doing a spicy pepper addition. We sampled four or five different bench-top pepper infusions before deciding on the Ancho, Guajillo, and Arbol combination and then proportions. The peppers add heat which balances the chocolate notes and thickness of the stout quite nicely. Peppers were placed in a sanitized mesh bag and the beer was gently recirculated over them—we had to be careful not to go too long lest we picked up too much heat. We did have some base beer on reserve for blending if this happened but it wasn’t necessary in the end.
Seeds of Change brings the heat while issuing a challenge. We hope everyone who tastes Seeds of Change reflects on how they can challenge the status quo to create a better, more just world. Reception has been very positive—one of our Witch Hunt members at France 44, Kayla Tyler, reported they were only down to a few bottles when we chatted last night.
Does your organization have any specific plans to do a collaboration brew for International Women’s Day this month? What will that beer look like? [Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted prior to March 8]
WH: Yes! We will be partnering with Arbeiter next Monday, March 8. This will be our first brew day open to members since the pandemic began so we are very excited! We’ll be brewing a Maibock for release in early May. We’re shooting for a very traditional Maibock: bready, light residual sweetness, light to medium herbal bitterness, malty and crisp with a clean finish—perfect for drinking in a beer garden. This beer will be fun because it features a decoction mash—way back in 2018 one of our members going through the DCTC program was having a hell of a time finding a brewery where she could shadow the decoction process, so this one’s for you, Lauren!
What do the nuts and bolts of your collaboration process look like? How do you select your brewery partners, and work with them to develop your respective recipes?
WH: This is a great question–it absolutely depends! As we’ve grown, we’ve started receiving more invitations to collaborate. It’s not just about the beer—we want to know that the breweries we partner with are committed to creating safe and equitable work environments for their staff, as well as inclusive and welcoming taprooms for their patrons. We want to know what breweries are doing to promote professional development for women and nonbinary folks on their staff. With regards to recipe development, it’s a pretty standard back and forth. We’ll decide on a style, sketch out a flavor profile, set an ABV, and work backwards from there. Sometimes when we have a specific project in mind, we’ll send a draft recipe to the brewer for review and make minor adjustments from there. It really just depends on the beer/partnership.
Beyond the beer, what sort of activism and social justice work do you have planned for 2021? What goals do you hope to achieve with that work?
WH: We are currently looking to use some of our funding to work with organizations like the U of M and consultants to help create educational content about the issues underrepresented demographics face in the brewing industry and what steps breweries can take to address them. Our plan is to then use these materials in partnership with breweries to help them create positive change. We’re also in touch with the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild regarding their nascent Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee and look forward to working more closely with them in the future.
In 2020 we launched an employment connections survey (which can be found on our website). It’s an informal way for members who are considering employment at a brewery to check in with members who previously or currently work at that brewery to learn about company culture. We hope this will protect job seekers from ending up in a toxic work environment. We will continue to maintain this resource in 2021.
We also have begun asking all breweries who utilize our job board to include compensation ranges on their job postings to prevent potential compensation disparities on the basis of gender.
Internally, we will be doing a demographic survey to ensure we are being truly inclusive of all our members. If we’re saying we create safe spaces, we need to be sure we are holding ourselves accountable and making sure we truly are welcoming and accessible for all.
With the recent news about Boulevard Brewing’s pervasive culture of sexual harassment, it’s obvious that our industry still has a long way to go in providing equitable representation and employment opportunities for women. What are the biggest challenges you see to making that dream a reality? Are you seeing any positive momentum when you look around the industry?
WH: The biggest challenge is leadership. So many places are still run like boy’s clubs. If you only get that one perspective, you will not be able to bring about effective change with regards to diversity, equity, and inclusion. You will be missing the critical input necessary to make effective policy decisions. You can’t be offended or take things personally when staff speak up about a problem—you have a responsibility to fix it! Change comes from the top down, and as seen with Boulevard, when those in power are complacent change cannot happen. It’s easier to downplay or ignore issues than address them head-on. It’s easier to not train staff properly so you can justify paying them less.
Compensation issues coupled with sexism are (from our anecdotal experience, at least) why many women who leave the industry choose to do so. This is an industry with slim profit margins, but there’s no excuse for paying the only woman on your production team dollars less than the rest of the crew when she does the same damn work.
With regards to positive change—yes and no. Many people say they want to make change but maybe lack the knowledge, tools, or bandwidth to do so. Paid DEI internships are a start, but it’s critical that places offering these internships have a solid training program in place and aren’t subjecting interns to toxic work environments.
We are inspired by the actions Modist is taking to address the systemic issues of racism and misogyny in the industry, and the gender-inclusive language used by Dangerous Man when promoting their recent IWD collaboration Crewel Juice.
Most breweries are small businesses and it can feel overwhelming trying to keep the ship afloat, especially in light of COVID-19. This work can’t simply be done overnight. We encourage those in leadership positions to start by making small, impactful changes—all we can do is take it one step at a time.
Witch Hunt Organizers
Find more information about Witch Hunt and how to get involved at their website, witchhuntmpls.org