How Barb Baker turned her love of beer into a career — and found a way to help other women break barriers in the industry
By Leena Rao
Photography by Darrel Ellis
Sitting at Griffin Claw Clubhouse in Rochester Hills on a recent Tuesday, Barb Baker reads the brewery’s beer menu like a labor lawyer reads an employment contract. That is to say: with encyclopedic knowledge. She rattles off the history behind the Screamin’ Pumpkin Ale and peruses the stouts — her favorite kind of beer — pointing out the merits of specific varieties and ingredients. “You can’t really go wrong with any of the beers here,” she says, ordering the Pumpkin Ale.
Baker, a Rochester resident, doesn’t just like beer — she’s turned her passion for it into a career. Known as Detroit’s “Siren of Stout” (her husband coined the name), Baker is regarded as an expert on craft beers, both locally (she frequently appears to talk about it on Detroit-area news stations) and outside of Michigan (she’s an ambassador for New York’s renowned Brooklyn Brewery). She’s also a vice president at Fermenta, a Michigan-based nonprofit devoted to empowering and supporting women in the fermented beverage and food industry. Oh, and she brews her own beers at home for friends and family. “More than I love making beer, I love giving my beer away, and having people enjoy it,” she says.
Ironically, Baker never tasted a sip of beer — or even came close to the drink — until college. (She grew up in a strict Catholic family, she explains, and her parents didn’t drink alcohol.) That changed when a classmate at Ohio University invited her to a fraternity party. The friend handed her a Heineken, and she was hooked. “It was delicious,” she recalls, adding that she’s since moved on from Heineken; she says her favorite beers are Bell’s Light-Hearted IPA and Goose Island’s Vanilla Bourbon County stout (“the way it feels in your mouth is like a religious experience”).
After meeting her husband, a Lake Orion native, in Atlanta, Baker moved to Michigan to be closer to his family in 2001. It was a match made in heaven, she says (and she’s not just talking about her marriage). “Michigan has some of the world’s best beers because of our incredible water,” she says. Baker — who also works as a corporate spokesperson, a brand model at trade shows and a product specialist for auto companies — started blogging about the suds she would taste at local breweries, posting reviews on social media and attending local craft-beer events. “I usually try new hobbies or activities and get into them, but then give them up easily,” she says. “With beer, that never happened.”
It was at one of these Michigan events in 2015 where Baker first met Tracey Scholten Kusz, who was a board member of Fermenta at the time. Kusz felt that Baker would make a great addition to the nonprofit. “Barb has such a dynamic personality, and people gravitate towards her,” she says. “She can talk to anyone and because she has many interests even beyond beer, she’s approachable.”
She’s also somewhat of an anomaly in the largely white, male-dominated industry. According to a report from Brewers Association, a national trade group, only about 7.5% of brewers are women, and 88% of brewery owners are white. Baker admits that she stands out: “When I first started blogging, it was mostly white men in the seats at breweries,” she says. “But I’ve never felt like I haven’t been accepted.” She recalls a time years ago when, after a run, she was about to step into Rochester’s Paint Creek Tavern in Rochester to cool off. Seeing a group of white men inside, she questioned whether she should go elsewhere, but ultimately decided to walk in. “One of the men said, ‘Looks like you could use a beer; I’ll buy your first one,’ ” she says.
That camaraderie is still going strong tody. “My mother always told me, ‘Wherever you go, you belong,’” she says. “I’ve always felt welcome in the craft-beer community.” And she’s hoping to extend a hand to others like her: “I want to introduce people of color and women to the glorious world of beer,” she says. To that end, through Fermenta, she’s awarded continuing-education scholarships to women in the industry.
Another way Baker has been working towards bringing more awareness to women in beer is through collaborations with Michigan breweries. In August, she and Fermenta released a Belgian-style ale with Eastern Market Brewing Co. for Women’s Equality Day called “Gretchen Witbeir” (a play, obviously, on Governor Whitmer.) Baker consults on the recipes and ingredients, and sales from the beer are donated to charity.
Up next, Baker is working with Griffin Claw to brew a pumpkin-flavored stout that will be out this fall. “Barb has an incredible knowledge of beer,” says Kyle VanDeventer, Griffin Claw’s head of sales. But it’s her personality that makes her stand out, he adds. “We all know about beer in this industry, but so few people have the personality and passion that Barb has.”
Between projects, Baker — who, despite her thirst for beer, tries not to drink it every day — is brushing up on her home-brewing skills. She’s tackled everything from Irish Reds and lagers to Pilsners, and her next challenge is making a chocolate-infused stout. “There is a science to making beer, and I’m still learning,” she says.
Still, for her, beer is much more the sum of its hoppy, malty, boozy parts. “It’s the feeling about beer, the people, and the camaraderie, that keeps me moving towards it,” she says. “For me, everything about beer has been a good-feeling moment.”