Earlier this month, another SAVOR craft beer and food experience went in the books as one of the best fests, parties, events (all these things) of 2017! Sure. There are always magnificent beers to sample from all across the country. And, yes, there are delightful, gourmet bites of food to pair with each brew. But there also are the social and networking aspects that makes it special and is really what it’s all about for me.
Our friends from Free Will Brewing Co. from Perkasie, PA were in the house serving their sought after Olly (Flanders Oud Bruin) and Ralphius (Wood-Aged Strong Stout). Co-Owner & Brewer, John Stemler along with Hannah Gohde (Brewer & Social Events Coordinator) and Colleen Rakowski (Lead Cellar Worker) were there to talk about each of the selections as well as catch up on all things ‘Free Will Brewing Co.’ Most folks know who John Stemler is and his role at the company, but many do not get an opportunity to meet Hannah and Colleen – two hardcore craft beer ladies with gobs of talent and tenacity helping make Free Will Brewing Co. the powerhouse brewery that craft beer enthusiasts flock to in Pennsylvania.
It’s no longer surprising seeing or hearing about women making a difference in the craft beer industry. But it’s still something we at Stouts & Stilettos love to celebrate – to cheer on our fellow ladies who enjoy great brew, make great brew, and change the face of the brew industry as a whole. I had a chance to interview both Hannah and Colleen to hear their story so you can get to know them as well.
PART 1 – COLLEEN RAKOWSKI (Lead Cellar Worker)
Tell me about your craft beer career. How did you get to the place you are today?
Colleen Rakowski: I always say that I didn’t find the craft beer industry, but rather it found me. I initially did not have a strong interest in beer and was more inclined towards wine due to my experience living in France.
I met the Brewmaster of Free Will, John Stemler, and began talking to him about an office role in the company. I started helping with social media work and filling in where necessary. When the brewers and other staff needed help, I began to learn more about the daily processes. From there, I grew to take over more of a Cellaring role. I am now the Lead Cellar Worker, in charge of most of the cellaring production processes.
When did you become interested in working in the craft beer industry?
Colleen Rakowski: I became much more interested in the craft beer industry after I started at Free Will Brewing Co. The culture of the company ignited my passion for beer and I began to learn about the beer styles and became fascinated with the science, history and culture of the craft beer industry. It is a bit backwards to become fascinated with beer after starting in the industry but I am so grateful for my journey into craft beer because it pushed me to learn and try things outside my comfort zone. And, it turned into a career.
I heard you started brewing at Free Will as well. Perhaps another new role in the works for you at the brewery?
Colleen Rakowski: While I love helping with barrel work and leading the cellaring team, I recently have learned to brew on our system. I mentioned before that I have a fascination with the science and processes at the brewery and brewing was something I had been working towards for awhile. It is entirely different from the many things I do at the brewery. There is more to learn everyday about brewing and I am excited everyday to learn more.
Who/what inspires you in this industry and why?
Colleen Rakowski: Last year at CBC (Craft Brewers Conference), I had the pleasure of meeting Lauren Woods Salazar, New Belgium Brewing Co.’s Wood Cellar Director & Blender. It was a casual lunch beer pairing at Monks Café in Philly. Lauren talked to all of us for a few hours about her career at New Belgium and how she got into the craft beer industry. I saw so much of myself in her. It was truly inspiring! Knowing that this incredible woman standing in front of me began at the bottom and turned into this barrel blending powerhouse was incredible and powerful. I remember looking at John Stemler and telling him that she was so similar to me. I saw the same drive and excitement in her talking about her career as I talk about mine. She definitely inspires me not only as a woman in the industry but as someone starting at the roots of the brewing industry and hoping to grow my passion and career.
I saw you were a member of Pink Boots Society and actually won a brewing science scholarship. Can you tell me about that learning experience?
Colleen Rakowski: The call I got last year from the Pink Boots Society Scholarship Chair was one I will never forget! I had applied two months prior with an essay to the UC Davis Scholarship. The only words I said during the whole call were “I’m so excited!” I, of course, then called her back to actually have a conversation.
The scholarship was for me to attend the Intensive Brewing Science Course for Practical Brewing taught by Charlie Bamforth and Michael Lewis. Along with 30 others in the industry, I learned an infinite amount about the science behind brewing by legends in brewing. The people at the course were also amazing, many of whom I am still in contact with today. The trip to UC Davis went incredibly fast. It was a whirlwind. But it was the experience of a lifetime! I can never thank the Pink Boots Society enough for sending me to UC Davis.
I was asked by Pink Boots Society last year at CBC to speak about the importance of scholarships and why I was so enthusiastic and excited about mine.
What is your favorite style of beer to drink and why?
Colleen Rakowski: It seems as if I get asked fairly frequently what my favorite style is and it is a difficult question to answer. When it is light and sunny, I want a Witbier or a Mango Wheat. I prefer the heavier beers when it is cooler weather. In general, I am fascinated by lambics and geuzes (also ‘gueuzes’) in any weather or situation. They are often complex in flavor and pair so well with most foods, leaving them versatile to bring to a friend’s house. I recently spent two days in Belgium and was spoiled by the lambics there.
Any other craft beer or life experiences you’d like to share?
Colleen Rakowski: I spent about a year as an au pair in Lyon, France and enjoyed the experience so much. I recently went back to France and was lucky enough to be in the city during a beer festival, leading my two worlds of French language and Brewing to collide. It made me realize that beer truly is global. It was a very cool experience. I often joke that beer is my job and wine is my hobby because I am known to love a glass of wine, although I visit many local breweries in my off time as well!
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