The American Homebrewers Association hasn’t awarded its Homebrewer of the Year honor to a solo female in the past 30 years. This year’s winner, Annie Johnson, didn’t realize that bit of trivia until she was told she was the first female recipient since 1983 — and the first ever African-American to win. But she recognizes she doesn’t fit the bill at first glance for the stereotypical brewer.
“I get a lot of people who are surprised that I brew beer and that I know a lot about beer,” she said. “But once we get talking, it’s all about the beer. Beer doesn’t care what color you are, doesn’t care if you’re male or female at all.”
Johnson, 48, of Sacramento, said she hasn’t noticed anyone taking issue with her being an African-American female brewer, which she attributes in part to her upbringing. She was born in Germany and adopted by white parents. Her brother has blond hair and blue eyes, while she and her sister both had African-American fathers.
“We were never taught to see anybody except for who they are,” she said.
Johnson’s interest in beer also began with her family. Her mom was a great cook who liked to entertain, and Johnson remembers seeing her mom’s beer steins as she grew up and hearing her mom talking about beer and wine.
That appreciation grew when she went to college in Sacramento, where she was exposed to what was considered a good beer selection at the time.
“I was thinking, ‘I love this. I think I can make this.’ So I just started reading,” she said.
Getting Her Start in Brewing
Johnson started brewing in 1999. She bought a kit for some friends, and then she started brewing with them, mostly on the weekends and often as they watched football games.
“More and more, I was the only one in the kitchen,” Johnson said.
About a year and a half later, the friends moved and Johnson ended up with the brewing equipment. She entered her first competition in 2001 and won first place.
“From there, I was just really on a roll,” she said.
She competed heavily for a few years, then returned to more casual brewing. But even when she wasn’t brewing up a storm on her own, she spent a lot of time helping others brew. She’s been back to brewing regularly the past few years and has increased her involvement in beer judging, which she began doing around 2002.
The Beer That Made Her Famous
Johnson typically brews using the all-grain method but noted she isn’t opposed to doing a partial mash if she’s in a hurry or just trying to make a basic house beer to have on hand. Although she typically brews 5-gallon or 10-gallon batches, she said she often brews 3 gallons as test batches when she’s working to perfect a recipe.
That was the case with her light American lager that won her first place in the light lager category of the National Homebrew Competition this year — and, ultimately, Homebrewer of the Year. The batch that won was her third attempt at brewing a light lager using specific recommendations from Betsy Parks in a BYO magazine article from 2010.
Johnson had brewed a lot of Czech pilsners, but she thought her previous attempts at a light beer had turned out too watery. The article helped her improve on that.
“There’s not a lot to that beer as far as flavor,” she said. “If you have anything that goes wrong, it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb.”
She was surprised to see a light lager get so much recognition in the National Homebrew Competition, she said, noting it’s usually a bock, Belgian, or IPA that catches the judges’ attention.
“Poor light lager; nobody wants to brew it,” she said. But Johnson endorsed it as a great beer style to drink in warm weather.
Johnson attributes her success in brewing to many great influences over the years, especially Beth Zangari, who helped Johnson judge her first competition, BJCP-affiliated author Dave Sapis, and Santa Barbara Brewing Company brewmaster Kevin Pratt.
“Those three easily were huge influences. I would never pretend to know more than they do. They’re the beer brain collective,” she said.
A Push for Women to Enter Competitions
In Johnson’s 14 years of brewing, she has seen some growth among the ranks of female brewers. However, the number of women entering homebrew competitions still seems quite small, she said.
“A lot of women don’t enter competitions. And it might be a stereotype where they don’t need the validation, but I wish more women did enter competitions,” Johnson said.
“When you put beer in a competition, it just gets assigned a number,” she said, emphasizing that the beer is judged on its merits, not on the gender or ethnicity of the brewer.
Johnson noted the tradition of women in brewing, such as when women made up the majority of brewers as they made beer for their families. She said one of the advantages of her Homebrewer of the Year win is that she has heard from many female brewers who she didn’t otherwise know were brewing. She said brewing isn’t a far stretch from other activities that are seen as common for women.
“A lot of women cook, so they’re constantly paying attention to time, temperature, quality of ingredients, all these things,” she said. “Brewing is an extension of that.”
Johnson said if anyone does question her place in the brewing world, she has a reaction ready. “I always make it about beer,” she said. “If I think someone might be challenging me, I just blow it off and focus on the beer.