Badass Women in the Detroit Beer Industry: Lena Butler

by Courtney Burk of Batch Brewing

Photos by Dave Cicotte of Brew Detroit

I sat down with Lena Butler to discuss her new role as the Quality Technician at Brew Detroit. New to the industry, her perspective is fresh and focused on the science and— often overlooked— microscopic interworking involved in the production of beer.

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Your origin story. How did you find yourself working as a Quality Technician in the craft beer industry?

I was in my fifth year at Central Michigan University pursuing my biology degree when the school announced they were offering a fermentation science certificate program.  I reasoned the opportunity would be another way to use my degree and allow myself entrance into a job market that I had never previously considered.

Unlike the other brewing programs that are offered at various Universities in Michigan, CMU’s program focused specifically on the science and quality aspect of brewing. It was a perfect fit for my degree and my background with working in different lab settings.

I love to learn. More specifically, I love to learn information and skills that not many individuals know. I’m always looking for things like that, especially when it comes to biology. So, when I head about a program in the fermentation sciences it really peaked my interest. I didn’t feel like a lot of people knew about the actual process that goes into producing beer. Which is funny because I didn’t even drink beer at that point in my life – it’s since changed.

To finish the program required a 200-hour internship. I was afforded the opportunity at Brew Detroit and was hired into the company following the completion, as their Quality Technician. I have been in love with the industry ever since.

What does a typical work day look like for you?

This is going to be a lot of science stuff, so bare with me. My day typically starts with me checking the gravities and the pHs of the beer in our large fermenter tanks as well as on our nano magic system. Basically, I go up to the big tanks and check readings and then I had over to the smaller tanks and check readings.

I will run the ABV (alcohol by volume) on any beers that are ready to crash and that are in brite tanks waiting to be packaged. Beer is made with yeast and in order to get those and other sediment to clump together and sink to the bottom, we cool the beer rapidly.

If it’s a package day, I take samples off the line throughout the day and run analytics on them. I also grab a sample that gets stored in our library and our sensory program. If it’s a nonproduction day, I’m cleaning equipment, doing paperwork, and preparing for the next production day.

I’m lucky to work in a large contract facility such as Brew Detroit because it allows me the opportunity to learn a lot more about styles of beer and all the ways that raw ingredients work to make a tasty brew. I also get to watch and interact with beer from start to finish literally every day. I love it.

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What is your favorite part of making beer?

The yeast. There amazing microbes turn what is, essentially, a barley juice – into beer, just by working their magic! Yeast also comes in many different strains. These strains add a lot of flavor and character, which makes different styles and taste profiles. Yeasts are just amazing, and they look fantastic under a microscope.

If you could change one thing in the industry what would it be?

I wish the industry had more of an appreciation of the actual science, chemistry, and biology that go into making beer. I also wish there was more excitement around it because it really is amazing and very interesting.  I wish there was more excitement for the yeast and everything they do. And they are some major stars of the show! They are magic and gorgeous, like these things take the sugar from the barley and turn it into beer. These tiny itty-bitty things do that and it’s amazing! Basically, let’s grab a beer and talk science.

Who’s been your greatest influence in craft beer?

I’m relatively new to the industry so I don’t have one person to name, but I am greatly inspired by all the women that are and have been in the industry. As an added bonus though, I am working with a master brewer who has been in the industry for 40 years.

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Have you faced any specific challenges being a female in the industry?

I have been very lucky that I haven’t really had a lot of challenges being a female brewer, which to me is a good sign for the industry for how well I’ve been accepted.

Where do you like to unwind in Detroit?

I’m a nerd, so I really like to go to the different museums and the DSO. I like an hour away from the city so I am learning and exploring Detroit more and more. I don’t have a specific favorite place yet but I really enjoy every place I have been so far. I am very impressed with how the city has changed over the last several years.

In your free time, what are you up to?

Again, kind of a nerd, but I like to hang out with my cat while watching shows or doing some granny crafts, because I’m an old lady at heart. I also like to explore the Metro Detroit area and the rest of Michigan whenever I’m afforded the opportunity.

Favorite beer to drink at the moment?

I really love fruity sours, but I am very much in love with chocolate peanut butter stouts as well.

Thank you, Lena!

Are you yourself interested in pursuing a career in brewing, fermentation science, etc.? Here are some Michigan schools that offer education programs, courses, or certificates:

Central Michigan University

Western Michigan University

Schoolcraft College