Over at NoDa Brewing, Matt Virgil’s beard is already starting to show after he recently mowed it off for the Clean Shaven Kickoff Party a few weeks back. His assistant brewer, Brian Schonder, is still sporting the majestic fiery red bush that glows enough to light up the brewery at night. At Triple C, Chris Harker looks like he’s getting a headstart for “No-shave” November, and co-owner/head brewer Scott Kimball won’t be afraid of a frosty chin either, as the weather grows colder.
But at Heist Brewery, head brewer Eric Mitchell’s beard is a little lonely. In an industry dominated by beer bellies and big beards, Charlotte’s craft beer scene welcomed its first professional female brewer this past summer. Alexa Long, 26, is the first female to be on staff as a brewer at any of Charlotte’s craft breweries. This past spring, she won first place for her Spring Fever saison at the 24th annual Carolina Brewmasters‘ US Open.
Standing at 5’5” and 120 pounds, what she lacks in size she makes up for with passion for her craft. “I just feel like I’ve had to work harder to prove myself, which is fine,” Long says as U2 plays over the bar stereo. We're inside Heist, in full view of the giant beer vats. “It’s just that everyone thinks that men brew and especially men with beards and beer bellies."
Long is quickly working to break that stereotype, however. She is Heist's assistant brewer but she’s already producing the “not so small batch,“ with a fresh recipe every week. She also produces the majority of the beer featured at the brewery’s Flight School, a monthly event marking the release of new seasonals.
She changes her beers with the seasons but her favorite style of beer to tinker with is the IPA. “I like to switch it up and be experimental,” Long says. “I’ll always tweak something small.”
For national IPA Day, Long put together Tooty Fruity, an American IPA that used Mosaic, Citra and Simcoe hops to produce a 6.8 percent ABV blend of flavor profiles, characterized by melon, mango and citrus overtones.
After graduating from UNC Charlotte, Long, like any other red-blooded American, decided that she didn’t want an office job and switched her focus from finance to the first logical substitute — craft beer. She brewed her first batch in her apartment with her father’s old setup and says that’s when she knew she loved the 7,000-year-old craft. Although she’s upgraded her equipment, she is still using some of her father’s old gear.
Long says this isn’t the first time she's had to work in a male-dominated setting. She spent time in London shadowing sixth-generation master brewer Bill King, where she was breathing and brewing beer day and night, even sleeping in the brewery. “It was a really awesome experience,” she says with a laugh. “All the guys were older but that was alright; it was really educational.”
Prior to coming to Heist, Long spent more than two years working at Beer and Wine Hobbies, the homebrew supply store on South Boulevard.
She says that she has always been competitive, but the team at Heist is more like a family. Mitchell confirms that, saying he hired her because she’s a team player. “It’s been a very collaborative effort between me and Josh [her predecessor] up until this point, and I saw that trend continuing with her,” he says.
A phone call interrupts our chat, and Long steps out of the taproom briefly.
“Hey, don’t let her fool you man," Mitchell says with a chuckle after Long is out of earshot. "She’s strong as shit.”