By Kelly Davis
When it came time to choose the recipient of UC San Diego Extension’s inaugural Brewing for Diversity Scholarship, the selection committee couldn’t decide between the two top candidates, so they kicked the decision over to Ballast Point Brewing, the scholarship’s sponsor.
“The owners agreed that both were awesome and deserving, so they offered to award two scholarships instead of one,” said Misha Collins, Ballast Point’s community engagement manager.
Collins helped come up with the idea for the scholarship a year ago, as the U.S. was reeling from the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and grappling with historic racial inequality. Collins, who is Black, wanted to explore ways that Ballast Point might make a difference. While craft brewing in the U.S. has skyrocketed in popularity, some of that success has been tempered by the industry’s lack of diversity. According to the Brewers Association, the beer industry’s largest trade group, roughly three-quarters of brewery staff are white. Only about 10 percent of breweries are owned by people of color. When it comes to women in brewing, the numbers are similar: A 2018 Brewers Association survey revealed that only 22 percent of breweries are women-owned. Women make up less than 8 percent of brewers.
“I brought up the need to make an impact and support underrepresented groups to one of our owners,” Collins said. She and Ballast Point co-owner Brendan Watters decided a good first step toward remedying craft brewing’s diversity problem was to offer an annual scholarship to cover the cost of completing UCSD Extension’s professional brewing certificate program. Recipients would also be offered a paid internship at Ballast Point.
Kyle Wiskerchen, a program manager at UCSD Extension, said the scholarship follows Ballast Point’s other contributions to the certificate program’s success. In the past, they’ve provided instructors, hosted internships and hired program graduates.
“The resources they’ve put towards making a social impact and the passion they have — it’s a great way to engage the community and give back to the community,” he said.
The UCSD Extension brewing program, which launched in 2013, already has a track record of helping to diversify the beer industry. Sean Hallman, who’s Black, is the co-founder of Oceanside’s Shadow Ridge Spirits. Joaquin Lopez Orendain went on to start Cerveza Fortuna in Guadalajara. Women who’ve graduated from the program have gone on to work at Amplified Ale Works, AleSmith, White Labs and Stone Brewing, among others.
Twenty-four people applied for the Brewing for Diversity Scholarship scholarship, Wiskerchen said. Applicants went through a rigorous review process that included two essays and an interview with the selection committee. Ultimately, the committee deadlocked on two recipients.
“They both interviewed really well and had different stories and different qualities,” Wiskerchen said. “Misha took it back to the co-owners of Ballast Point, and it was decided that instead of picking one, we should offer the scholarship to both individuals.”
The recipients — Elia Gómez Smith and Skylar Holewinski — are both women who, by coincidence, have backgrounds in science (UCSD Extension’s program takes a deep dive into the science of brewing). In their applications, both wrote about breaking down barriers to welcome underrepresented groups into the craft beer world and how breweries can create community.
Smith was born and raised in Southern Mexico. Her father was a chemist while her mother raised the couple’s eight kids. Smith described her mother as a “culinary chemist” who was always fermenting fruits and vegetables, like making the popular Mexican drink, tepache, for instance. She’d add a bit of mysticism to her approach, telling her children that speaking kindly to the yeast would aid the fermentation process.
Smith went on to get a degree in chemistry and worked in the biofuels industry. Her son has a heart condition, and her husband has celiac disease, an immune disorder marked by gluten intolerance, so she’s put her skills to work making kombucha, kefir and other probiotics that promote wellness.
“You should see my kitchen,” she laughed. “Instead of pots, I have beakers.”
Smith’s husband missed drinking beer, so several years ago, she decided to try to make a gluten-free pale ale for his birthday. She bought a kit from Home Brew Mart in Linda Vista and used sorghum and honey as a sugar source instead of barley. The staff at Home Brew Mart told her that what she’d made was actually a mead, but her husband loved it and begged her to make more.
Smith currently works for UCSD Medical Center in a healthcare job made all the more difficult by the pandemic. Taking courses in brewing allows her to pursue a more creative and scientific endeavor. Based on her experience caring for others, she came up with a plan to focus on the elements of remembrance, tradition, and community in the beer industry.
“Can the industry allow me to be creative so I can bring a complement of who I am to this,” she remembers asking herself. She knows it’s not going to be an easy transition, “but I assure you that I’m going to give everything,” she said.
Holewinski works in biopharma clinical trials. She finalized her degree in biology from UC San Diego later in life, at age 36. After 18 years of working towards her diploma, it became important to Skylar to use her degree in a hands-on way.
When she saw an announcement for the scholarship and how flexible the program was, it felt like a natural next step — a different way to think about science. Holewinski said she’s looking forward to exploring the genetics and genomics of yeast used in brewing. And, being from Wisconsin, brewing is practically in her DNA. But what really sparked her interest in craft beer was the anthropology of it — the way people experience it, evaluate it and talk about it.
“It combines social aspects, creativity, science and community all in one,” Holewinski said.
Some of her favorite breweries — Barrio Logan’s Border X, its sister brewery, Mujeres, and Hillcrest Brewing, the world’s first LGBTQIA+ brewery — have been vanguards in beer making, and Holewinski said she appreciates their courage to try something new.
“At any age or any background, try to dream a little and picture yourself in different settings,” she said. “If there are people out there thinking, what will I do next? Maybe this is something to try. Have the courage to see yourself in new ways.”