Lee Hedgmon is a woman of many talents, some of which she uses to make exemplary beers, spirits and honey.
In addition to her full-time job as a distiller for Freeland Spirits in Portland, Lee also owns the Barreled Bee, a company she founded to experiment with and produce barrel-aged honey products. Read on for a conversation between Lee and Craft MTN.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about the first time you brewed beer. How did it go?
Oh, that was fun. I think the first beer I ever made was in a friend of mine’s kitchen when I was in grad school. I didn’t have enough space in my apartment to do it. And so I was like, “Can we use your kitchen?” It was me and her roommate and another friend of mine. And it was the first and only time that I was allowed to make beer in her kitchen because the smell of hops completely overwhelmed the whole house and nobody could be in it. Yeah, it was pretty bad. We were keeping the carboys in her basement and she was not thrilled by that. And nobody would drink the first beer. They didn’t trust it [laughs]. It was malt extracts, some pellets and a little bit of priming sugar. We had one person who had done it before, and we were just like the blind leading the blind.
Something must have clicked for you that first time. What made you want to keep going and pursue brewing and distilling as a job?
I actually had been making wine and mead already. I thought it was going to be similar, but it really wasn’t—it was way more steps. What kept it going after that was that I was dating somebody who actually had been home brewing for a very long time. I started using his equipment and then I wanted to brew all the time to get better and he just didn’t want to brew as much. So I branched out and started learning on my own after that. I picked up any book I could find, or any pamphlet. At the time I was in grad school, and I was doing research and teaching. This was my escape from everyday life.
You’re an experienced brewer, distiller and honey farmer. Do they inform each other? Do you, say, learn something from distilling one day that you then apply to your apiary or vice versa?
All the time. I think that’s what makes what I do so interesting. Everything I’ve done, I have found another way to apply it—which is really funny because my research area was interdisciplinary research. I was used to working in fields that didn’t talk to each other but who had practices that were very useful in another field. But no one had applied it because people in nursing don’t talk to people in psychology; they don’t talk to people in sociology. You don’t have anthropologists talking to political scientists, so when you read the work across the board, then you’re like, “OK, that’s a great idea. How do we use that to apply to something else?”
Does the process of barrel-aging honey differ from a more traditional spirit?
Well, in a sense, it’s all completely new territory since honey isn’t normally aged in barrels, unless the bees got into a barrel and created a hive. You don’t necessarily put honey in barrels because of the fact that it’ll destroy a barrel in a matter of months. It dries it out so much that the barrel will fall apart. That also changes the viscosity of the honey, depending on what was in it, depending on where it’s stored, depending on a whole lot of factors. It’s always been trial and error to figure out a way to maintain the integrity of a barrel for the time that you need it to hold the honey.
How do the bees themselves factor into the end product?
So, funnily enough, I took up beekeeping because when I started my company I would go to events and everybody had questions about bees and the honey. I realized I needed to know more about bees because they were vital to what I was doing. I took up beekeeping so I could answer people’s question as honestly and truthfully as I could. I work with apiaries because of the scale that I use honey—hundreds of pounds of honey go into barrels. I have one hive in my backyard and, at most, I’m lucky to get 20 or 30 pounds of honey. For me, it’s fun to track down honey that some beekeepers aren’t using because they’re like, “This isn’t a good honey for commercial use.” But it works for me because the weirder the honey, the more interesting it is once it goes into barrels.
Tell us more about SheBrew, the organization and event you cofounded?
We started it [in 2015] because we were all in the same home brew club and one of the member’s partners worked for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). She was in charge of fundraising and we were all sitting around and thought, “Let’s do a beer fest. One that’s just us—just women and women-identified brewers.” We held it at the Q Center, which is a LGBTQ community center. One of the things that was really important to us was to bring together people who may not feel comfortable going to really crowded traditional beer festivals that have the reputation of just being filled with a bunch of bearded white guys. SheBrew continues to be a fundraiser for [HRC]. It’s actually one of their most successful ones.
Do you think the brewing industry is moving in the right direction in making itself safe and welcoming for everyone? Or is there still a lot of work to be done?
Still needs a lot of work—needs so much work. The issues always are going to be a business’ public facade versus what actually is happening behind the scenes. And that is going to be hard and difficult because the craft beer community is pretty close and pretty close-knit. Nobody wants to talk badly about what’s going on. They just know that the public has a short attention span—something will blow up quickly and then in two months it’s gone and every time it blows up, people always think it’s the first time it’s happened. And it really isn’t. The problems won’t get fixed until everybody is willing to solve them, including the people that know that they’re going to lose footing.
What’s the best way for the average consumer to help?
I think that the average person can do their part by collectively thinking about when things are said in a public space, that they, as an ally, will speak up. Saying things is hard, but for folks who get to go through the world without any kind of adversity, that’s where the hardness becomes something that stops them from doing anything. When things will really start to happen is when people who have the luxury to ignore something, don’t. I think that’s a huge step. Have conversations with people. Beer is pretty welcoming. Breweries are welcoming. You’re sitting next to somebody and you ask them, “What are you drinking?” Then they tell you about it and you see their face light up that moment. That moment right there could change somebody’s whole demeanor about what they thought about the person sitting next to them. Sometimes it really is just as simple as having a conversation.
You’re known for bringing distinctive flavors to your beers and spirits. How did you arrive there?
I always enjoyed doing that. The running joke would be that if you came to my house when I was first home brewing, anything that = was in a takeout box was free to eat, but anything else you had to ask because who knows? I might have been planning to use it for a beer. I used a lot of meat in beers because I like the silky character. I was a struggling student who didn’t have a lot of money, so I always had to try workarounds—like using egg whites as a clarifier for wine.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I think people don’t realize just how lucky we are to be in a place that has so many naturally growing ingredients here in the Pacific Northwest. If you’re big on foraging, you know. There’s a lot out there that’s been traditionally used in all sorts of alchemy and potion making. I worked for a distillery, and we were in the process of making a vermouth for them. We’d been doing this for a couple of years. Finally, we decided we were going to sit down and do the blending—get these herbs together. We were trying to figure out the concept and we looked around the table and we realized the winemaker was a woman, I was a woman, another distillery person, who was new, was a woman. We’re sitting there and we’re like, “We should make a love potion.” So, the very first vermouth I ever made was designed as a love potion. We couldn’t get any of the guys to taste any of our trial runs because every time they’d walk into the office, they’d see us laughing and cackling.