Fem Russell is a brewer at Bonehead Brewing, in Melbourne’s northwest. At just nineteen, she’s already making an impression in the beer industry, thanks to her enthusiasm and dedication to learning about beer – even if that involves some more unconventional education methods at times.
“On the third day of GABS, I had lost my voice and was wandering around trying to learn stuff from brewers,” she recalls. “There’s was this really annoying marching band, and because I couldn’t speak very loudly, talking to people wasn’t really working.
“So, I went to Officeworks and bought a notebook instead. I used that to see if I could get an email or something. I ended up getting a lot of emails and a lot of sentiment actually, because I couldn’t talk! I just wanted to learn as much as possible.”
Despite this more creative display of learning, Fem’s beer education has involved some formal training too — including two beer and brewing courses at the University of Melbourne, as well as hands on experience at a couple of breweries.
“[At Bonehead] I’m in charge of the pilot program, so just experimenting and doing weird shit and seeing if it will work on a small scale before putting it on a big scale,” she says.
“I also go to Colonial to do packaging, where its run very differently. They’re packaging five days a week and shift brewing 24/7, doing the same four or five beers.
“I think each is a requirement for a brewer at some point in their career. It’s essential to get to know your equipment and do the same thing consistently. It’s an important thing for a person to have a beer in a brewery and come back a month later and order the same thing and hopefully get it. Consistency is key.”
Having grown up in Dubai, Fem’s love of beer originated thanks to a number of trips to the Netherlands, her mother’s home country.
“I was surrounded by it growing up,” she explains. “I was going to Holland, being able to drink amazing stuff from Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands. The classics like Lindemans Kriek, Duvel and Delirium [Tremens] – all the good stuff. My parents would drink that and it wouldn’t really phase them.
“We’d go for a day trip to Amsterdam and my parents would leave us with our grandma and go off to the Heineken Brewery!”
But, it wasn’t until she moved to Melbourne in 2017 that she realised could learn much more about beer, something in which she’d previously only had a passing interest.
“For my 18th birthday my grandma sent me some money and told me to spend it on something that I could learn from,” she recalls. “I saw on Facebook that Mr West was hosting a masterclass with La Sirene. I sent them a message and said ‘I know nothing about beer, is it still viable for me to come to this class and potentially learn something?’ And they were like, ‘it’s pretty out there, funky stuff, but come along!’
“So, I went to that, was talking with the guys, and they were like, ‘you actually have a really good palate, you should do something with that’ and I was like, ‘what the fuck is a good palate?’
“I ended up just doing masterclasses at all these places, and just went to the bottleshop for beers – different beers, I made sure that they were different – sat down and drank them thoughtfully. I realised I’m finally good at something, and that there’s careers in this field.
“People don’t grow up thinking that they want to work in this industry, and that’s kind of disappointing because it’s a very essential industry, especially in Australia, where so much social activity is centered around drinking beer or wine.”
Ultimately, Fem would like to open her own brewery, citing inspiration from more niche places such as Wildflower, Future Mountain and Molly Rose. Still, she acknowledges she’s still got a way to go in terms of her beer education.
“Age and time drinking is important. People say ‘it must be hard getting a job in the beer industry as a chick’ and I’m like, ‘people don’t care if you’re a chick!’ But, the fact that I’m nineteen sucks. They find out and think that I don’t know anything – and I don’t. But at the same time, I know a lot more than most people.”
As for whether Fem thinks she’ll ever get to a stage where she will be confident that she knows enough, “probably not!” she laughs. “There’s always room to learn!”