Portland brewer Lee Hedgmon defies stereotypes about beer and race

Sample Hedgmon’s one-of-a-kind stouts and spirits at Edgefield and Ground Breaker.

_74A0920-crop smallLee Hedgmon checks a spirit she's distilling at McMenamins Edgefield.
Ashley Anderson

For Portlander Lee Hedgmon, homebrewing began as procrastination. She was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, writing a PhD dissertation about female teachers of color and emotional labor — serious scholarly stuff. But she was also spending a lot of time with kettles and carboys (glass bottles) in her tiny apartment.

“I used strange ingredients from the get-go,” Hedgmon says of her early experiments, which included beer, wine, cider and mead. “Whatever I had around: I did a bacon beer. Rosehip tea. Mangos!”

After eight years in Minnesota, Hedgmon returned to her hometown of Portland in 2010, fully intending to complete her degree. But the brew bug had bit, and Portland’s craft beer scene was growing (but not yet exploding). At the time, Hedgmon says, you could still break into the industry by traipsing into a brewery and asking to volunteer.

Hedmon’s dissertation remains unfinished. Instead, she now works at McMenamins Edgefield and gluten-free Ground Breaker Brewing. And she’s given the world a red velvet stout, a strawberry lemonade beer and a green, glitter-filled Belgian ale (more on that later).

Dessert-inspired beers

Hedgmon’s first turn on a professional brewing system was at Portland’s Coalition Brewing. Today, Coalition might be best known for its beers infused with CBD, the non-psychoactive compound in cannabis. But in 2010, it was a brand-new brewery with a homebrewer partnership program.

After brewing an amber ale herself, Hedgmon went on to run Coalition’s homebrewer program. She also joined the Pink Boots Society, an international organization supporting women in the beer industry. With that group’s Portland chapter, she brewed a raspberry chocolate stout.

“It was fantastic,” Hedgmon recalls. “I developed a reputation for dessert beers. I feel like dessert beers often get a bad rap, because they’re always too sweet.” Hedgmon made it her mission to craft dessert-inspired beers that wouldn’t leave drinkers with a sugar high.

One of these beers was inspired by Neapolitan ice cream. Another was a red velvet beer cooked up while working at Pints in Old Town. This chocolate stout was turned ruddy with beet powder, which the brewery served blended with Berliner Weisse for some tang — the cream cheese frosting on top, if you will.

Hedgmon currently brews at gluten-free brewery Ground Breaker in Portland. Photo by Ashley Anderson.

Spirits and glitter beers

After stints at two homebrew shops (she loved geeking out with customers about water chemistry and the science of malting grain), Hedgmon now works full-time as a distiller at McMenamins, the Pacific Northwest’s venerable chain of converted historic buildings and brewpubs. She’s mostly based at Edgefield, a county-poor-farm-turned-adult-playground just outside Portland, beloved for its murals, lawn concerts, soaking pools and two par-3 golf courses. There, she distills a full line of spirits, including whiskey, spiced rum and pear brandy.

“Brewers think about things in terms of weeks,” she says. “Distillers think about things in terms of years. It’s about learning how to taste layers.”

For about two years, Hedgmon has also brewed at Ground Breaker, a gluten-free brewery with a tasting room and restaurant in Southeast Portland. Her early home experiments left her well-positioned to brew without barley, wheat or rye — the normal bases of beer — using chestnuts and sorghum instead.

It was at Ground Breaker that Hedgmon perfected the aforementioned glitter beer, a Belgian tripel tinted green by the addition of blue curaçao. Hedgmon is a little frustrated that people focused all their attention on how the beer sparkled rather than how it tasted (for the record: It’s full-bodied and pleasantly fruity). But it was no small feat to get the glitter to remain suspended rather than sinking to the bottom. “There are certain things we had to do to give that beer more viscosity,” she says. “It was a little more complicated than dumping a bunch of glitter in the keg.”

Hedgmon now works full-time as a distiller at Edgefield, where she’s made whiskey, spiced rum, pear brandy and more. Photo by Ashley Anderson.

Diversity in the beer industry

Hedgmon made the eye-catching glitter ale for SheBrew, a beer fest she co-runs that showcases women brewers and supports LGBTQ+ causes. Founded in 2015, the festival has come a long way. In its inaugural year, Hedgmon says it counted only a couple professional women brewers. In 2018, there were 22.

Fewer strides have been made when it comes to race, however. Hedgmon is one of few people of color in Portland’s craft beer scene. She occasionally gets confused with Annie Johnson, a Black brewer who doesn’t even live in Oregon. But while Hedgmon says it’s sometimes wearisome to work in a field overrun with “bearded white guys in flannel and trucker hats,” she mostly shrugs it off. “When you’re in the industry here — if you’re in, you’re in,” she says.

She’s juggling many other projects, including the Barreled Bee, her nascent company producing barrel-aged honey and a slew of homebrew projects. She’s currently perfecting a schwarzbier with togarashi, the Japanese spice blend. “It’s a dark beer with a bit of a spice and an interesting kick,” she says. “It goes great with sushi.”

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