Lee Hedgmon remembers her first beer.
At age 21, Hedgmon enjoyed a McMenamins' Ruby Ale, the signature red-toned brew with raspberry puree.
Now, Hedgmon is McMenamins' distiller and brewer, producing McMenamins line of spirits year-round, including Billy Whiskey, Gables Gin, High Council Brandy and more. The Cornelius Pass Roadhouse in Hillsboro is home to a more than a century-old still and is one of the reasons Hedgmon jumped at the chance to work with it.
When she isn't working, thinking about her craft doesn't escape her. Hedgmon helps run SheBrew, a festival celebrating female brewers and directly helps to support LGBTQ causes. This year's event is March 2 at Buckman Coffee Factory, 1105 SE Main St., Portland.
Growing up in Portland and graduating from Lincoln High School, Hedgmon never thought she'd eventually work for one of the top craft breweries in the United States.
"This was not my plan, and not my mother's plan either," she said with a laugh.
Hedgmon graduated from Portland State University and moved on to receive her graduate degree at University of Minnesota in feminist studies.
"By then, I was learning to home brew," she said. "The running joke is when you are learning to do that, you are just hanging with someone who already knows how to do it, standing around drinking and watching them do it."
She initially began with wine, mead and cider, but dabbled in beer-making while waiting for her wine to be done, she said.
"It became an obsession," she said. "I bought every book. I was online. I wasn't in a place to always do it, so I would go from friend's house to friend's house because you can only do it once per place and the smell isn't pleasant. Their roommates would complain about it, but I finally ended up in an apartment in the basement where my landlord was a big-time underground brewer in the 1960s. He offered me bottles and his wife begged for him to get rid of his equipment."
While she taught women's studies at Portland State after leaving Minnesota in 2010, Hedgmon gravitated to Bridge City's beer industry. She worked part-time while writing and teaching, and over time, she moved away from the latter to pursue learning more about the process and equipment.
"I joined the local homebrew club and started to volunteer," she said. "I joke that I am one of the few people in the industry that got into professional brewing job by asking places to work for free."
In 2016, Hedgmon applied for a position at McMenamins' Edgefield location in Troutdale. She got the job.
Now, Hedgmon is a part of the crew at McMenamins Hillsboro's location — Cornelius Pass Roadhouse.
When she isn't working at McMenamins or prepping for the annual SheBrew event, she is also a member of the Pink Boots Society, a national nonprofit supporting woman in the brewing industry.
At home, spirits take to the kitchen for Hedgmon.
"I'm a big fan of waffles," she said. "I use McMenamins' Frank High Proof Rum in my waffles. That is a 'Saturday, I am not going to be anywhere' kind of waffle. It doesn't burn off, it makes it all crispy. I take out a third of the water, replace it with the rum and will splash it in the maple syrup. People ask me what you can do with things, and I tell them: everything."
Hedgmon judges beer competitions frequently and has sound advice for people starting out in tasting and exploring what's out there.
"It is about learning to trust your own senses and using your language to make things accessible so you can talk to people about it in a way that makes connection," Hedgmon said. "There are traditional aromas in smelling, and once you identify that, you can attach the words that everyone can understand, but how you approach it is going to be a lot different."
Experiencing spirits and beer is for everyone, and you don't need a fancy vocabulary to do it, she said.
"It is never wrong with what you are recognizing. The question is digging deeper," she said.
One taster described a drink one as smelling like her grandmother's closet. "She liked the smell, but not really the taste," she said. "Once she recognized it was lavender, and it reminded her of soap. That is why it isn't wrong, it is digging into what is way more complex than people think. When we taste something from the still, it is a safe bet that your first instinct is the right one and you need to trust your own palette."
Fifteen years into the business, Hedgmon said she still spends plenty of time reading about spirits as she did when she first began.
"There is always something new that I didn't know. You never stop learning — you shouldn't, you aren't appreciating what is going on and the trends are always changing," she said.
A taste tip she also offers is adding ice to spirits, because something colder than the spirit contracts the alcohol vapor, enhances the smell and helps to taste the flavors, she said.
"I learned that after starting at the distillery and I kept trying it with stuff," Hedgmon said. "It is so fascinating. I'll taste before the ice cube and then after with a tad bit of water, and I taste something totally different."
Being a part of a tough industry
"You are only as good as the people next to you." Hedgmon said. "This is such a beer centric place that pushing the envelope gets more done. The craft beer industry is close knit. Everyone starts somewhere and then goes onto another place, but they don't leave that relationship behind. It is a twisted family tree, starting with who your brewing parents are."
Her first inclination is to call around and ask if someone has a piece of equipment or ingredient she needs, she said.
In a cisgender white male dominated field, Hedgmon said she isn't a stranger to the challenges it presents.
"It is a hard industry to get into and hard to talk about issues only pertaining to women. When you walk into a place and people will be standing around…I could be wearing my shirt that says "distiller," but it is always going to be a man next to me that someone is going to ask questions to. I'm never seen as the person who knows what they are doing. It is something you get used to. But, how do you navigate it and having the support system? As a person of color, this is why I still do interviews, people don't see things as possible if they don't see people like them doing it. That is why being visible is so important.
By Janae Easlon
Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune971-762-1166
Follow Janae at @Janae_Easlon
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