By Sahara Smith
Welcome to the new Women in Austin Beer series. My first interview is with Tara Carr of Favorite Brands.
The Austin beer community has many faces, and let’s be honest, most of those faces have beards. If Tara Carr is sporting facial hair, she hides it very, very well. For our interview, I asked Tara to meet me at Whip In, an Austin craft beer institution.
When she walked into the room, even though the house was packed, it was impossible not to notice her. Tara is bubbly, warm, and (unlike myself) a natural redhead. I have never seen her without a huge smile on her face. And…
She. Knows. Her. Beer.
Tara works for the Austin branch of Favorite Brands, a Texas-based distribution company, and she is very passionate about the products she sells. “My favorite part of the job is definitely being able to work with the breweries and more intimately with accounts. Getting to schedule events like beer dinners is great! Anytime you have an event where you get to see people enjoying the beer you sell is the best.”
When I asked Tara how she first developed an interest in craft beer, she answered, “I grew up around craft beer. I loved it.”
She wasn’t kidding.
Tara was born in Austin, TX, into a family of craft beer enthusiasts, at a time when people with a passion for craft were few and far-between. “My father’s best friend worked for Shiner of Austin” she told me, “and then he went on to work for Celis, and the Celis family, so, I knew them for a long time.”
The Celis family, for anyone unfamiliar with the name, is Texas beer royalty. Pierre Celis is often – not unjustly – credited with bringing the Belgian Witbier style back to life. When his brewery in Belgium burned down in 1980, he relocated to Austin, years before anything but Spoetzl could call themselves Texas craft. He passed his torch to his daughter Christine, and now Christine’s daughter Daytona is brewing for Uncle Billy’s, at the ripe-old-age of 21.
“Daytona and I just reconnected after ten years after not seeing each other,” Tara said smiling. “My first job out of high school,” she continued, “was at a coffee shop out of Manchaca, Texas, and Pierre and Christine imported Belgian chocolates. We got to work with them on a weekly basis, and I always joke that when I was 19-years-old, I got to sit down with Pierre and go through boxes and boxes of chocolate, and I think, ‘God, if we had been doing this a little later, we could have been doing this with beer!’ But I do have that really fun memory, and it’s a cool one.”
Tara’s parents were also close friends with Philip and Diane Connor, who founded the Real Ale Brewing Co. in Blanco, Texas. She and her brother have fond memories of playing in the Blanco River while her parents drank Rio Blanco Pale Ale with Phillip and Diane at the brewery.
“We called the Blanco River the Pale Ale River!” she chuckled.
When I asked Tara what she studied in school, her answer surprised me. Tara was an art major, and as much as she loves craft beer (and believe me, she loves craft beer), in her heart of hearts, she identifies as an artist.
“I started going to school for painting,” she told me, “and then I started selling my paintings, and that was way cooler than going to school for it. I worked as an an art teacher in South Austin, and that was wonderful, living in your own little art world. I had a kiln and all the art supplies I could ever imagine. I also worked for ASD, a college prep course in low-income neighborhoods.”
When I asked Tara to describe her artwork, she looked at me, wide-eyed.
“Have you really never seen any of my paintings?” she asked, incredulous. She pulled out her phone and showed me a few photos of her work. Bold, vibrant colors flooded the screen, mostly abstract, but strong. Powerful. “It’s mostly acrylic on canvas,” she explained. “I also like melting vinyl, which is blasphemy to some people. Because it’s music!” she exclaimed. “And you’re destroying it!”
While she was coming into her own as an artist, Tara met her soon-to-be husband, Jan. At the time, Tara was teaching, and Jan was brewing for Live Oak.
“Jan and I met when I went on a brewery tour. He was hosting the tour and I was joining a group of friends who were in town for spring break. We lingered around after the tour to buy merchandise and chat with him, then while walking away he excused himself from some other tour-goers and chased me down for my number. The next day he took me on a date to Peter Pan Golf on Barton Springs Road, and a few drinks across the street at Barton Springs Saloon. The day after that he invited me over to his house and cooked me dinner. He made pasta with a meaty marinara sauce then we watched silly movies on Netflix. The story of our first week is a lot like our relationship now; brewery tours, dates where you can BYOB, and Netflix.”
The two of them moved to Brooklyn, where he was offered the position of brewmaster at Six Point. Tara stopped teaching, but she never stopped making art.
“There was this record store right underneath the Brooklyn Bridge, and I was thumbing through records, fully sitting on the floor, and at one point, they were like, ‘Are you just looking for colored vinyl?’ I was so obvious! I could tell it was hurting their souls.”
I asked her if people ever assume she wound up in craft beer because of her husband’s history as a brewer.
“Definitely,” she said. “I think [in Brooklyn] everyone saw me as, ‘the brewmaster’s wife,’ which was really hard for me and I didn’t like it. When we moved outside of the city, we were in Pennsylvania, and it was the first time that people didn’t really know who I was, and it was really refreshing to be able to get a job on my own merits. I was working for a distributor out there as well, and [I liked] to be able to do my own thing and have people be like, ‘Wow, you’re really smart, and you know a lot about beer!’ and I’m like ‘I know!’ When you want to do something in the industry and there is that tinge of sexism that’s there, it’s really difficult. I think people assume that maybe I got into it to impress someone, or maybe I’m doing it to impress my husband, and I think regardless of how I got into it, I do it because it’s fun and because I love it.”
“I feel like a lot of the male-domination of the industry doesn’t come from a place of sexism, so much as from what society has led us to believe the average beer drinker is like,” I added. Tara agreed.
“Absolutely,” she said. “And it’s really obvious. My mother worked in commercial real estate for a long time and she was part of an organization called CREW, which stands for Commercial Real Estate Women, and it was basically that same thing. There are women in residential real estate—plenty of them—you see their faces all over signs, in front of houses, everywhere you go. But the commercial side of that was a really male-dominated thing. For the beer industry, it’s male-dominated everywhere you go, with the exception of places that have girls serving. And the ones that tend to have female servers tend to be a little over-sexualized. There’s a niche for that market,” she sighed. “What can I say?”
When she isn’t working for Favorite Brands, or melting vinyl in her living room, Tara and Caroline Wallace of Bitch Beer are busy running the Austin chapter of the Pink Boots Society.
“The local chapter of pink boots hosts meetings once a month at local breweries and craft beer-centric spots. Our meetings revolve around something educational, such as doing a flavor standard kit, reviewing the draught manual, or more fun things like food and beer pairings. We have a group on Facebook where we keep the Central Texas members up-to-date on job postings, meetings and scholarships at the national level. The PBS is open to any women who make their living in the beer industry, and we love the diversity of industry members we have; quality control technologists, owners, brewers, brewery reps, distribution reps, beer writers, and more! I encourage any women, in any part of the industry to join a meeting.”
It is rare to find somebody working in the beer industry with as much enthusiasm and grace as Tara Carr. It can be a very demanding industry, and it’s so easy to get burned-out. But Tara is one of those rare people who never seems to let the day-to-day frustrations get the best of her. She brings joy and heart to everything she does. She can’t help it.
That’s just… Tara.