By Bob Barnes
Read up on further Beer News and Women Who Brew to enjoy stories like Dr. Sylvie Van Zandycke’s.
Humans have been drinking beer or similar drinks for several thousand years, but many do not realize early brewers were mainly women, making beer as one of their normal household tasks. However, by the 18th century the brewing gradually became a man’s job and women were relegated to roles as barmaids, pub operators, bottlers or secretaries for breweries.
Over time beer also came to be viewed as a man’s drink. Now with the craft beer renaissance and the realization and acceptance that beer can be enjoyed by all, more and more women choose beer as their drink of choice. They are also entering the beer business as brewers and brewery owner/operators.
In this series we delve into the backgrounds of several women—co-owner/operators, brewers and operations managers. These accomplished women are leaving their mark on the beer industry in Southern Nevada in occupations integral to the brewing business. Read on to discover the paths that led them to this field and the quite significant contributions they have made and continue to make.
Dr. Sylvie Van Zandycke was born and raised in Belgium, a country long known for its beer culture and production of beers brimming with flavor and character. Her first inclination was to pursue a career working with animals, as a vet or in a zoo, but as at the time there weren’t many jobs in these fields, she instead studied microbiology, and would wind up still working with animals, albeit much smaller ones.
Beer Education and Beyond
Naturally, the 50-year-old’s beer education began in her early years growing up in Belgium. One of her earliest memories is of her dad letting her pour his favorite beer (Duvel) and allowing her to taste the foam. Dr. Sylvie also recalls spending summers at her grandma’s when she was about 12 and, as was common in Belgium, drinking table beer (2% near beer) with meals, a blonde and brown variety which she remembers being sweet like candy sugar.
In Belgium the drinking age is 16, but she didn’t explore beer much until she began college, visiting pubs and breweries. The bulk of her studies of beer came in college, at the Institut Meurice, where she earned a five-year degree in engineer biochemistry. Part of the curriculum was learning how to brew beer and labs on studying yeast and as part of her coursework, Dr. Sylvie did an internship at a brewery, brewing full time.
Before graduating, Dr. Sylvie furthered her education in 1996 as an exchange student at Oxford Brookes in England, and after graduating returned to earn her PhD in studying the effects of aging, using yeast as a model, as yeast cells are surprisingly similar to human cells.
Career as an Expert in Yeast
Dr. Sylvie began her career in the UK, doing analysis on yeast, and distinguished herself in the field enough to warrant being approached by Lallemand Brewing, a Canadian yeast manufacturer that sells to craft breweries, to build a lab in Montreal. She enjoyed her time in Montreal from 2004-2007 and describes the city as being like Europe in America.
She was eventually promoted to the position of Director of Sales and Marketing for Lallemand Brewing, and as her position does not require being stationed in a particular location, in 2007 she moved to the US with her husband, Ludwing Vaca, whose career as an architect brought him to Las Vegas.
Since relocating to Las Vegas, Dr. Sylvie has proven herself to be a valuable asset to the local brewing community through her immense knowledge of the brewing process and offering quality yeasts to brewers. Mojave Brewing Co-Owner/Founder John ‘Griff’ Griffith says, “She’s a wonderful person to have in our community. Her knowledge of the industry is so broad that when I speak to her about yeast it’s always just the beginning of the conversation. I learn every time that I speak with her.”
Typical Work Day For Dr. Sylvie Van Zandycke
Dr. Sylvie manages a team of 30 who are working in sales, marketing and production in Vienna, Austria. She is also Director of Ethics for the Siebel Institute of Technology-World Brewing Academy, which is one of the most prestigious and acclaimed brewing schools in the world, and an online educator, frequently presenting seminars to brewers. While 15 years ago she was selling her company’s yeast herself, now she still has a lot of interaction with local brewers educating them on Lallemand Brewing’s products including: Sourvisaie, a high-quality dry yeast used to make sour beers.
The Magic of Yeast in Brewing
Yeast is one of the essential ingredients to making beer, along with water, malt and hops, and is responsible for ingesting and thereby converting the malt sugars into alcohol. As Dr. Sylvie is considered by many to be one of the foremost experts on yeast in brewing, we thought it would be worthwhile to pick her brain a bit on the essential ingredient.
When asked how yeast affects the taste in beer, she says, “Yeast is a living organism and will eat the sugars to make the alcohol, but it also adds flavor. In some styles of beer, the other ingredients (such as hops or malt) will mask flavors, but some yeasts can produce flavors of fruit like banana in a hefeweizen, peppery notes like in a saison or phenols like clove in some wheat beers. Yeast can also interact with and enhance the hop flavors.”
As for what beers she prefers to drink, Dr. Sylvie says, “I liked sweet beers when I was younger, but now like a lot of things, especially sour beer. After being exposed to lambics (a traditional Belgian style known for extreme sourness derived naturally from airborne yeast), I understood the complexity, which is fascinating to the taste buds. Commercial beers that come to mind are Cantillon, Oud Beersel, and all Trappist beers including Chimay and Orval.”
Inspiring Women in Brewing and the Pink Boots Society
Dr. Sylvie has several accolades, and is the President of the American Society of Brewing Chemists. She has also been a member of the Pink Boots Society for two years and is the current chapter leader. The organization is comprised of women and non-binary individuals working in any facet of fermented beverages and through meetings and networking members learn of opportunities for positions in the alcoholic beverage industry. The group meets one or two times a month. The focus is on education and the women are treated to instruction in alcoholic beverage tasting, scientific speakers and periodic brewing of collaboration brews at and with local breweries.
Las Vegas Brewing Company Head Brewer Amanda Koeller attests to Dr. Sylvie’s positive influence on the local brewing community.
“I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Dr. Sylvie through the Pink Boots Society,” she says. “She is a well-known educator on a national and international level, and yet makes time to pour beer at our local beer fests, and makes herself available to homebrew clubs and homebrew festivals. Although she travels the world for her job, she carves out so much time leading our Pink Boots Chapter. She creates engaging events in all areas of fermentation and provides our chapter an invaluable resource for yeast and bacteria that we are so lucky to have available in our town.”
As for how she sees the future of the brewing industry moving towards accepting and attracting more women, Dr. Sylvie says, “My mentor in science was a woman, and when I met Ashlie Randolph and she introduced me to the Pink Boots Society it opened my eyes. Help is out there if you want to get it. People need to join organizations and start asking questions. The number one thing that has helped me in my career was networking and we have a good network of women, so we need to educate and support women in the (brewing) industry.”