BABE #240: NATALIE VELA - Den Mother, Aardwolf Brewing Company
We’ve had the pleasure of working closely with Natalie and the Aardwolf crew, and have nothing but wonderful things to report. Since day one, she’s remained a trusted source of knowledge re: all-things beer, but more importantly, has provided our team with endless support, encouragement and opportunity. Dubbed the brewery’s “den mother,” her various roles include general management, production, event planning, graphic design, social media management and beyond. Natalie’s genuine care for facilitating a comfortable, community-driven environment is made evident by the success and loyal customer base that Aardwolf continues to garner, and we’re honored to share her story today.
Hometown: Danville, Ohio
Current city: Jacksonville, Florida
Alma mater: University of Akron
Degree: BFA; Major in Graphic Arts, Minor in Digital Imaging
Very first job: Cashier at a local grocery store
Hustle: “Den Mother,” Aardwolf Brewing Company; Freelance Designer
Babe you admire and why?
This may be a bit cliche, but my grandmother was a babe I truly admired. She survived World War II, most of which she was imprisoned in Nazi labor camps. She was forced to raise her brothers at the age of 8 after her mother was killed. Because of this she had to drop out of school and never learned to read or write. Even with all her hardships, she still came to America and was able to have a family and a career. She taught me the definition of hard work and to always look on the bright side of a situation. She had an extremely tough life, one I cannot even imagine, but was always grateful for what she had.
Favorite fictional female character?
Olenna Tyrell, from Game of Thrones. She’s a badass older lady with a quick wit and a sharp tongue.
What would you eat for your very last meal?
Mac and cheese, all the mac and cheese!
Go-to coffee order and/or adult beverage?
Beer—big surprise, I know. My go-to style of beer is an Oktoberfest /Marzen. A malt-forward, classic style that pairs well with food. What’s not to love?
Tell us about your hustle.
My job at Aardwolf doesn’t really have a title. In a small brewing environment like ours you have to fill in where you are needed, but some of my coworkers jokingly call me “Den Mother.”
What does your typical workday look like?
I usually find myself bouncing between taproom events, graphic design, social media, general management needs, organizing food trucks, staffing and scheduling. I also help bottle, can and create some of our pilot batches (one-off beers we treat with different adjuncts).
Which came first: your love of beer or your job with Aardwolf?
My love of beer definitely came first. I started to get into craft beer when I was in college; strangely, I lived with two other people who all ended up in the craft beer industry. One roommate, Brandon, works for Thirsty Dog in Cleveland, Ohio. The other, Justin (“Peanut”), now my husband, works for Bell’s Brewery out of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
What did your hustle look like before Aardwolf?
Before Aardwolf I was working for a high-end spa at the Ritz Carlton. It was very buttoned-up and formal, which just isn’t my personality. I had been interviewing with a few larger breweries, but nothing panned out. I went in for an interview at Aardwolf — which I had what I thought was the worst interview of my life — but they must have seen something in me, because I started two weeks later.
Of all your responsibilities at Aardwolf, which do you enjoy the most and why?
I’m a creative person by nature, and enjoy making pilot batches as well as working on graphic design projects. Seeing someone appreciate something you worked hard on, be it a beer treatment or bottle label, is very rewarding to me.
What’s your approach to event planning?
I enjoy events where people can simply have a good time. When planning an event, people tend to focus on the details before the big picture. For example, weddings: People will focus on what their centerpieces will look like before they make sure everyone has a place to sit at the table. My best advice to people when planning an event: get down the essentials first, then you can plan the little things.
What’s it like being a female in a typically male-dominated industry?
We may joke around a little about being a female in the industry, but any bias I have received has been from outside sources. I appreciate my coworkers for who they are, not for their genders, and I hope they feel the same about me.
How have your past professional and academic experiences prepared you for the work you do today?
Academically, my graphic design degree has helped a lot with all the creative aspects associated with my job. Professionally, in all my past and current jobs, I’ve trained in multiple departments. It makes it easier to jump in when and where you’re needed. Being versatile is a strong asset. Before I started at Aardwolf I thought I had a decent amount of beer knowledge, but once I started it was like Alice going down the rabbit hole. I had to learn a lot, and quickly. With around 1,000 new breweries opening each year, plus all the new trend and technology in the industry, it’s tough to keep up with it all.
What’s been your biggest career milestone?
Throwing my first solo event, Aard-loha, was truly gratifying. I worked on a lot of the specialty beers, designed the promotional material, did the marketing for the event and coordinated all the other little details. To see it all come together, with people dressed up, drinking and having a good time—it’s a great feeling to have people enjoying all your hard work.
How has being a woman affected your professional experience?
I’m lucky that Aardwolf is very female-friendly workplace. They have never made me feel like my gender helps or hinders what I can and can’t do. The focus is on individual strength. Most discrimination has come from outside sources, like other breweries or customers. One story that always comes to mind happened at a beer festival last year. Everyone was standing around talking and someone from another brewery asked whose girlfriend I was. When I told him, “no one’s’,” you could tell he was confused as if that was the only reason for me to be there.
What’s the gender ratio like in your industry? Do you see it evolving?
Craft beer can definitely be a “boys club,” but I think the ratio is slowly changing. We’re starting to see a lot more female sales reps, distributor reps and back-of-house personnel. With a rise in female craft beer lovers, we’re starting to see a natural rise in women working in the industry, too.
What are some common misconceptions about your job?
People really like to romanticize the beverage industry and assume we all just sit around and drink all day, which is definitely not the case. Working at a brewery is hot and dirty, I’m usually on my feet all day, and I go home covered in beer. It’s a lot of physical labor, but it's all a labor of love. I'd rather go home gross and smelling like beer than do anything else.
Who are some women in your field you look to for inspiration?
Maria Cabre, the head of brewery operations at J Wakefield Brewing (JWB) in Miami. JWB is known for making some amazing beers, and she is a huge part of that. Also, Deb Carey. She and her husband are owners of New Glarus Brewing, out of New Glarus, Wisconsin. She’s known for not taking any BS from anyone, which I appreciate.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
The best advice I was ever given was from a college professor: whenever you start a new job, find the one thing everyone else hates to do, and learn how to do. It shows initiative, and will be irreplaceable.
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