Scientist's heady career brew
Name: Heather McDonald
Job title: Head brewer and owner
Company: Wooha Brewing Company
WHAT WERE YOUR CAREER AMBITIONS WHEN YOU WERE YOUNG?
Well, originally it was a doctor and then it was a vet. Then I moved from that into microbiology.
WHAT WAS IT ABOUT MICROBIOLOGY THAT INTERESTED YOU?
I read some books in high school and I was just completely hooked. So when I went to university I decided to study microbiology and then talked my way into a job with the Naval Medical Research Centre working with hemorrhagic virus.
WHERE DID YOU GROW UP?
I was born in Alaska. My parents worked for the US government so I lived in the Philippines, Germany and England growing up. I spent most of my times in the states around the Washington DC area. I moved to Scotland a little over nine years ago but I’ve since spent a year in Perth, Australia, as well.
SO AFTER UNIVERSITY, WHAT HAPPENED WITH YOUR CAREER?
I worked for the Navy Medical Research Centre for four years, working on a vaccine for dengue hemorrhagic fever and while I was doing that, because I was considering doing a PhD, the bit I really enjoyed was being in the lab and when you get your PhD you end up spending most of your time in an office writing for grants and not actually doing the fun bit in the lab.
I also thought this can’t be it – I can’t have peaked at 22 years old because I was running the lab. So I thought ‘what am I going to do?’
When you study something like science, you don’t really know what else to do. I had no business background so I got an undergraduate degree in international business while I was working in the lab so I was doing full-time lab and full-time school.
I went into sales for a bit selling laboratory equipment and then I moved into the world of finance. I did financial advising for a bit and asset management and then went and did my Masters of Science in Finance and Investment Management at University of Aberdeen. That was when I moved to Scotland.
After a year in Perth we moved back to Scotland and I fell pregnant. I now have two boys, four and six. Took a break. Then I realised I really needed to go back to work for sanity reasons. I was looking around and I wanted to do something that involved science because I love that but being in Nairn, there is not a lot here. There is not a lot of options for science-related jobs. I realised I had to start my own thing.
SO HOW DID THE BREWERY IDEA COME ABOUT?
I went on a tour of a distillery with my husband and I thought ‘oh, this is really cool – maybe I should distill whisky'. But my husband was like ‘no, that takes too long’. Then I started looking at brewing and micro breweries. Being American, there are so many micro breweries in the states. There are over 4,000 micro breweries now in the US.
I just started looking at it and my husband, being as pragmatic as he is, said why don’t you brew some beer first before you decide to start up a business. So I got a kit thing and the beer was fine but I felt like that wasn’t actually brewing.
From then forward I just designed my own recipes and did all grain mash brewing. I did about 700 bottles in my kitchen doing recipe development and then moved into a commercial unit. I did another 1,000 bottles before my big equipment came in and then it’s just been going since.
As far as brewing is concerned, I am effectively self-taught but I also did a three-week course at Brew Lab in Sunderland so I do have a certificate in practical brewing, but the bulk of what I know I learned from my own research.
YOU WERE AT ONE TIME AN ALL-FEMALE BREWERY. WAS THAT INTENTIONAL?
At one point it was an all-female brewery – which wasn’t intentional and isn’t the case now. I brought on a good friend of mine and she didn’t know how to brew either so I taught her and she is just finishing up the certificate, so she’s my assistant brewer.
Then I brought on an administrator who was a woman as well. So for a time there it was all women and people seemed to really like that. Since then, I have another assistant brewer, Dave, and a sales manager, Alan. So we are no longer all female – which is kind of nice because it took three of us to move a full cask.
WHAT WAS THE REACTION TO THE IDEA OF AN ALL-FEMALE BREWERY?
Most people laugh when I tell them I own a brewery, or smile, because they just think that is ridiculous.
While it is male dominated still, there are a lot of female brewers out there. I’m part of a group called Project Venus which includes the majority of female brewsters in the UK and they partner with a group called Pink Boots Society which is in the US.
Brewsters are female brewers. The thing is it used to be women who brewed the beer way back in the day. Water wasn’t safe to drink so that’s where ale comes from, it wasn’t really beer cause it didn’t have hops in it, it was just beer. But they would ferment that to make the water safe to drink and they would sell it.
That was the only part of the household that the women were in charge and could earn a bit of money for themselves. And they did it all in the kitchen or alehouse so it was originally women that brewed and it kind of went to men and I think it’s coming back.
It’s a bit like the chef scene. You think of that as being men but you are getting more and more celebrity female chefs out there. It’s very much that way. And I’ve had many people say to me that it’s the women coming into the mix that are actually making the craft beer scene more interesting because women tend to think outside the box.
Having more women involved is creating some diversity in the brewing scene. We haven’t had any negative comments about being a woman in a man’s industry or anything like that. The men in the industry are great too, they do not have any issue with it. It was much worse in science actually.
DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO HAVE YOUR OWN BUSINESS?
I thought about having my business for a long time. I didn’t know what but it was always something to do.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO LAUNCH IT?
It’s very exciting, but I am not going to lie, it is stressful. Of course, having kids – I have my two boys and four step-kids as well – so it’s crazy outside of work as well.
It’s good, it’s been exciting, tiring. I don’t think I’d want to work for someone else again. I can see why people start multiple businesses. They start one and it’s successful and they sell it and start another one. I can understand completely why people do that.
Every day you are facing new challenges and I am constantly learning. When you run a business, there are so many things that you only have to do if you are running a business so you are learning on the fly, especially with the first one.
I’ve been fortunate. I have a very good team around me, we all work well together. It is a team effort. I’m not sitting dictating to everyone about what they have to do. It’s very fluid and conversationally based.
IN THE LAB YOU THOUGHT, IS THIS IT? DO YOU STILL THINK THAT OR ARE YOU HAPPY WHERE YOU ARE IN YOUR CAREER?
I think just my personality type doesn’t allow me to sit still for too long. There’s so much we could do with this. Our main focus is export and we are aiming to export 65% of our turnover by the end of our second trading year.
At this point the sky’s the limit. I’ve also started the process of acquiring land and building a purpose-built facility. We are running out of capacity and we started trading in April.
There are a number of smaller breweries getting bought out by bigger breweries, so it is one of these things that I would like to get it to a certain point and have it acquired and then do something else. But that is quite a few years down the line.
AND WOULD THE NEXT THING BE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT AGAIN?
Probably something entirely different that I need to learn. We are going to a market in France for a month. I speak Spanish, German and Russian but I don’t speak French at all, so I’ve been sitting learning French thinking this is great.
I love learning new things and I love the challenge of working out how to do it. I do think, if I have another company after this one, it will have absolutely nothing to do with brewing.