Anheuser-Busch's first Black female brewmaster Natalie Johnson is aiming to affect change in her industry. After starting at the popular beer company as an intern while she was a teenager, she worked her way up through the ranks, earning a degree in chemistry along the way and using her STEM background to work in brewing. Though she didn't realize as a child that she might end up as a brewmaster — she did start with the company before she was even legally able to drink — she quickly fell in love with the work she was doing. It was the support of her employers throughout her career that kept her on the path to success.
Johnson knows, though, that the brewing industry lacks diversity, which is why she's been vocal about changing that. Her efforts led Anheuser-Busch to partner with Dwyane Wade and the United Negro College Fund to create the UNCF Budweiser Natalie Johnson Scholarship, which will grant scholarships for Black students pursuing STEM majors that can lead them to the brewing industry. The company is also designing an internship program to bring more Black students into the business — and they'll work directly with Johnson, so she can impart her knowledge on the next generation of brewers. POPSUGAR spoke with her about how she got to where she is today, what her work entails, and her thoughts on diversity in the workplace.
POPSUGAR: So walk me through your time at Anheuser-Busch and how you got to be where you are now.
Natalie Johnson: I started before undergrad with the company as an intern. Then I received my evaluation and was asked to come back, and I was like, "Absolutely." So I returned that next summer and I was a little more proficient at what I was expected to do and continued to learn a bit more. And as I approached my junior year of undergrad, at that point, I had had greater interaction with the brewery and actually the brewing process and some of the different things they actually use the data to make decisions on. So I asked the question, what would it take if I truly wanted to go brew beer and be a part of the process? Upon graduating from undergrad, I started with our research pilot brewery, which is our small batch innovations brewery.
That's where we started all of the new innovations to understand what the recipe should be before we scale it up to a large brewery. So I was there for just under a year, and then I moved to our Newark, NJ, brewery, where I entered an entry-level leadership role in the brewing area. And while I was there, I pretty much led in every role in the brewing area and quality areas there, all the way up to and including senior brewmaster. From there I moved to our Columbus, OH, brewery as the senior brewmaster there. And then from there, I went to the St. Louis brewery as senior brewmaster, and most recently, about six weeks ago, I moved into our North American zone brewing director role.
PS: So what exactly does a brewmaster do?
NJ: We have a lot of specifications we expect of materials that come into our breweries to be able to consistently make our beer. So they're paying attention to those quality specs, but then also throughout their brewing process and the consistency of the process. Our goal is to make sure, regardless of where you have a beer, what brewery it's produced at, that it smells the same, it tastes the same, and has the same mouthfeel and finish, regardless of which brewery. So the brewmaster's role is all about process control. We also have to be very responsible and efficient with the way we use resources. And you teach, too, you take time out with your brewers and your leadership team to make sure you're embedding the knowledge that you've grown across your years of experience while really making sure that you're producing a consistent beer and all of those different beers that are in your portfolio at your brewery.
PS: With STEM, which is what your background is, people don't realize how extensive the career possibilities are. It sounds like it translates perfectly to what you're doing in this industry.
NJ: It's a lot of science. And also, too, in our industry, we have a lot of technology. So we have a ton of engineers, a ton of technical resources throughout the process. Brewing, sure, it's pen, paper, and a lot of manual processes. But we improve for safety, we've improving for quality and consistency. And you need people that understand how those things work to be able to help provide the services and the technical expertise to keep the process where you need it to be.
PS: We love seeing women succeed. What's it mean to you to be the company's first Black female brewmaster?
NJ: It feels pretty incredible. It feels good to be a part of an organization that truly recognizes you for your efforts and hard work and results. People ask what challenges I've had, and it's like in any role in any job — you're going to have challenges. I think I've been superfortunate that I've had great leadership, great mentors, and, just in general as an organization, the right level of recognition that says, "You know what you're doing, you're doing the right things. This is an opportunity." That really is what it comes down to because sometimes I remember being on some shifts late and I'm thinking "Man, I'm walking around this multimillion-dollar facility, I'm responsible for millions of dollars of beer." And it's like, "Wow, I get that responsibility. That's pretty cool."
I hope that this helps clarify that for folks, that with a STEM background, this is certainly a path that you can take, and it's exciting, it's fun, but it does take a lot of hard work to be able to do what we do and to be consistent at what we do.
PS: I love that you mentioned how supportive your employers have been because not only is it hard for women but it's been an especially hard time for Black women. As someone who works in an environment that has been supportive, what advice do you have for Black women who are in work environments that aren't that way?
NJ: I think it's very important that you have the conversation if you recognize that things are not OK. You can tell that there is injustice. It's not a place of equality. I think you have to step up and be willing to not sacrifice your values, your beliefs, your integrity. And if it's not an organization that's going to owe you that and make sure they stand behind you, then it may not be an organization you want to take part of. But like I said, I do feel superfortunate that I'm not in that situation. And when there have been scenarios, whether it's women with an employee or a question or something, there's proper pathways that can be taken and conversations that can be had and all those things get hashed out. And I'm still here today because the right things were done.
Being able to be authentic at work is tough already, especially when you're in an environment where you are a minority. I think it's so important that employers and organizations focus on inclusivity, so people can feel like they can do that and be themselves because it does make a better team. People have to feel valued.
PS: I watched the Brewing Change video, and the moment that Dwyane Wade told you that there was a scholarship in your name was so special. What was that moment like?
NJ: It's really hard to articulate, to really convey adequately what it felt like. It felt supersurreal. It was like, "Is is really happening? Is this real? Did he really just say that?" For me, what resonated mostly was again, recent conversations I had had on people inquiring, "What else do you think we could do, we could be doing?" And to me, education is key for everyone, but especially for the Black community. But then also, too, it's about opportunities to make sure minority students don't get missed. And I had that pathway. I was afforded a special opportunity to interview in a certain environment and get an internship. The fact that someone heard me in a conversation and this all came to be, [it's because, as a team, they wanted] to do better and wanted to close the gap and look for opportunities.