Two women brewery founders on navigating systemic beer sexism, from investors to branding to market perception.
By LeAnn Darland and Tara Hankinson as told to Abigail Koffler
LeAnn Darland and Tara Hankinson met working at beer startup Hopsy in April 2018. They founded Talea Beer, a combination of their first names, a few months later. After years of contract brewing, they recently opened Talea’s taproom in Williamsburg. Both the brewery and taproom are the only women-founded and -owned examples of their kind in New York. In addition to expanding their business, both Hankinson and Darland became mothers in 2020.
LEANN DARLAND: We’re excited when people come and say they don’t like beer.
TARA HANKINSON: Yeah!
LEANN: Because we take that as a challenge. When we were doing tastings at female professional clubs like the Wing and Chief, that’s exactly where we’d get people who said “I’m not a beer drinker” or “I hate IPAs” to try beers. We know we have something on the menu that 95 percent of people will enjoy if they give it a try. Our staff feels the same way, like “you’ve never had an IPA before, try this.”
It’s different from other beer bars, where it’s like “you don’t know the difference between strata and citra, good luck.” And with beer names like Blood of the Unicorn, or Raging Bitch—that’s a nationally distributed brand. It’s insane to me that beer still exists on the shelves at Whole Foods.
TARA: And it gets explained away that Raging Bitch has a dog on the label, so it’s obviously about the dog. But people shop at bars from the tap list, and they don’t see the can, so I don’t really find that acceptable. It’s pretty easy to not be sexist, which is why it’s shocking.
One of the other beers we featured in our pitch deck is Dallas Blonde, and the tagline is “goes down easy”—and it’s like, really? There are millions of other names you could have given that beer. I can’t with that. If it’s on a draft list, whatever you think could go on a can that could be cute to explain the name, customers are not going to see.
We usually start by thinking about what beers we have, what we want the aroma and flavor profile to end up at. The style, and what fits with our flavor portfolio, the season. We want to have a mix of hazy IPAs and sours, and we want to have a diversity of ABV and body. We come up with that goal and work backwards.
Sometimes it starts as a concept—like one of our first beers was a hazy IPA called Lunch Date. It’s named for when LeAnn and I were the only two women in leadership at Hopsy. We would always go get lunch together, and it’s at our lunch dates where we started scheming about building Talea. So we try to storytell as well.
LEANN: This is one of the only industries that is still okay to be borderline offensive. Even the ad campaigns of the big beer brands—we both loved craft beer, and we didn’t see a craft brewery that was actively trying to get our dollar. Not that it’s all about money, but it’s a huge business opportunity. We were like, we’ve gotta jump on this.
We had this idea, and if we found out two other women did it instead of us, we would hate ourselves. When we were pitching to a lot of VCs in the CPG space, they would say the same thing, “I can’t believe no other big beer brand is going after this. You guys are on to something.”
So far, all of our hypotheses have proven true. Probably about 80 percent of the people who walked in our doors last week had never heard of us before and wouldn’t consider themselves huge craft beer drinkers, and that’s exactly who we’re going for.
TARA: I think that big beer companies have tried to address this market in their own way, like with hard seltzers, hard lemonade, rosé spritzers, things like that. Those companies are still largely owned and operated by men, and we know that no consumers, especially women, are that simple. Pinkwashing doesn’t work for most women. We’re not pretending to have anything figured out, but by being women in a male-dominated industry, at least we can have an authentic approach to winning over that consumer, or at least addressing her needs and desires.
LEANN: The main reason why it didn’t work out with those VCs was they saw it as just a brand push as “chick beer, the only girl beer on tap, skinnygirl beer.” We got that from almost all male investors.
TARA: Or to put the calorie count on the label. If you look at women in Williamsburg, what are they eating and drinking? Levain cookies. No one cares. They’re eating that cookie because it’s pleasurable and delicious.
LEANN: Or a bottle of wine! It doesn’t have the calories on it. Ultimately, people who had that feedback never invested, and that was great. We have two different visions. We aren’t going to pander to women—this is not chick beer. And this space is meant for all genders, which includes women. And same with our cans. Are we trying to make our cans appeal to women? Yeah, and men. Anyone who can appreciate good design and thoughtful packaging.
TARA: Men drink rosé. Men drink this beer. Our early customers were mostly men because that’s who owns and operates beer bars and beer boutiques. They loved our beers. They’re the reason we exist today. They proved we had a good product market fit, we could make amazing beer, and customers would buy it. Probably 80 percent of beer buyers are men, so obviously we’re not just for women.
We were both married when we met a few years ago, and we both knew we wanted to have families. Even deciding when or if we should tell our investors that we were pregnant was hard, because some people might have a perception that you might not have your heart in the company when you have a family.
LeAnn’s husband had to go to work, and my husband had to go to work. But let’s be real—our jobs are the more important ones. Our families’ financial futures rest on us because we personally guaranteed almost $2M in an SBA loan to be able to build this place, on top of our investors. We personally guaranteed our forklift.
Our husbands are technically the higher earners because we’re paying ourselves startup salaries. But in terms of actual long-term impact to our financial futures? That’s on us. And that’s just a very strange thing. I told one of our investors this weekend, and he was like, “Why were you afraid? You guys are so capable.”
I’m lucky that my husband’s boss has two kids, because I don’t think he’d be understanding otherwise in the circumstances we’re in. We’ve always had an equal partnership. I see LeAnn more than I see anyone else, and that requires a lot of trust in each other when you’re physically out of commission.
Motherhood, in some ways, hardened me a lot. I was in the hospital for 33 days, and then my babies—I have twins, Paloma and Ulysses—were in the NICU for a month. My smaller baby was under three pounds. It was scary. But nothing else scares me anymore. I’ve seen some shit.
On the flip side, I feel so much more responsible for our staff. Some of our team members haven’t worked since the pandemic. You just think about the bigger picture more. It’s not just wanting to secure my own financial future and LeAnn’s family’s, but wanting to build something bigger than yourself, where you can have an impact on other people’s lives. I want to have an impact on my family’s life, but I want it to be so much more than that.
A lot of those emotions are heightened after you go through starting a family. You prioritize what matters. Most of our investors are friends and family, or people we know, and we want to do right by them. We didn’t start a beer business because we thought it was sexy.
LEANN: It sounds fun, but it’s manufacturing.
TARA: Yeah, the cool fun stuff—like, we have to come up with some beer names over the next few days—that’s maybe 1 percent of the job. The rest is a grind.
LEANN: Motherhood has been the hardest part of this journey. For me, being pregnant and having the baby was the easy part. No one prepares you for the first three months, which was very hard—physically, emotionally, hormonally, everything. Your life takes such a drastic turn.
I had Henry on April 29, 2020, which was pretty much the peak of the pandemic in New York City. My husband, because of the pandemic, was working from home for the first month. Otherwise he had no paternity leave, zero, because he hadn’t been at his company for a year yet. And if he had been, it would only have been 1 or 2 weeks of leave.
It’s such a full-time job when the babies come home, and it still is today. For companies to offer that disparate leave to the men and women is a systemic issue that’s going to continue to push the entire labor of parenting on the moms. So I was pissed because he got to go to work after a month, and I was home with the baby. I wanted to go to work, or I wanted him home to carry the weight because it is exhausting. I worked at Google, and they have ridiculously good benefits regardless of gender. So I always knew it was something I wanted to offer if I ever had a company of my own, but then I lived it. I was like, “How are we ever going to reach a 50/50 parenting practice if men don’t have any parental leave?”
TARA: The burden is entirely on the women.
LEANN: If my husband had had no parental leave, I don’t know how I would have functioned, let alone tried to run a company.
TARA: Well, he didn’t even actually have parental leave. He was just home because of the pandemic.
LEANN: Luckily, Tara totally picked up the slack the first several months, and hopefully I carried the business while she was in the hospital or with her babies. But it is still difficult today. I only see my 10 month old about an hour and half each day. We both knew these two months after opening were going to be the most demanding of the entire venture, and that’s okay. We’ll build out systems and processes to put in place so we can be more active with our kids. But it’s very challenging.
It’s helped reset my expectations too. This is our business, and if we could, we’d be here day and night working on everything. But we can’t, and we have other people in our lives who are dependent on us. It’s unrealistic to expect other people to devote their own lives 24/7 to the company. It ties back to being understanding of people’s circumstances, which I think has made me a better leader than I previously was.
TARA: Not everyone has kids, but most everyone has something.
LEANN: A life.
TARA: Seriously, if we didn’t have kids right now, we’d sleep four or five hours a night and be here every waking moment. One night last week, I went home and put my twins to sleep, and I came back to work. Because I didn’t want to leave. It’s exhilarating, and it’s what we’ve been working towards for so long. I love it, and I love service on a Saturday, and we were so busy. I see how it can be addictive—everyone is so high energy. You’re making people happy by having them drink great beer and eat fun foods, in a pretty environment. It’s pretty satisfying. It’s physically tiring and mentally and emotionally taxing as well, but …
LEANN: It’s worth it.