It’s rare that Sara Abernethy isn’t putting out a fire, sometimes literally. As a new parent and the owner of three restaurants, she often feels like she’s “running around, playing Whac-A-Mole.” As anyone in the industry can attest, the last few years have been particularly trying, all the more for a relative newcomer like Abernethy, who owns the popular Wye Hill Kitchen & Brewing (201 South Boylan Avenue) in central Raleigh and recent additions Glasshouse Kitchen and Twisted Ladder in south Durham.
“It has been an enormously trying and difficult few years,” Abernethy said with a sigh. So when her director of brewery operations Greg Winget called her with an out-of-the-ordinary idea, she jumped at it. The idea: a brew day for the restaurant group’s women.
The wheels quickly started turning in Abernethy’s head, and with input from her team, the full concept started to form — a Wye Hill beer made by the nine women in leadership roles in the company, released on draft and in cans. What they came up with proved to be enough of a hit that Abernethy’s team had to brew a second batch and is working to get it back on draft at Glasshouse (in addition to Wye Hill).
Named after the “mic drop moment” when former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said there would be enough women on the court “when there are nine” and referencing the nine women who created it, the hoppy When There Are Nine blood orange pale wheat ale uses a hop blend from the Pink Boots Society and benefits the local No Woman, No Girl Initiative. The choice of blood orange is intentional too, which is “pretty on the nose in terms of menstruation cycles” but also acknowledges that cisgender and transgender women “bleed spiritually or physically,” Abernethy said.
The brew day served as a professional development experience, but also a field trip and bonding opportunity of sorts. Many of the women didn’t have previous brewing experience, Abernethy said.
For Erin Morrissey, Wye Hill’s general manager, this was “a very unique and timely project.”
“It gave all of us leads a chance to spend time together,” she said. “In an industry that’s very fast-moving, it was really cool to do something fun and different and all take time to be together. And how cool that our male director thought of us and is passionate about us having this opportunity, especially with so few women in the brewing industry.”
Wye Hill’s brewing operation occupies the same building as its restaurant and popular patio, so Morrissey already knew the team on the other side of the wall, but the experience brought her closer together with those supportive men, too. “We want to be a business that puts people first,” Morrissey said. “As we’ve been growing so fast, it can be easy to lose sight of those ‘little’ things, but I think those are the things you should focus on the most. We’re nothing without each other.”
The growth has definitely been rapid. Last August, Abernethy and husband Chris Borreson opened Glasshouse Kitchen in Research Triangle Park. A third concept, Twisted Ladder, opened next door this month. The brew day was a rare opportunity for women in leadership positions — some of whom had only previously met over Zoom — to step beyond their normal teams and restaurants. Just one example: it inspired Glasshouse chef de cuisine Ava Broadwell to draw comparisons between pastry and brewing, bringing some beer ingredients with her back to Durham to experiment.
“That sort of cross-pollination totally lights me up,” Abernethy said. “It all goes back to the result being greater than the sum of the parts.”
That fits with an underlying ethos Abernethy brings to the restaurants — a concept she sometimes describes to her team as “the Quartz Effect.” The idea is that like the stone “that has the ability to soak up the energy of any space that it’s in and then magnify that back out,” Abernethy wants her team and her businesses to have a ripple effect that radiates positivity out into the broader community.
None of this is surprising coming from Abernethy. She recently organized a panel of women including Rocks + Acid wine shop owner Paula de Pano and Centro and Ex Voto owner Angela Salamanca to discuss “allyship in hospitality.” There’s an oversized Black Lives Matter sign in the window at Wye Hill, and a Pride flag to accompany it. Her restaurants regularly spotlight a range of employees on social media rather than the ego-driven chef obsession that’s all too common in the industry. And it’s also evident in her focus on developing her staff.
Looking forward, Abernethy wants to offer similarly fun and educational experiences like the brew day to all her interested staff to build trust and a greater sense of ownership. As a participant in the process, she knows that it can also help restore some balance.
“I want to find more activities like this that can fill you up,” she said. “It helps avoid burnout and that feeling that you’re running ragged.” Morrissey agreed. “Someone could look at this as just one more thing on their to-do list,” she said, “but the outcomes that you get from it is so valuable.”
Wye Hill’s When There Are Nine pale wheat ale is available in cans and on draft.
Editor’s Note: Journalist Eric Ginsburg is not related to former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.