Breaking barriers, brewing beer.
By Anthony Giglio
In the picturesque town of Pittsfield, MA in the heart of the Berkshires, a brewery and tap room opened last year with the goal of challenging conventions and advocating for greater diversity, equity and inclusion: Hot Plate Brewing Co., co-founded by Sarah Real and Mike Dell’Aquila. Their journey from beer-chugging college friends to married brewery owners has been a two-decades long meandering love story, with each step leading them to create a brand that not only serves exceptional beer but also shatters barriers and stereotypes.
Sarah and Mike’s paths first crossed at Penn State, where Mike’s beer knowledge didn’t extend far beyond the domestic light lagers poured at keg parties. But Sarah—who was two years ahead of him in grad school—was handily working her way toward completing a “beer passport” (think: Around The World In 80 Beers, with a stamp for each beer “completed”) at a pub called Zeno’s. Eventually, Mike joined her on her journey and the experience opened their eyes to the vast world of craft beer.
In 2005, the couple took a cross-country adventure and visited New Belgium Brewery in Denver, where Sarah was instantly struck with a revelation: “I want to do this!” However, as often happens with many of our dreams, life takes us in a different direction. Sarah pursued a career in children’s media, which included roles at Cartoon Network/Adult Swim and Nickelodeon, while Mike headed into branding and content creation.
Still, beer was always brewing in the background. In 2013, Mike began homebrewing in their Brooklyn apartment with one gallon “extract” beer kits, as they’re called. “These should be failproof if you do it correctly,” says Mike, “and it is most of the time, but I didn’t always do things correctly.” Then Sarah got involved, and they started taking classes at Bitter & Esters, a local homebrew supply shop. On her own, Sarah eventually went through an entire suite of classes and started making bigger five-gallon batches at home. And then… the flame died. Literally.
In 2017, they faced a life-altering setback when a building code violation led to their gas being shut off—for their entire building, where they owned their apartment—leaving them no choice but to brew on an electric hot plate (and take hot showers at their local gym). As they say, when life hands you lemons… Hot Plate Brewing Co. was born.
Meanwhile, Sarah started writing recipes in earnest. She describes her process as “generally jumping back and forth between trying to put my own twist on a preexisting style or beer that I really like, or introducing new or novel ingredients to try to come up with something you can only find at Hot Plate.”
In 2018, Sarah entered a women’s homebrew competition and created a beer using chamomile and lactose in a blonde ale, called Capable of Anything. Mike had reservations about the unusual recipe, cautioning Sarah that it might be too risky. “I was wrong,” he says, happily. “Both at that event and ever since, during tasting parties and popup events that we’d do before we opened in Pittsfield, we consistently got the feedback from female and female-identifying consumers that they ‘don’t like beer’ but would gladly drink ours.” Sarah was vindicated: Capable of Anything remains their top-selling beer.
Still, as a Mexican-American woman, Sarah didn’t see herself reflected in the current national craft beer scene. “Since I was a girl, I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy, and never understood why I couldn’t do things like play basketball against the boys. I guess it only makes sense that I‘d end up trying to break into the boys’ club of craft beer,” she says. “So, whenever people seem to think that a woman or female-identifying individual can’t do things a man can, it definitely motivates me to keep working harder and trying to break down those barriers and stereotypes.”
Understanding the lack of representation in the craft beer industry, especially among women of color, Sarah became the face of the brand on social media, representing a more inclusive image. They also focused on simplifying the beer conversation, making it more engaging for newcomers and dispelling the exclusivity often associated with craft beer.
Their dream of opening an actual brewery took on urgency when the global pandemic hit, forcing their hand to make some big life decisions when the gym they were using for hot showers was shuttered. Initially, they thought they’d open in the Catskills, but there are several great breweries up there already, including Woodstock Brewery and West Kill Brewery, two breweries they both admire. Then they discovered Pittsfield, where there was no brewery or urban tap room yet. And the city offers generous economic incentives to give businesses a place to call home downtown. After selling their Brooklyn condo, they made it official, partnering with the City of Pittsfield as their biggest investor.
Hot Plate Brewing Co. is creating a welcoming space for all members of the community, especially the LGBTQIA+ community. The bright and cheerful taproom design was intentionally chosen to foster inclusivity and comfort.
Still, they know they’re not in Brooklyn anymore. “The irony is while we’re specifically focusing on female/female-identifying customers as well as members of the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities, we haven’t necessarily picked the most diverse county in the world,” says Mike. “Despite the Berkshires being overwhelmingly white, we discovered that Pittsfield offered the most diversity out of the whole region, and they have a growing Hispanic population here specifically.”
Sarah remains undaunted. “Even though it’s pretty ambitious, we do think that Hot Plate can be a force for good, and hopefully provide a model for how other operations can also put some skin in the game to support DEIJ (Diversity, equity, inclusion and justice) goals.”
Something tells me these partners are undaunted by any challenges in their way.