Oregon native Lee Hedgmon is a master brewer, distiller and budding apiarist who sells her unusual honeys in Portland. She has dedicated her craft to industries traditionally dominated by men, making her mark with wild flavors and experimental methods while raising awareness of talented women and BIPOC brewers. In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2022 and every day, we celebrate the achievements of all Oregonians and imagine a gender-equal world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. After all, the state’s motto is famously “She flies with her own wings.”
Brewing and Distilling Creativity in Portland
Hedgmon splits her time as a distiller at the women-owned and operated Freeland Spirits in Northwest Portland, where she’s worked since 2019. She’s known most of all for her creative blending skills, including the honey she sells from the bottle shop at Freeland with support from her all female-crew.
“I work for a company of amazing, badass, strong women who acknowledge how tough it is to be in this world,” Hedgmon says. “We all understand how our lives are impacted by the forms we live in.”
It all began with a chocolate-raspberry stout. As a home brewer, she constantly tested flavors and techniques while earning a master’s degree in feminist studies at the University of Minnesota. Returning to Portland, she joined what might be considered a home-brewer incubator, where she was able to seek mentorship and professional equipment, resulting in her first paying gig and that chocolate-raspberry stout.
Hedgmon eventually worked her way through Portland U-Brew, Old Town Brewing, Ascendant Beer Company (brewing a red velvet-inspired beer) and gluten-free Ground Breaker Brewing (where she created her famous green-glitter Belgian ale). When she shifted over to distilling at McMenamins’ Edgefield distillery, Hedgmon experimented with whiskey, brandy and rum distillations, a track that led her to Freeland and her first award-winning honey experiments with liquor. Knowing Freeland’s Geneva gin had “good bones,” she aged a small batch in a barrel formerly used to hold honey. This result, Honey Barrel-Aged Geneva Gin, won Freeland a bronze medal at the National Honey Board’s 2021 Honey Spirits Competition, and the public release sold out in two weeks.
A Voice for “People Who Look Like Me”
Hedgmon is also a leader in Oregon’s thriving community of BIPOC brewers. For years she has been vocal about representation in the industry. “At the time I started brewing, there weren’t a lot of women brewers [in Oregon], absolutely not a lot of women of color.”
She found camaraderie early on in the Portland Chapter of the Pink Boots Society, a professional group created to educate and assist women in the brewing and distilling worlds, and Ladies of Lagers & Ales. Inspired by the connections she made, Hedgmon co-founded SheBrew in 2015 to celebrate the achievements of women who brew. The Portland-based initiative is a collaboration between the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign and the Oregon Brew Crew — the oldest and largest home-brew association in the U.S. To kick off Women’s History Month each March, they host a national home-brewing competition for female-identified brewers and a beer festival for all.
To combat the stereotypical white, male persona of brewing in Oregon, Hedgmon stays visible and vocal. “In order for there to be more people in this industry who look like me,” she says, “[others] have to see somebody doing it. That’s something I can do.”
For those seeking out other great beers to support women in the industry, SheBrew maintains an updated list of professional, female-identified brewers in the Pacific Northwest. For Portland, Hedgmon offers a few places to start, including Von Ebert Brewing, where Belgium-trained brewer Madeleine McCarthy crafts spectacular beers. Another of her go-tos is Steeplejack Brewing Company, Northeast Portland’s house of beer worship located in a former church, where Hedgmon loves the great imagination and scientific geekery of Anne Aviles and Anna Buxton. And she says that Natalie Baldwin’s creative floral and herbaceous beers at Breakside Brewery shouldn’t be missed.
A Sweet Shift to Honey and Beekeeping
Yet another of Hedgmon’s passions is beekeeping. As the owner of The Barreled Bee, a Northwest Portland honey company that she has operated since 2017, she sells limited editions of her exquisite, barrel-aged honey out of Freeland’s bottle shop.
Hedgmon’s hive has access to the flora found in her Northwest Portland neighborhood, including the common garden weed vetch. Her bees went nuts for this humble flowering cover crop and produced a honey with herbaceous, vegetal notes. Hedgmon made this batch of vetch honey extra special by aging it in a pinot grigio port barrel for 6 months.
In the past, the Barreled Bee has offered virtual honey tastings (sending a curated collection of honeys straight to participants’ doors). People try her honeys for all reasons, Hedgmon says, whether it’s to learn about honey’s complex flavor profiles, to understand how their food is produced or to learn how to use local ingredients for calming seasonal allergies. Check out her Instagram for all of the offerings, including Buzz Sticks — her cocktail-inspired honey sticks — the faux hot toddy kit that deploys them in warming drinks, and a variety of small-batch barreled honeys.