We met Thai Caldwell in the pastel-soaked taproom of Far Field Beer Co., where she’s been the Taproom Manager since just before their opening back in July 2021. But she’s been brewing beer for even longer. Though she’s not one to seek the spotlight, she agreed to take part in our inaugural Women in Beer series, and we’re glad she did, because her story is one worth telling. Thai was joined for the interview by her partner of six years, Steffie Chau, who is the Social Media Manager, PR contact, and overall cheerleader for Thai’s own nanobrewery, POW Brewing Co. Thai talked to us about how she fell in love with beer, what it means to be a Black woman in the industry, and her undying love for Gardena.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
As told to Mark Smolyar and Cambria Findley-Grubb for Hopped.
HOPPED: How did you get started in beer?
THAI CALDWELL: I used to work for the Patina Restaurant group, and a lot of different breweries would come in at the time and try to get us to put their beer on tap. Angel City would come in with their beer reps and try to get us samples. It was a big deal for any brewery to get into Patina because at first it was only Modelo and Bud light. Chef Joaquin had no interest really in craft beer – it was 2012 and he just didn’t really see the hype yet. But I tried to change his mind.
HOPPED: Was there a particular style you were driven to early on?
TC: I was always at El Segundo Brewery, and I would only drink their Mayberry IPA. Like I would try other beers but nothing could beat a fresh IPA for me. See I was never the type of girl that was into Bud Light or Coors – I’d rather have a shot of something. Cognac, or Remy straight – and a strong IPA scratched that same itch for me. The aroma, the hit – I loved everything about it.
HOPPED: How did your first experience brewing come about?
TC: When Steffie and I first met, she wasn’t really into beer but I tried to change that. Our first date was at Angel City, and little by little, I got her learning about beer as I learned about beer. And I’m glad that worked out because I knew we weren’t gonna make it if she didn’t like beer, ha. And now we’ve been dating [for] like 6 years. But back then, we just started hopping around lots of breweries – Steffie even took me to my first brew supply store.
STEFFIE CHAU: That equipment sat in the house for like a year before Thai really did anything with it. Thai was shy to start her own stuff but I was like, “You know, I spent all this money on it, it’s about time to start brewing”.
TC: So I started brewing stuff. My first beer was an IPA called “Pineapple Trainwreck.” I put pineapples in that first beer because I wanted my sister to be able to drink it. Then the second one was called “Sparkle Haze” because I asked my little niece what I should name the beer and she said “sparkle”. And then the third beer I brewed back at the old Zymurgy in Torrance before it shut down. It was an IPA with fresh oranges. I named it “Orange Rah-Rah” because “Rah-Rah” was my Mom’s nickname growing up and she was with me that brew day.
SC: And after that third beer, Zymurgy closed down. It was like 2018 and I got Thai all this extra SS Brewtech gear. Then she made the leap to start brewing everything herself.
TC: You can tell she’s committed to my goals. But then I took a little break for a year to help my brother Craig open up this pop-up called Mr. Fries Man in his backyard in Gardena. I quit my job at Patina to help him get it off the ground. Now he’s got over 15 locations!
SC: And then you got back into brewing and did Just A Beer From Gardena.
TC: I wanted to do something for my city. I’m big on where I come from. So I brewed Just A Beer From Gardena which was an IPA. Then I did another beer called Venice Way and Hyde Park because that’s where my Mom’s from. Gardena is where I come from but I got Inglewood roots, too.
HOPPED: How else has Steffie been involved in the process and supporting you?
TC: The reason I got this far with POW Brewing is because of Steffie. I’m used to being the boss at almost every job I’ve had, so I was so ready to just brew and have it as a hobby. I wanted to be in the background and observe. But Steffie started doing the outreach to make it more than a hobby because she believed in me.
HOPPED: What’s the origin of the name POW Brewing?
TC: I had a few things I wanted to do with the name. I wanted to do something for women, and something to represent my heritage – me and who I am. My dad’s last name is Powell, and I was insistent on having women in there somewhere. Bouncing ideas around with my Auntie she thought it could still be centered around women, African-American women, and still have part of my last name. So I came up with POW, which stands for Power of a Woman.
HOPPED: What was your first big leap from brewing in your kitchen to being known as a brewer in the wider community?
TC: It was a challenge keeping things in the house. Like, we’re always freezing, not even putting the heat on in the winter so the beer stays at a good temp. No one wanted to come over to our apartment. Like they’d come in with a jacket and still gotta ask for a blanket. So I realized I needed to try something else. The tricky thing was – I’m a homebrewer. How do I get people my beer? I decided to enter the Brewbound competition, which was its own challenge. I submitted four beers and I had to spend so much money shipping beer out to 10 people – and like, it wasn’t the easiest thing to do because I had to pretend I was shipping out hot sauce. But suddenly, I got a call from Brewbound to send more beer. And then ended up making the top 12. Then the top 6. Then the finals. I didn’t win, but it was my first beer competition. I made the finals – and that was big enough for me.
HOPPED: So what was the next big step after Brewbound?
TC: After Brewbound, everyone was asking “what’s she gonna do next?”.
SC: I thought next up she needs to start collabing with people.
TC: Steffie started hitting up breweries over IG, just cold DM’ing anyone and everyone. She ended up hitting Nappy Roots’ brewery Atlantucky in the ATL, and they actually responded, “Ya, come on down.”. They gave us a time and day, and Steffie and I booked flights, got our hotel, got there on the day and messaged them… and they didn’t even respond! They ended up standing us up.
HOPPED: Oh no. What did you do?
TC: We ended up hearing back from another brewery nearby, Hippin Hops Brewery, which was the first Black-owned brewery in Atlanta. We ended up meeting the co-owner Jermaine who was super cool and invited us to come back the next day and brew with them.
When we got there the next day, [Hippin Hops owners] Clarence and Jermaine had to take a delivery at the second location they were opening and they trusted me to brew by myself in the brewery for more than four hours. And like, they just met me! Part of the way through the day the staff started coming in, [they] were looking around and clearly thinking “Who are these people and why are they here? Where’s the boss?” Jermaine and Clarence [finally] came back to check in and say “Oh, you DO know how to brew.”
It definitely was a trial by fire, but it ended up being POW Brewing’s first official collab. I named it LA Sour, and it was a peach mango sour. A few weeks later, James and Clarence took a video of two guys drinking the LA Sour and sent it to me because they were raving about it. Everyone was suddenly going to Hippin Hops and trying the LA Sour. James and Clarence even gave me a tap handle with LA Sour on it and invited me to come back. Suddenly that led to other breweries starting to DM us.
HOPPED: So how have you been building relationships here in Los Angeles?
TC: I got basically this beer dad here, Keith Dillard, who runs his own homebrew Tri-District Brewing. He’s friends with a lot of brewers and I’m hanging out with him at Three Weavers. All of a sudden, I get a DM from Teo Hunter from Crowns & Hops saying “Let’s get together.” Turns out, he was AT Three Weavers. Upstairs! Like, both of us didn’t even realize we were in the same building. So I walked upstairs and Teo is on this meeting with some brewers in Oakland. He introduced me, and then he gave me an official tour of Three Weavers and introduced me to Alex there. He sent me home with cases and cases and cases of Crowns & Hops beer. But first, he took me to Tortugo where I met the owner there and we all got hella beer drunk. And shortly after that, Alex from Three Weavers reached out and we had a meeting. And a lot of gears started turning, connections started building. I kept brewing my own stuff and building up some heat, in addition to all the connections Steffie helped me make.
HOPPED: So what came next with all that heat?
TC: Well when the pandemic hit, we were looking to keep brewing.
SC: In that late 2020-early 2021 period there was a ton of support for Thai’s homebrewing – we started revisiting some of the favorites like A Beer from Gardena. Providing beer for the community. With the pandemic work was so touch and go it was a way to make some money too.
HOPPED: And how did you end up becoming the Taproom Manager at Far Field? How did that experience inform your work with POW Brewing?
TC: Steffie saw the news about a new brewery opening up in Lawndale. I went to the brewery and met [Founder] James Bardeen and we just hit it off. I never hid POW Brewing from him – my experience between Patina, POW, all my other managing jobs – it all just blended together. And I learned real quick it’s so much more than just a little homebrew system here. Every day you gotta check the gravity, check the temp – you’re checking the little things when you homebrew but here you’re checking a hundred things. It’s on such a bigger scale and I gotta tell [Far Field’s Head Brewer] Bryce Lowrance “I commend how you went straight from homebrewing to this.” I stressed out brewing just one day in Atlanta by myself and you gotta do it every morning, you know? It’s something I look forward to doing one day eventually. It’s great having Bryce here because he’s always down to answer questions. And I get to learn how to do everything, all the logistics, all of that. And last fall, I even had a birthday coming up and I pitched a birthday beer to James and Bryce and they were cool with it. And so that became one of our new IPAs, Around The Sun.
HOPPED: Now that you’re officially in it, what advice do you have for women and people of color who want to get into the brewing industry?
TC: We’re still looked down on – but it pushed me to go harder and hustle harder. For as many doors that have closed on me, in three to five years from now, everyone who didn’t want to give this Black girl an opportunity to do a beer is gonna be knocking on my door. Turn the negativity into positivity. And to young women, don’t let anyone tell you no. Go for it. Keep knocking on doors. Even if they stand you up, keep reaching out. Somebody’s gonna return a DM, answer a door.
HOPPED: With a name like Power of a Woman, how do you see your responsibility as a brand to help elevate and empower women of color?
TC: I have so much I want to do. I wanna mentor young girls in high school to make sure they stay on the right path and do the right stuff. You can fall off. I had a single mom – a young Black single mother raising two daughters. When you’re raised in a single-parent household and especially a single African-American woman household, you tend to become a follower – you want to stick in and become part of the in-crowd. You do things because your friends are doing it, or the person you’re dating is doing it. I want to help young girls realize at the end of the day that’s not the path you need to go down. Be a leader, don’t be a follower. I just wanna help young Black girls know there’s always someone out there for you to call on. It’s helping my community – there are not enough visible African American women helping others to make it. No one wins when the family feuds, and I want to be a visible mentor to young women of color.
Another thing is that I want to help support the people who supported us, especially our local community. I would love to open a brewery up in Gardena to give back to my city and my community. I want it to be a place where you come in and you don’t have to worry about being singled out or looked at sideways or have people wonder why you are there. It would be a place for everyone to be.
HOPPED: You talk a lot about the impact of community in your life and giving back – who are some of the role models that influenced you along the way?
TC: I’d thank my mom and my grandparents. They’re the three people that made me who I am today. Without them, I’d be super lost. Grandma helped me figure out what to do. And my family is still local to Gardena and Inglewood so they’ve been a huge part of my life.
HOPPED: Growing up in Gardena what has it been like seeing the LA brew scene change over the past ten years?
TC: It feels good. It feels good being in Gardena and seeing so many local breweries start popping up. We used to have to drive around to get good beer, but now everything is in your backyard.
HOPPED: How have your tastes evolved since you started brewing? Is the Mayberry still your end-all be-all beer?
TC: Oh yeah, still the Mayberry. But now when we get an IPA, Steffie and I both smell it and can pick out the hops. I’m proud that she has learned so much about beer through this whole process with me.
HOPPED: What are your short and long term goals for POW Brewing?
TC: For the short term, before this year is up we are planning to do at least 3 more collabs so be on the lookout for those. As for the long term, it’s eventually to have a place of my own. Something to build a legacy and to pass down to my kids. I don’t need multiple locations, it would be great to have the one and have it be a place for people to come together, and potentially getting into some place like a Whole Foods or Trader Joes.
HOPPED: What’s one last message you want to leave?
TC: We are staying focused. Things may have seemed a little quiet here or there, but we don’t stop. And now, we’re figuring out what’s next.
You can find Thai Caldwell at @powbrewingco and @_thai_marie for her thoughtful homebrews, and everything else coming down the pipeline (including a Pink Boots brew at Far Field). Thai can be found managing the taproom at Far Field Beer Co. in Lawndale.