A Taste for Celebration

Jessica and Erika Jones of Giant Jones Brewing recount the history of their relationship and business partnership, and why the trials and tribulations along the way have all been well worth getting to where they are now—and where they’ll go next.

We receive plenty of conditioning, starting at a young age, that is worth unlearning. Putting off celebrating is chief among these often deeply ingrained lessons, and one that we are striving to overcome. 

Too often we allow the mundane to set in, letting meals become the mere consumption of nutrients and calories, or we find ourselves focused on what will be at some distant time in the future. Of course we all find ourselves in dull routines at times, desiring and wanting to find and experience fuller lives and to fully realize ourselves.

Yet we’ve found the common thread that weaves throughout our lives is one where we are claiming reasons to celebrate as often as possible. The future and our goals are always before us and we are always looking towards them. We are simultaneously grabbing the chance to transcend the difficulties or mundanity of the day by celebrating the moment. That’s what keeps us vibrant and moving.

Coming Together  

Early in our relationship, we bonded over a shared interest in food and beer. Taken separately, each offers boundless depths of flavor, creativity, and nuance. Paired together they are further elevated. We inspired each other to explore new cuisines and styles, and to express love by cooking and brewing. A common topic of conversation is who gets to make dinner rather than what to have. Dinner is regularly regarded as sacred time in our house, a chance for the cook to express love, to celebrate the bounty of the earth, and to connect with each other.

Each of us grew up with an interest is preparing food. Erika’s go-to sleepover activity was to make tomato sauce with a friend and host an Italian restaurant for her family. Jessica started baking cakes as often as possible in the third grade, aspiring to make fancier and more intricate creations each time. 

Through these early explorations, we each learned that the mere creation and sharing of food—the gathering of people around it—brings forth joy and celebration on its own. A fine meal and cake for a special occasion is well and good, but a fenugreek sponge cake with sweet potato custard and maple-cardamon German buttercream is reason enough to have an impromptu party on a Tuesday evening.

Over the 13 years we have lived together, more often than not we have had people over to enjoy something delicious; sometimes a full dinner, other times just a beverage or dessert. For most of our relationship we have enjoyed having guests two to five nights of the week; mostly last-minute invitations based on who we happened to see or think of that day. We have continued to find that it is worth it to simply celebrate the day.

Jessica: Journey to Myself  

For all the rhetoric that flies around about innate qualities one is born with, it is ridiculous how long it takes in life to grow into yourself. The trepidation and struggle involved in shedding expectations and norms are substantial, and, assuming one gets through them, it can seem so obvious and simple once you let those norms go and live your own life. As messy as our society seems at the moment, things do seem better, if only because there are more examples visible of people living as themselves.

I started calling myself Jessica in my head early in second grade and was the only one who knew me by that name for nearly three decades. I had no language or context for the rich feminine life in my head, and eventually just began to assume everyone else thought constantly about life in another gender and dreamed about having different social roles and secondary body features. It was a central part of the world I knew, and without any visible examples of trans people before me, I just assumed this was the inner life everyone lived but never talked about. 

Yet, as childhood wore into adolescence, my world became bleak. By early eighth grade I was completely consumed with shutting down the experiment that was me. So, one morning in early May I stayed home from school and lit my bedroom on fire with myself in it. This was the safest future and exit I could imagine. There was so much inside of me that I had no words for expressing, that a grand summation of my pain seemed the only option to fourteen-year-old me.

Clearly, that was the best failure of my life. I remembered, as the bed I laid on caught fire, that I forgot to let my beloved dog outside. So, I leapt across the fire, went to the basement, pulled the dog outside and hitched him on the chain in the backyard. As I opened the door to go back in, a firefighter turned the corner of the house and stopped me. After a stop in the ER, I finished eighth grade in the adolescent psychiatric ward at the local hospital.

Extensive evaluation followed. Eventually I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression. The doctors said I had a loss filter between my subconsciousness and my consciousness and was on the obsessive side of the OCD spectrum and had become obsessed with my depression. No mention of gender dysphoria. Years of therapy and lots of psychiatric drugs later I was trained to choose obsessions to mute the depression and suicidal inclinations.

For years I followed short-lived paths of obsession with monkeys and robots, but learned that something tangible and expressible was the most sustainable type of obsession. I began pursuing culinary interests with long-term focus: exploring the depths of barbecue and other meat preparations, craft cocktails, beer, bread, dim sum, and pastry. Each pursuit brought me back to the idea that flavor was the sustaining focus. 

Over the next decade, I pursued flavor to the full extent, along with my culinary interests. I dove deep into becoming a Grand Master Beer Judge in the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) and an Advanced Cicerone—an expert on food and beer pairings. Through all these pursuits and passions, however, the depression remained as a constant, with the lingering possibility and wish for an end to my life.

The last time I yearned for the grave was November 22, 2016. I woke up on the 23rd excited to be alive for the first time since early childhood. I came out to myself and to Erika the night before, and to no great surprise that was actually the root of the depression that had plagued me for over two decades. It took another two years to fully get out publicly, and early press about Giant Jones Brewing Company referenced me by a different name. But I am finally the brewer and the me I have needed to be all along.

Erika: Finding a Partner   

I always loved food (and eating) and those joys became more joyous and exciting with a partner in the pursuit! As a child I dreamed of opening my own restaurant, and played at it with friends—making spaghetti sauce, ice cream sundaes, and eventually cooking weeknight dinner for the family. I also loved being involved in the community—being part of something bigger than myself was critical—whether playing on the soccer team or participating in service projects. I had a strong feeling that the best way for me to make an impact in the world was to invest my time in the community where I lived.

I remember meeting Jessica for the first time and being instantly drawn to her brilliant smile and buoyant energy. I was excited to get to know this magnetic human being. We worked together at a summer camp with lots of time together to get to know each other. I learned early on about her depression, but seeing someone so full of energy and life I didn’t truly understand what it meant. 

We got married in 2006, and shortly after, I started to understand more about what her depression was all about. Early on, I had been instructed by Jessica to constantly ask her about her mental health—how was she feeling? Asking that question after coming home from a trip, I learned what “not well” truly meant. She was distraught, agitated, inconsolable, and uncomfortable all at once.

After asking what she needed, I called a doctor to help her set up an appointment—she couldn’t make the call herself. She went to the doctor and received a new prescription of antidepressants, which helped her navigate that bout of depression. A few months later she was back to herself, but we held onto the prescription for the inevitable next time it was needed. Understanding the reality of depression meant that I knew it would return despite it moving to the background and allowing us to continue our pursuits. And I feared for my partner, knowing that, in fact, there was little I could do when it did come back.  

We had moved to Berkeley, California and were immersing ourselves in the craft beer culture, thanks to some close friends and fellow home-brewers. Fueled by Jessica’s obsessiveness, we were often the instigators of great adventures: traveling to breweries, attending beer festivals, or tasting our way through the beer styles in the Beer Judge Certification Program. We also enlisted our friends in our civic pursuits—volunteering at local parks, participating in coastal cleanup day, protesting Prop 8. We always managed to engage our friends and community to elevate the experience and create magical and meaningful memories.

Over time in our relationship, I noticed Jessica choosing feminine clothing, questioning gender roles and stereotypes, and I agreed with her. If we want our society and community to be a place that loves and cares for others, supplanting arbitrary rules that limit expression and creativity, and are designed to exclude people, is critical. The idea that we should constantly question and strive for a society that is more inclusive and just is part of our ethos. So when we realized Jessica was transgender, as surprising as it was, it was also not such a giant leap from the journey we had already been on together. And the relief from the threat of depression was a revelation.

Bubbling Up  

Transitioning, trying to come out publicly, and opening a business is a ridiculous amount to take on at once. The impromptu gatherings to celebrate with friends that had punctuated our lives for so long happened far less often as we grew into these things. Excitement and fear permeated in equal measure, it seemed, throughout 2017 and 2018.

Jessica was feeling better about herself than ever before, yet socially it was a gigantic struggle to come out. “I am going by Jessica now, because I am a woman,” is a difficult and scary phrase to work into conversation. The tension of not being out, plus presenting differently at home and in public, often kept us from spending time with others; left caught between different ways of being and important parts of ourselves. Date nights at home with the shades pulled became the routine. Slowly we told close friends and family, but Jessica continued to function publicly in her assigned role.

Once buildout on Giant Jones Brewing began in earnest, a whole new world of stress opened up before us. Much of the tension that seemed to overwhelm us with Jessica’s gender transition was displaced. Each day brought new decisions, elongated timelines, expanding expenses, plus occasional moments of accomplishment.

Levels of exhaustion grew throughout the process. Jessica spent 13 to 20-plus hours per day pushing towards opening at the brewery. Each day filled with making expensive decisions about small details, getting local, state, and federal permits and licenses in order, and dealing with issues as they came up. The only real breaks were trips to Elemental Electrolysis to have facial hair electrocuted and plucked one by one.

We put as many things in Erika’s name for the business as possible, since Jessica still had a different name legally. Inefficiencies abounded, because Erika was still working full-time as the director at Fairshare CSA Coalition, and Jessica was solely focused on the brewery. Things ended up with Jessica’s birth name­­­—many of which still need to get updated now that the government recognizes her chosen name, too.

By spring of 2018 we found ourselves looking out at the new reality we had set out to find. Jessica came out publicly at the end of March and was able to affirm her name and gender legally by the end of May. We brewed the first batch of beer on April 12 and sold beer for the first time on May 2 for a packed house at Brasserie V. Then, in mid-June, we opened the Tasting Room at Giant Jones Brewing and are once again throwing some of the best parties multiple times a week!

Doing business differently  

At Giant Jones Brewing, we are doing our best to disrupt the norms we have struggled to move past, and to be an example of a different way to move through society. Without visible examples, after all, it’s difficult to see the possibilities. We can get stuck in deeply conditioned expectations of gender and societal roles and norms.

So we set out to create a business that celebrates that different way of doing this, all while making world class beer: A local, organic brewery, run by queer women, that pays real wages.

Our business model contradicts well-conditioned capitalist norms: 

• We pay livable wages; if we cannot pay a livable wage to someone, we work more and sleep less ourselves until we get to the place where we can provide a real income and reasonable hours for them. 

• We are a small brewery that aims to move 80% of our beer outside our tasting room. There are so many great kitchens and places in Madison—including your house—where we want you to enjoy these beers, so we focus our efforts there rather than on higher-margin tasting room sales. Further, we just work with small bars, restaurants, and stores; if it matters that the beer is brewed by an independent company, then it matters that it is retailed by one too! 

• All of our beers are certified organic, because this is the only planet we have. Brewing organic beer is almost the opposite experience of making organic food. When you go to the farmers market and start using local organic produce, a whole new world of options and flavors opens up; there are endless varieties and options one has never encountered before. In beer, the number of malts and hops available narrows considerably. Further, organic certification in and of itself is extremely rigorous; moving through the process was the most grueling bureaucratic process I have ever gone through—and I say this as a trans woman who opened a brewery!

• The tasting room is an open, well-lit space, with single-occupant, undesignated toilet rooms. We purposely designed it to be safe and welcoming for everyone. 

Celebrating today  

Now that we have gotten to this place—almost a year into running Giant Jones Brewing Company and Jessica living full-time in the appropriate gender—people often ask, “So things are going well? You are living the dream, right?” We have largely given up on feeding the fantasy they are trying to access, a life where everything is light, fun, and happy all of the time, because it’s exhausting to pretend that’s true even in casual conversation. 

The reality is that it is all of the things all at once; exciting, mundane, stressful, thrilling, and arduous. Not all dreams are riding a unicorn through a field of daisies; that is what makes the moments we pull out of each day or week to inspire one another and experience something remarkable together all the more important.

There is always a need to look toward tomorrow and the eight thousand tomorrows beyond that, but that does not make today any less worth celebrating.  

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