Image by Sophie Eliza

Kicking the Bros Out of Brewing

Beer has been subject to co-option from men, resulting in perpetual sexist advertising and alienation of women from the drink. However, the boom of microbreweries across the globe has empowered women to reclaim what's rightfully theirs.

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Aug 15 2015, 4:00pm

Image by Sophie Eliza

Beer. It's the second most popular alcoholic drink, and the oldest. Yet, it's a drink that has been hypermasculinized, effectively shunning half the global population. The results of this are particularly evident in global drinking habits; beer only accounts for 23 percent of North American women's alcohol consumption, compared to 55 percent for men, with an even greater divide in the UK, where women's consumption of beer averages 19 percent, while beer accounts for 60 percent of men's alcoholic intake, despite the country's proud, if declining, history of pub culture.

However, the it wasn't always like this. Beer, originally discovered in the Neolithic era as early as 9,500 BC, allowed previously nomadic tribes to settle into dwellings that eventually evolved into towns and cities. Due to its ability in providing a way to preserve and consume grain through infertile seasons, beer served as a key component of establishing modern civilization. Through the centuries, beer evolved into a commodity dominated by women, even the ancient Sumerians named a goddess, Ninkasi, as their patron guardian of beer. Their Hymn to Ninkasi demonstrates one of the world's oldest-known beer recipes, and women were allowed to brew and sell beer freely without consequence. The inclusion of women in brewing in Sumeria was not an outlier--they were ubiquitous in brewing, all throughout early societies, from the Egyptians to the Incas to societies in between--and by no means was beer a male-dominated domain.

This tradition continued in medieval Europe--particularly in England--where brewing provided women with a unique form of financial independence that was almost impossible for them to find in other fields. It was practiced by unmarried women, married women, and widows alike, allowing anyone to independently earn a primary or supplementary source of income in an otherwise extremely male-dominated society. Women brewers, then referred to as brewsters, not only had the ability to produce their own beers out of their homes, but operate local alehouses as well; a trade which thrived until the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague. Although economic and urban restructuring following the epidemic began to move brewing outside of the home and onto a larger scale, creating a greater financial burden for those wishing to enter the industry, women who had the means to participate were still largely accepted. Upon the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, however, the brewing industry exploded due to an increase in both demand and innovation in production technology, transporting brewing to large-scale factories and effectively removing women from the trade.

Women brewers, then referred to as brewsters, not only had the ability to produce their own beers out of their homes, but operate local alehouses as well; a trade which thrived until the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague.

In the centuries since then, beer--something that was once open, accessible, and empowering to women--has turned into the macho, exclusionary drink that it is today. The problem isn't exclusive to the Anglophone world either. Countries historically renowned for their beers, where one would assume that women are more likely to drink it, show similar numbers to the US and the UK. One Belgian study found that only 33 percent of women consider themselves beer lovers, while 49 percent never drink it at all, although 62 percent of respondents encouragingly believed that beer was equally suitable for men and women. Meanwhile, women in Germany drink 83 percent less beer on average than German men. The same issues can be found outside of Europe as well. In Brazil, the world's second largest beer consumer by volume, men drink 5 times as much beer as women. And in China, the world's largest beer consumer, women's beer consumption is dismal- women have a 4 percent likelihood of drinking beer, compared to 16 percent for men, and those who do drink consume 45 percent less than men.

As either a factor or a consequence of this extreme disparity, beer has become largely associated with traditionally masculine activities-watching sports, doing handiwork around the house, and kegstands at frat parties. Meanwhile, women are relegated to downing wine and occasionally popping Xanax à la Desperate Housewives. When they are portrayed in film or television as consumers of beer, it's almost always as "one of the guys," engaging in burping contests and swapping dick jokes, or as the stereotypical and oversexualized buxom bartender, with little representation in between. Without exposure to other depictions of women who drink beer, women aren't encouraged or motivated to partake, and beer's manly image is allowed to pervade.

Advertising for beer has also been long linked with the objectification of women. For decades, women have been put in bikinis and other revealing ensembles and plastered all over billboards, magazine ads, and commercials, reducing the women to nothing but a pair of breasts used to sell a can of fermented wheat, serving to alienate a large portion of the population. Despite the fact that a large amount of the blatant sexism in marketing has fortunately died down in recent years, marketing still has mostly men in mind. Out of all the current commercials displayed on Budweiser's--currently the largest beer producer in America--website, just one prominently features a woman, while the rest only show women in brief snippets, more often than not as servers of beer rather than consumers. Miller Coors, coming in at second in beer production, fares similar in their ads for both flagship beers, Miller High Life and Coors Banquet.

Although ads for their associated light counterparts fare better, with most campaigns featuring mixed groups of twenty-somethings partying in various capacities, a lack of concern for or interest in attracting women is evident. Coors Light's current Refresh ad campaign, featuring up and coming artists from around the country, only showcases ones woman, New York DJ Venus X, compared to 4 men. And perhaps most tellingly of all, the fact that Bud Light's ill-fated "Removing 'No' From Your Vocabulary" tagline in March was allowed to pass through multiple levels of review and approval without any employee recognizing or caring about the dangerous message conveyed shows that these companies have a long way to go before ever truly welcoming or accepting women as a serious and equal demographic.

In a stark contrast to women's stereotypical appreciation of wine, a much stronger drink than the average 5 percent lager, these companies seem to believe that women can't handle their product, creating drinks that are sweeter, pink, or lighter in alcohol content.

Instead, large beer companies have attempted to appeal to women in patronizing ways, assuming that any sort of drink for us needs to be fundamentally feminine. In a stark contrast to women's stereotypical appreciation of wine, a much stronger drink than the average 5 percent lager, these companies seem to believe that women can't handle their product, creating drinks that are sweeter, pink, or lighter in alcohol content, often a combination of the above. More often than not, these drinks-- such as Animée, an attempt at courting women drinkers in the UK by Molson Coors, or a light, fruity Hello Kitty branded beer aimed at Chinese markets--fail, proving that most women aren't looking to consume these "girly" drinks.

So what are women drinking then? More and more, women are delving into to craft beer to turn the stereotype of typical beer drinkers inside out. In the US, women account for 30 percent of craft beer consumption, a significant increase over their general beer consumption. And why? In craft beer, women are finding increased options, availability for participation, and a community that empowers and supports them, rather than objectifying them.

The most obvious difference in craft beer is the availability of variety, and not the watered down, light styles that corporations unsuccessfully throw at us. Jesse Wright, a professional brewer, was first drawn to this aspect 10 years ago. "[My ex husband] told me he thought I'd like beer. I figured he was crazy, as I already knew I didn't like it. Of course I now know that I disliked lagers made by macro-breweries that I perceived to be boring. Once he introduced me to stouts, I was converted."

Wright isn't alone in her surprise interest after branching out. "Women who are new to beer tend to ask for 'girly' beers," explains Michelle Zanni, who has worked as a craft beer bartender for 3.5 years. "I tell them that there's really no such thing as a girly or manly beer, it's a social conception. They think they don't like the taste of beer, but when we give them a sample of a fruity IPA or pale ale, they tend to like it! Women who are more experienced in beer will tend to order IPAs or hoppy beers directly, and they stay away from sweeter beers."

Zanni has been interested in craft beer since 2009, first working in a bar in Ohio--the 4th largest craft beer producing state in the US--before moving to France where she now works at a craft beer bar in Paris. Beer drinking habits in the country known predominantly for its wine are not surprising, with 42 percent of women never drinking beer, and 71 percent of women who do drink beer doing so less than once a week. Craft beer in the country, though growing, is still in its infancy. Despite this numbers, she's optimistic about its future prospects in the country, "The number of women interested in beer in France has increased enormously, and it's really positive to see more women come into the bar on their own."

Women aren't just drinking more craft beer, they're making it too, returning the drink to its historic roots, albeit with modern and creative twists. The number of women working in brewing, as both owners and brewers, has skyrocketed in recent years in both the US and the UK. Although no study has ever been done to determine numbers on women in the industry, finding a brewery with women working in production is slowly becoming the norm, rather than an anomaly. And these women entering the industry are serious about their beer- the acclaimed brewing program at UC Davis, where Wright took her brewing classes, had more women than ever before for their Master Brewers Program, the highest level of certification they offer, in 2015.

In the US, women account for 30 percent of craft beer consumption, a significant increase over their general beer consumption.

The industry has come a long way since 1995, when Denise Ratfield started working at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, where she was the only woman on the production floor. Back then, she explains, the level of women's knowledge and involvement was much less than there is today, on both the consumer and professional side. However, much has changed since then. "The craft beer community has seen meteoric growth, and the transformation in the last 20 years regarding the involvement of women has been tremendous. There are many more women brewing and working all aspects of the business of beer then there were." And Ratfield doesn't see the current growth stopping anytime soon,"We are continuing to evolve when it comes to participating in our craft beer communities--more networking, education, and collaboration".

Since her start in the industry, she's become actively involved in advocating for women in the brewing industry through multiple outlets, notably Pink Boots Society, where she formerly served as head of social media. Today, a number of like-minded groups for women in beer exist, such as Girl's Pint Out and Barley's Angels, all with similar goals of empowering and educating women as consumers and professionals in the beer industry. These groups provide a myriad of opportunities for women in all aspects of the community, from hosting women's-only tasting events to help dispel the myth of beer as a men's domain, to providing valuable networking and even scholarship opportunities for those looking to advance their careers in the field.

These groups also work to spread awareness of women and beer around the globe, through events like International Women's Collaboration Brew Day, where Ratfield is currently the International Event Organizer and head of social media. The event--the brainchild of British brewer Sophie De Ronde and aided by Ratfield's industry connections--is held annually on International Women's Day and promotes networking and camaraderie among the women who participate on a global scale through their simultaneous brewing of a shared beer recipe, with proceeds from the beer benefiting both Pink Boots Society and local charities chosen by participants. Although it's only in its second year, over 100 breweries from 11 countries participated in the event in 2015, a testament to both the interest of women in the larger community and Ratfield's aptitude for involving women in beer. "It's satisfying to be part of something great that benefits others as well as ourselves," she says of the event's success.

And women aren't stopping there, they're constantly working to find new ways to involve themselves. "I've even seen women start up hop jewelry businesses," says Kristina Martinez, who currently reports for BeerAlien and previously worked for a beer importer. "If a woman is encouraged in the industry, no matter what section, they're supported and encouraged. Women are having a huge impact on beer, and it's only beginning."

Despite all this, craft beer is still not without its problems. Using sex to sell remains prevalent amongst some breweries, particularly when it comes to beer names and labels. Even though the laid-back, occasionally rebellious attitude of the industry encourages and even necessitates creative and unconventional naming in order to stand out from the never-ending wave of new beers, names like Tramp Stamp, Thong Remover, and Pearl Necklace have drawn high amounts of controversy for their demeaning connotations towards women. Brewery merchandising can follow a similar pattern. "So many places have shirts for men and women, and the woman's shirts are low-cut V-neck shirts while the men's shirts are more baggy," explains Wright, "I've heard men I work with mention that the women's shirts will sell more beer if the servers are wearing them."

Women's interest and expertise are also unfortunately still underestimated occasionally, in all aspects. As a bartender, Zanni is sometimes taken less seriously than her male coworkers, despite her strong knowledge and enthusiasm for the drink. Wright says that although she's found many of her male coworkers to accept her equally, she occasionally finds it harder for some of the older ones to accept her. And almost every woman has expressed frustration at dealing with an overly patronizing bartender at one point or another who has questioned their choice of a stronger beer or suggested a "girly" weak beer to them.

However, the outlook for the future is overwhelmingly positive. "I think the continued growth of women's interest and involvement in craft beer will happen organically," says Ratfield, "Given women's opportunities for education and career development, coupled with creativity and enjoyment factor, it seems a successful formula for continued interest." Wright has a similar belief, and is excited for others who might follow in her footsteps, "When women learn how diverse and delicious beers are, they'll want to be better consumers. This lead to my interest in brewing, and here I am. I hope that's the path others take too."