Celebration Time? Women and the Craft Beer World

*The inspiration for this piece comes from early November’s The Session topic.

Here’s a scenario that was making the rounds in many a cultural sensitivity workshop about a decade ago. It goes something like this:

A doctor was driving home early one evening and came across the scene of an accident. On the sidewalk lay a boy with broken limbs who had been clipped by a car while riding his bike. The man pushed his way through the crowd to administer first-aid. To his horror, he saw that the person was his son. An ambulance arrived, and whisked the child to the hospital. There, the emergency room physician gasped, “That’s my son!”

These days, many of us would undoubtedly be quick to pick up on what’s happening in this riddle that seemingly bends the dimensions of time and space. But let me put it another way.

A woman walks into a homebrew club meeting. Those who didn’t notice that she walked in with her partner look at her politely but quizzically, some venturing to suggest that maybe her friends are in another part of the bar. The ones who did notice that she walked in with her partner offer her some homebrew and attempt to break the ice by asking what kinds of beer her partner likes to brew.

Turns out she’s the homebrewer.

Despite many an optimistic prognostication that women are taking the craft beer scene by storm, certain stereotypes die hard. I align myself with those who celebrate the narrowing of the gender gap in the craft beer world, but alas, I see a glass half empty sitting on the table.

Increasingly, women are turning up at the helm of breweries. Kim Jordan is co-founder and CEO of New Belgium Brewing, one of the largest craft brewers in the United States. Tonya Cornett, formerly of Bend Brewing Company and now brewmaster at 10 Barrel Brewing, continues to attract attention. And Teri Fahrendorf, herself a brewer with twenty years’ experience under her belt, heads up Pink Boots Society, an organization that “empower[s] women beer professionals to advance their careers in the brewing industry through education.”

All good. But it’s important to recognize how persistent the notion is that women, if they drink beer at all, drink light and fruity beers, to say nothing of brewing beer.

Men dominate both the brewhouse and distribution channels. Julia Herz cites numerous optimistic stats charting the involvement of women in the craft beer world, but even she admits in a 2012 article for CraftBeer that a scant ten percent of American breweries employs women brewers.

Meg Gill of Golden Road Brewing in L.A. recalls how, early in her career, people mistook her for the “Bud light girl handing out stickers.” Women – and the beer they drink – are often pigeon-holed into their respective gender receptacle, with bartenders routinely pointing women in the direction of fruit beers, or so-called “beginner beers.”

So where do we go from here? I have a few observations that might double as starting points for conversations and suggestions.

Homebrew Clubs:

I’ve been homebrewing for a few years now, and look forward to monthly homebrew club meetings, wherever home might find me at that particular moment. The homebrew clubs I’ve come to know over the years embody magnanimity, welcoming even the most wayward of travelers. But women are always conspicuously under-represented.

The STEM streams – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – are vastly overrepresented by males among homebrewers and professional brewers alike. Nothing surprising there – but the situation also mirrors the gender distribution in physics, math, and engineering more generally. Given this critical mass at club meetings, it’s also not surprising that a certain kind of technological discourse permeates discussions. It’s not that these clubs are unwelcoming; it’s just that the standard diet of brewing processes and equipment specs can, at times, sound like the tech talk at your local garage, minus the centerfolds.

Marketing Perceptions

If I had a brewery, I’d give some consideration to the semiotics of my labels and marketing. We may take umbrage at the way in which brands from the U.S to Japan objectify women to sell their product.

Sapporo Beer Woman 30s

But what about marketing and branding practices in the craft beer sector? I’ll take but one example: Flying Dog. And let me preface this by saying that I don’t single out this brewery lightly, for their politics seem to align, at points, with my own. What’s troubling is the way in which sexism is veiled in the cloak of counter-cultural progressivism. No naked women to be seen on their labels that claim an intimate relationship with contemporary American counter-culture literature, but a kind of misogyny is present no less.

With its progressive pedigree, how could one raise objections to Flying Dog? Hint: the labels. Without the assurance on the label that this is a counter-culturally approved product, some of it comes across as sophomoric. I would hasten to add, though, that I’m not advancing some sort of plea for label censorship. Far from it. But labels have a powerful influence on purchasing decisions; and though I know good people who are fans of Hunter S. Thompson and of Flying Dog, I tend not to buy Flying Dog beers.


What are your thoughts and experiences? If you live outside of North America, what’s the situation where you live? Feel free to join the discussion in the comments.

© 2013 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.




5 thoughts on “Celebration Time? Women and the Craft Beer World

  1. Daegan Miller

    Another great post.

    One of the many things that I like about New Glarus Brewing is that it’s a husband and wife, or rather, wife and husband partnership in which both seem to be equal partners. Of course, I’m just getting this from their website and beer labels, and maybe it’s just ad copy. But I think they’re really genuine: they highlight cooperation, both in their business practices and in their beer. And check out the blurb for their (delicious) beer “Two Women.” The label is not referring to a sophmoric, Hunter S. Thompson joke about lesbianism–as one might suspect–(and I should say that I do love HST, even though he seemed like a totally sexist jerk) but a celebration of the long history of women brewsters.

    Also, Two Women is an awesome beer!

    Here’s the blurb:

    Four thousand years before Christ, Sumerian women created the divine drink of beer. Viking women brewed in Norse society. European Ale Wives were so successful as cottage brewers they were taxed. Artisanal women lost their domination of the daily ritual of brewing during the Industrial Revolution. Today’s brewing trade is controlled by men.

    The collaboration of two Craft companies both led by women, New Glarus Brewing and Weyermann Malting, is unique. You hold the result “Two Women” a Classic Country Lager brewed with Weyermann’s floor malted Bohemian malt and Hallertau Mittelfrueh hops. A tempting and graceful classic lager found…Only in Wisconsin!

    1. Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      Cheers for sending that along. I didn’t know that Weyermann Malting was headed up by a woman. While reading around for this piece, I came across a book by Judith M. Bennett, entitled Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 (Oxford UP, 1999), which traces how women brewsters came to be eclipsed by male brewers. My copy hasn’t arrived yet, but it looks like it’ll be an enlightening read. When I was in Milwaukee briefly last year, I had New Glarus’s Spotted Cow and Fat Squirrel, and then tried their Strawberry Rhubarb wild fruit ale at this year’s GABF. All of it was mighty fine. Next time I’m in Wisconsin, I’ll have to try the Two Women lager. I’m still not sure how to paste links into comments, but let’s see which of these two attempts to create a hyperlink to Bennett’s book is successful: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0195126505/ref=as_li_tf_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0195126505&linkCode=as2&tag=beertravelers

    1. Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      Ah, yes. The Deep Ellum dust-up. Though I’m not sure I would have gone so far as to blast the brewery for promoting rape culture, a quick glance at the comments to the (by now several) articles relating to the debacle suggests that those quick to bash “PC” have not thought about the potential linkages between overt sexism, objectification of women in advertising, and sexual violence. That’s not to say that there’s a direct line from ribald humour to rape. In fact, I can appreciate ribald humour when done well. (Rabelais, anyone?). And like I mentioned in my post, I’m no supporter of censorship. To be sure, though, debates and discussions like these raise awareness of issues women face, not only in the craft beer world but more generally. Deep Ellum owner, John Reardon, claimed in one of the articles covering the brouhaha that until all hell broke loose he had “never heard of ‘rape’ and ‘culture’ put in the same sentence before last week.” (I’m left wondering whether he’s been too busy in the brewhouse to read a newspaper?) Be that as it may, I take at face value his claim that the sexual innuendo was “meant to get a chuckle at best, an eye roll at worst,” and that he didn’t intend it as a rape joke. Bad taste? We can debate about that. At least, according to the Dallas Morning News article I just quoted, the whole affair represented an “awakening” for him.

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