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.




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