Beauty and the yeast

"Women and beer" has never been a phrase to excite the marketers, but Jaq Bayles finds things may be taking a new turn
27 August, 2008
Page 30 
Of all the alcohol categories, beer remains the toughest nut to crack with a female audience. Yet there is a spark of change in the brewing air and a sense that the traditional beardy profile of the real ale drinker might finally be facing a challenge.

While the most high-profile female consumer to give beer the nod has been Madonna, who famously likes a pint of Timothy Taylor's Landlord, a real ale from Yorkshire, there have been a few moves in favour of women behind the scenes, too.

Top beer writer Martin Cornell points out that the notion of beer as a male domain is something of a modern myth. Indeed, in the days when beer was safer to drink than water, women were its guardians. "In the Middle Ages, most brewers were women," Cornell says. "But as it became a full-time profession the men took over ."

He adds that: " When hopped beer arrived from the continent in the 15th century and gradually replaced unhopped ale, because the hopped version of the drink kept longer, and thus could be made in greater quantities and sold to a wider area, brewing changed from a domestic occupation to a professional one, and the men muscled in."

Northern Europe in particular has historically been a bastion of female involvement in brewing, a tradition carried on in Belgium in the latter part of the 20th century by the legendary Rosa Blancquaert at Liefmans - famed for its kriek cherry beer - and Claude Rosier-Allard, great-granddaughter of Brasserie Dupont founder Alfred Dupont.

Indeed a large part of the Belgian Brewers Association's September 2006 Beer Weekend event in Brussels was dedicated to women, both consumers and those involved in the industry. And in research carried out during the same year by Belgium's Beer & Society Information Centre, one in four of 6,765 respondents were women. Nearly 45 per cent agreed that women do not appreciate bitter flavours in beer, and more than 80 per cent said that women enjoy fruity and light beers such as kriek and wheat beer.

Female brewers - or brewsters, as they used to be known in the UK - are starting to increase in numbers, certainly in the UK and the States (albeit in a proportionately very small way), and England's Campaign for Real Ale is trumpeting female consumers as "the future of ale".

So what is going on in this most male of male bastions?

While there are plenty of women on the technical side of brewing in the UK, and many holding top jobs in the industry, estimates put the current number of hands-on female brewers at only around the dozen mark. One of these is Springhead's master brewer Shirley Reynolds, and she is convinced the numbers are set to grow.

"We are getting into everything and realising we can do it," she says. But she is also conscious there is still "a lot of resistance to women in the industry". Reynolds started out in a sales job at the brewery in 1999, "but the call of getting my hands dirty and getting involved in brewing was too strong". A brewing course in Sunderland was the tipping point - and she and the head brewer at the time returned from their tutorings to Springhead in reversed roles.

Much is made of the physicality of the job, which is often cited as a reason women shouldn't be brewers. Teri Fahrendorf, who spent 19 years as a professional brewer and 17 years as Steelhead's brewmaster in Oregon, US, is now on a "13,000-mile road trip of brewing adventure and beer exploration", as the Road Brewer. She cites one example of how the physical demands were used against her early in her career.

"One brewer asked me over the phone: 'Can you carry a full half-barrel up a flight of steps?' I said, 'No. That's 160 pounds and nobody should do that. I would get a hand truck and drag the half-barrel up the steps.' He responded: 'Sorry, we require all our brewers to be able to carry a half-barrel up a flight of steps. ' That brewer visited me days before Steelhead opened when all my beers were on tap and ready to go. He said incredulously, 'Wow. Your beers are good!'."

Indeed, there is a booming microbrewing industry across the US and Fahrendorf has documented 43 women brewers to date in that industry on her website.

Jo White, brewer at Worthington White Shield in the grounds of the brewing museum in Burton upon Trent, England, since 1994, doesn't see strength as an issue either. "We can lift nine gallons above waist height. You have to do the work, and you don't turn up in high heels!"

White's experience in a microbrewery that is part of the huge Coors stable has been more inclusive than that of Reynolds. She feels part of "a happy family". "If I need any help or ingredients, I go to the lads across the road."

She got into brewing from being a tour guide for the museum and is very upbeat about the way women are starting to see beer. "There are definitely more women drinking beer and when they do come into it on the microbrewery side they will be hands-on fully."

One of the first beers she brewed was St Mordwens (4.2 per cent abv), "designed for the ladies" at the behest of Camra, which currently has its first female chair in the shape of Paula Waters. "Camra wanted us to brew a beer for the girls to drink," White says, pointing out that one of the reasons she became a brewer was because she had never found a beer she liked. "When you understand what happens to the malt and the hops you can design your own beer."

Sandy Kruger made history when she became South Africa's first woman brewer after joining SABMiller in 1998 as a technical trainee. She echoes White's sentiments about the industry: "My colleagues and SAB are very supportive of the development of women as brewers. And the number of women taking up brewing as a profession is steadily increasing."

It certainly is at SAB - there are 23 women among its 65 brewers, ranging from trainees to senior executives, and 10 of the 13 trainee brewers are women.

It may be the creative approach these women take to brewing that is starting to turn the tide in favour of women beer drinkers. Agreeing with the 2006 Belgian survey, Fahrendorf says: "I think it is true that men have a higher 'bitter' tolerance, and women have a higher 'sour' tolerance, and both biases may cause certain beverage choices.

"The brewers who keep boosting the IBU (International Bittering Units) in their beers are generally men. I call it 'testosterone-driven hop one-upmanship'. You don't generally see women brewers jumping on that bandwagon, although it is possible. This may be changing: now that hops are in short supply and the price has already tripled, you may see formerly hop-macho men brewers backing off on their bittering levels in order to conserve precious hops."

Reynolds agrees there may be differences in the palates of women and men, and says Springhead has tried to direct her Roaring Meg brew at women. "Some brewers make a beer that's so bitter that, to my palate, it's horrible. Recently someone asked me if there was a difference between men's palates and women's. I'm not sure, because I've never had a man's palate, but all my beer is suited to my palate and hopefully a lot of other females, too."

So where from here for women and beer? Back in August, Camra's UK research suggested that "the ale market is in recovery after a dozen years of decline, and consumers are turning away from global brands in favour of local and regional real ales". The organisation said it was "calling on brewers to make beers more appealing to women in its campaign to revitalise the real ale market" and pointed out that 25 per cent of its 87,000-strong membership are women.

Chair Paula Waters said: "Beer is marketed at men, and therefore there has been very little to interest women. When is the last time you saw any press or a TV advert for beer which is meant to attract women? At best they are inoffensively aimed at men and at worst they are downright patronising to women. More and more we see products that have been traditionally aimed at one gender - such as skincare products or cars - increasingly aimed at the other sex with great results. If breweries and pubs were to involve and educate women drinkers, then they could tap into a massive market and further the real ale revolution."

It might finally be time for women to start reclaiming the tradition they lost to men all those years ago.