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Thinking outside the keg

The new beer drinker is a woman, writes Carly Lewis, one who’s ready to punish big brands for historical machismo. Savvy female drinkers prefer craft brew, especially at a new crop of parties where ladies come first

Laura MacDonald, left, and Yvonne Gettins try one of the local brews available at an event put on by the Society of Beer Drinking Ladies in Toronto, Sept. 30.

Laura MacDonald, left, and Yvonne Gettins try one of the local brews available at an event put on by the Society of Beer Drinking Ladies in Toronto, Sept. 30.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

A friend and I knock two plastic cups together and swig back fancifully named pale ales as the lingering sense that I’ve misplaced something wanes. Standing in the thick of more than 300 people, at a party louder than a football game, I realize what is absent from my Friday evening: men. I am – perhaps for the first time ever – experiencing an environment where imbibing is the aim, but men are not a factor.

The two of us had trekked to a west-end Toronto banquet hall for the monthly “bevy” thrown by the Society of Beer Drinking Ladies. Although men are not permitted at the event until midnight, there was nothing that overtly suggested sisterhood or feminism or misandry. Erica Campbell, a co-founder of the nearly three-year-old group, says that the society’s origin was not particularly radical. “It was never meant to be an educational event,” she says. “Women know a lot about beer already. It was really just about hanging out on a Friday night, meeting new friends and having a good time.”

Dividing nightlife patrons by gender is not a new concept. In 1945, during post-Second World War victory celebrations, hundreds of Winnipeg women stormed the city’s beverage rooms to demand they be allowed service: Some were, but only for a night. In Ontario, many bars had separate quarters for “ladies and escorts” as late as the early 1980s.

But today, it’s women and non-binary folks creating their own spaces to drink, essentially removing masculinity from beer’s time-honoured culture of machismo – and marketers are taking notice. “The sense of propriety for women to not become intoxicated is now seen as something to go against,” says Wendy Hein, a marketing professor at the University of London. “There’s almost an act of resistance in getting drunk.”

The SOBDL, which is clear about being trans and non-binary inclusive, is one of a handful of like-minded beer groups that have formed alongside the modern craft-beer boom. The Pink Boots Society, with chapters in Canada, Australia and the United States, hosts a multicity International Women’s Day event each March, and offers apprenticeships and scholarships to aspiring women beer sommeliers.

There’s also Barley’s Angels, which has chapters internationally, Vancouver’s Beer Birds (“We drink like girls” is its slogan), Birmingham, Ala.’s “craft-beer education club” Hops for Honeys and the Crafty Ladies in Denver, Colo. According to a 2015 Yankelovich Monitor survey, 26 per cent of women are regular craft-beer drinkers. Industry analysts expect this figure to rise to 40 per cent by year’s end.

The notion of gender-based socializing may seem counterproductive to some. As one female beer-industry professional put it to me, “The road to [sexism] never being a thing is not making it a topic of constant discussion.”

But the dangers of drinking as a woman are all too pervasive. It was only last year that Bud Light’s #UpForWhatever campaign offered consumers “the perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.” Colt 45’s long-time slogan is still – somehow – “Works every time.” The Ontario government recently announced a $1.7-million initiative called “It’s Never Okay,” intended to teach bar and restaurant staff how to intervene in cases of sexual harassment and assault (including date rape).

Upon entry, SOBDL bevy attendees are given a menu containing nearly 20 different craft beers, with boxes to check off once each beer has been sampled. Part of the excitement comes from trying as many as possible, a challenge that will inevitably result in hundreds of strangers being drunk in the same place. “It’s really great to be able to go somewhere and feel safe, and get drunk and not worry about some creepy dude coming around trying to bother you,” says Mimi Bolanos, 28, who attended the bevy last month. “I like that it’s all women.”

Bartenders Faith McGregor, left, and Katie Brunke serve customers at an event put on by the Society of Beer Drinking Ladies in Toronto on Sept. 30.

Bartenders Faith McGregor, left, and Katie Brunke serve customers at an event put on by the Society of Beer Drinking Ladies in Toronto on Sept. 30.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Just recently, I had a night out tarnished by a stranger who became increasingly furious, frighteningly so, that my friends and I were uncharmed by his Jim Beam breath and uninvited touching. It was uncomfortable, and yet it was the norm. The SOBDL aims to liberate patrons from such harassment.

“I think it comes down to the fact that alcohol is almost always marketed toward men, featuring women as objects,” says Darshana Sen, 28, who regularly attends and volunteers for SOBDL events. “It’s nice to walk into a space that automatically feels inclusive.”

After steadfastly using images of servile women while enforcing prejudices that stigmatized the very idea of a woman drinking alcohol, major beer marketers have belatedly recognized women as a robust spending demographic. As of 2014, women comprised just 20 per cent of the world’s beer-drinking population, according to Gallup’s annual Consumption Habits study. Meanwhile, North American alcohol consumers are drinking around 30 per cent less beer than they did a decade ago, according to multinational brewing giant SABMiller.

In a bid to capture that unrealized profit potential, many big beer brands have tried gender-neutralizing their advertising and introducing “moderation” categories – low-percentage, lower-calorie beers often made sweeter by the addition of fruit – to attract non-male drinkers. The results are usually embarrassing. In 2011, Molson Coors introduced a “bloat resistant” beer in Britain. Called Animée (from the French word for “motivated”), it contained 4 per cent alcohol and entered the market with Toni & Guy (a hairdressing brand) partnership.

As if the fantasy of not being bloated while enjoying a good hair day weren’t enough, Molson Coors went the extra mile and made Animée pink. It was discontinued after one year.

This is where craft breweries come in. Craft breweries not only market to women, they employ them, too. In 2014, a Stanford University study found that 21 per cent of American craft breweries had at least one woman employed in a top position, such as CEO. That number is expected to climb.

Carmen Vicente, communications manager and former brewer at Toronto’s Bellwoods Brewery, got her start in beer when the brewery opened five years ago. “My experience of the craft-beer industry has not been particularly male-dominated,” she says. “I think this could have something to do with the fact that we’re a fairly new company. If we were a 20-year-old brewery, I would probably have a slightly different feeling than that.”

Craft beer benefits from not having the same alienating legacy of sexist advertising as big beer brands, meaning consumers can shop for beer without associating the brand with past missteps. Labels tend to be artfully, inoffensively illustrated in a style that resembles indie-music concert posters. (Bellwoods works with Doublenaut, a Toronto agency which has also designed for the Polaris Music Prize, the record label Arts & Crafts, The New Yorker and Penguin Canada.)

“As a whole, I think the craft-beer industry is better, but it’s not in the clear yet,” says Eric Portelance, a co-founder of Toronto’s Halo Brewery (where the creative director is a woman). Another reason that events like the SOBDL’s are well-attended (its 700-patron capacity craft-beer festival on Nov. 5 is already sold out) is the freedom from condescension that Portelance says he has witnessed toward women brewers at beer events. “People will talk down to them or assume they don’t know what they’re talking about, when in fact they made the beer in question,” he says.

Portelance notes that “there’s still a level of boyish immaturity in some of the beer and brewery names.” Indeed, the logo of Surrey, B.C., craft-beer brand Red Racer features a woman riding a bike with her skirt blowing up. Toronto’s Shillow Beer Co. sells a beer called Bitter Waitress.

Hein, whose work focuses on men and masculinities in marketing, cautions that one must remain skeptical when capitalism offers purchasable progress. “It’s not that women weren’t empowered before,” she says.”It’s that the market is now recognizing them as worthwhile.”

In other words, the revolution will not be sipped from a plastic Solo cup. But pink beer is dead, and that’s worth a toast.


Sheridan Mohammed is an aspiring brewer in Vancouver.

Sheridan Mohammed is an aspiring brewer in Vancouver.

Q&A: How can craft beer become more inclusive?

Sheridan Mohammed, a brewer’s assistant with Lightheart Brewing Co. in East Vancouver, is an aspiring brewer and has been “in pursuit of all things craft beer for over 20 years.”

What do you think has been the biggest change in craft beer since you started being involved in the scene?

The biggest change has been the amount of people that are now involved and aware of the craft-beer industry. The scene grew really fast with craft breweries opening up down the West Coast of North America and then across Canada, and it is actually still growing at a very fast rate. As a result, we seem to have much more knowledgeable consumers today.

What’s the most exciting thing about today’s craft-beer scene?

There is a lot of collaboration happening between brewers as well as with other businesses in the community and I think it’s helping small businesses grow and helping to bring communities together.

Has the scene become more inclusive for women?

Yeah, I see more and more women getting their craft on nowadays. When I was younger, it was definitely skewed way more to men in terms of the ratios in craft-beer bars. It hasn’t changed a ton, but I do see more breweries attempting to make more approachable styles that can invite new fans into the world of craft beer. The recent trend of radlers, for example [combining fruit juices with beer], probably helped introduce more people to craft beer, and perhaps more women.

Women are still pretty underrepresented in actual brewing though. Perhaps because it can be a very physically demanding, messy and repetitive process and it’s not for every woman. That said, there are women who love it and they make amazing beer and, in my opinion, they bring something unique to the way they run brewhouses. I think we’re only going to see more and more women getting involved in home brewing, working in brewhouses and becoming brewers themselves.

As a woman of colour, why do you think the craft-beer scene is so white?

Canada’s craft-beer scene is very inclusive and I actually think the West Coast scene is even a bit more progressive. Having said that, there is of course a general “whiteness” within the brewing industry.

It’s likely just a lasting result of North America being colonized. I mean, the people who traditionally had knowledge of how to brew beer came from abroad and the grains used to brew beer were likely farmed by white Europeans.

What do you think could be done to make craft beer more inclusive?

I think if federal and provincial funding was used to develop more educational programs around the art of brewing, craft beer could become more inclusive.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Ben Johnson, Special to The Globe and Mail

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