FEM.ALE Brewster Beer Festivals: Gender Politics in Craft Work in the Modern Brewing Industry

Back in July I was able to attend the International Association for Media and Communication Research at the University of Leicester and sit in on the Beer & the British event hosted by Sam Goodman, Dan Jackson, Darren Lilleker, Einar Thorsen and Anna Feigenbaum. A busy auditorium listened to Sam’s research on the relationship between beer culture and colonial writing and the romanticised, nostalgic echoes of colonial exploration in some contemporary British beer branding, as well as tasting a delightful selection of beers in traditional and more innovative new styles of brewing. It was wonderful to hear the lively debates emerging and listen to the sharing of beer knowledge, both from a critical academic perspective as well as a more colloquial historical context.

As various narratives of beer development emerged during Sam’s interactive presentation, beer’s exportation and its introduction as a British product to cultures internationally were discussed (more and more energetically as the beer tasting proceeded) representations of gender in these stories and in contemporary marketing peppered the discussion. While the representation of women in the texts from Sam’s area of study is constructed mostly from the absence of female voices, as is the difficulty in tracking the histories of women and other oppressed peoples across subjects of historical investigation, if we look further back into pre-colonial, pre-industrial agricultural beer development in the UK, and internationally, we know that brewing beer was largely a female occupation. Brewing beer, prior to its industrialisation and monetisation, came under the jobs of processing food and drinks for families and broader communities that were delineated to women; baking bread, brewing beer, preserving, preparing and cooking food, etc. While it’s not surprising that when the practice became monetised it became a male-led occupation, now that the modern British beer market has embraced the notion of ‘craft’ beer and a level of transparency to the production process and discourses of the entrepreneurial spirit of making your hobby your business, how come the history of women as the first small batch brewers is nowhere to be seen?

fem-ale-hopscolour

While I was in attendance as a researcher in media and communications, having just graduated with my PhD from the Film and Television Studies Department at the University of East Anglia, my interest and activism in beer has largely been recreational: for the last three years I’ve been running FEM.ALE Brewster Beer Festivals, where we showcase beer brewed exclusively by women (http://fem.ale-festival.co.uk/). Based in the Plasterers Arms in Norwich city centre we’ve held three festivals here in The Fine City, as well as working with music festivals, curating bars and running other smaller scale events. This year we expanded and in May took our show on the road to Brighton where we ran a festival at the Marlborough Pub and Theatre during Brighton Fringe. As well as celebrating the diversity and variety of beers available from female-led brew teams, we also showcase female musical talent at our events, run ‘meet the Brewster’ beer tastings, beer and food matchings and invite female beer experts and brewers to discuss women and beer and their experiences as women in a male dominated industry.

Through running these festivals and making connections with both producers and consumers of beer, I’ve come across various projects and initiatives that aim to introduce more women to beer and break down the stereotype that beer is a drink primarily for men. Dea Latis, for instance, who we welcomed to our first festival as hosts of a Beers with Breakfast event of a six course beer and food matching (oof), are a group of female beer fans who carry the slogan ‘Bringing Beer to Women’ as it’s ‘too good to be enjoyed by only men!’. Various articles have cropped up in mainstream press about how the beer industry tries and fails to reach female consumers who more often opt for a spirit and mixer or a glass of wine. But while these articles report significant disparity on a national scale between the numbers of men and women choosing beer, where we reside in Norfolk a woman ordering a pint of beer is no shocking sight. There are so many great pubs, local breweries and ale houses with ever changing selections of beer that a pint is a trusty order for any drinker in these parts – and that’s why we wanted to focus on the craft of making beer itself rather than redressing a gender imbalance at the point of consumption. Women identifying more with a product because it’s made by women and therefore being more likely to choose it may well be a happy repercussion but our focus is on where women appear in the brewing industry, specifically as the creators, designers and producers of beer, particularly in the shift in beer talk from ‘traditional real ale’ to ‘American-style craft beer’.

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There has been some attention to the unfortunate tradition of using objectifying, fetishized images of women to sell beer, equating women to the product that is for sale with blonde beers getting names like Easy Blonde and Blonde Bombshell and the pub in the Houses of Parliament famously serving a beer called ‘Top Totty’ (see http://pumpclipparade.co.uk/tag/sexism/ for a depressing array). Male gaze is an understatement in this particular practice. The aggressive marketing of big brand lagers towards male consumers and the preconception that ale is an inherently ‘old man’ drink for the male dominated space of the British pub is not a new issue for the brewing industry.

And while we see a problematic approach to gender in terms of its branding and the ways in which this positions the beer consumer, the beer industry – particularly the real ale and craft beer sector – continues to have a massive imbalance in its workforce. In Norfolk, out of the 35 or so small breweries, only one was headed up by a woman, Jo Coubrough at Jo C’s Norfolk Ales, until recently when Belinda Jennings made the move from Adnams in Suffolk to be Head Brewer at Woodforde’s in Norfolk (we like to point out that this means since FEM.ALE began in 2012, the number of women-led breweries in Norfolk has doubled…).

My interest in terms of research, developing in conversation with my colleagues Victoria Cann and Helen Warner at UEA, is not limited to the underrepresentation of women in the craft beer workforce, as there are so many industries wherein women make up a very small number of those working in the most lucrative, creative or most celebrated jobs. I wish to examine the specificities of beer as a craft industry: in an economic condition that is seeing more and more women retreating from stable employment and conventional workspaces (as stability becomes an increasing misnomer) into craft-based self employment, why is craft beer brewing still so overwhelmingly (perceived as) a male profession?

Women are, as they’ve always been, at the forefront of brewing, designing and experimenting with the most exciting new technologies and recipes in the modern industry and it’s a pleasure to bring so many wonderful beers from these craftswomen to one place for each festival. Join us for a tipple next year to celebrate how the strength of this diversifying labour force is being reflected in an ever increasing range of creative and nuanced beers for us all to enjoy. Cheers!

Erica Horton, University of East Anglia, FEM.ALE (http://fem.ale-festival.co.uk/).

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2 comments

  1. ntcott · December 21

    What an interesting read. Sorry I am a few months late in reading this. I have recently become interested in craft beer and would love to learn about how to make my own. It’s such an exciting concept, bringing beer to women. It seems that for alcohol, just as with everything from haircuts to underwear, we pay a premium for the ‘privilege’ of being female. So I think getting involved in this industry has exciting potential as a feminist act. I admire your initiatives greatly and hope to come next year to FemAle.
    I’ve always enjoyed a pint but it’s only in the last year or so that I’ve really thought about the fact that every pound I spend is a vote for that company and asked myself the question – who is profiting here? Do I agree with their principles? Am I fuelling environmental disaster, abuse of animals, workers, etc? (My Ethical Consumer magazine was the best thing I ever did, in that respect, but I haven’t research beer companies on there yet). I’m not business-minded in that I work in the public sector and don’t want to follow a capitalist model that puts profits before people. But I am keen to learn about businesses that are co-operatively owned (I was at the Ivy House put in Peckham recently, fabulous) and active in trying to change the world (like Lush).
    But I’m drawn to this particularly as it’s something I have never considered as a possibility, probably due to internalised sexism clouding my own world view. I was reading last night about the medieval ‘alewives’ and was fascinated to learn that brewing was primarily a female occupation, traditionally. As you rightly ask, where has that heritage gone?
    I’m not sure if I will actually enjoy the process of brewing, when I try it (hopefully next month), or if I am more interested intellectually in pursuing this possibility. I may well start a new blog to document this journey. Thanks for your fascinating post. I wonder if you have any advice for me? Thanks, Nat

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  2. SG · December 22

    Hi Nat,

    Thanks for getting in touch, and glad you enjoyed Erica’s blog! I’ll leave it to her to comment on FEM.ALE, but in terms of where all the women in brewing went, in my period of research (c.1800-1940s) and context I would argue that they were victims of the general move towards industrialisation and professionalisation that characterises the C. 19th. The local brewhouses were often swallowed up by the expanding bigger breweries, such as Bass, Burton’s etc, and brewing itself becomes more ‘scientific’ and male-dominated, at least on a regional and national scale (I would likely say the same for the medical profession, for instance, which eased out women in favour of men until that late C.19th). Of course, I imagine that there were still plenty of alewives continuing to brew in their own communities, but whether they left any record of their activities is another matter.

    Good luck with your own brewing! I don’t brew, so can’t offer advice, but I have always found that craft brewers are very happy to talk techniques if you were to contact them. Do keep in touch and let us know how it goes though, either through the site or on Twitter (@drsamgoodman), and all the best at xmas!

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