While beer has traditionally been a man’s world, this is changing fast — women 25+ years now make up 16% of all beer purchases in the UK, and 25% in the US, but 37% when it comes to craft beer. As well as consuming more beer, they are also making a name for themselves within the industry. For the first time, the UK’s current Brewer of the Year is female — Sara Barton, founder of Brewster’s Brewery — and an increasing number of women are following her lead in setting up their own brewing companies.
On the 6th of July, we took over Juju’s Bar at the Old Truman Brewery to explore how the world of beer is changing for a growing female audience, to understand how we can accelerate this change, and to celebrate talented women that are carving out their own space in this male-dominated sector.
Bringing together a panel of talented women, from brewers to creatives, YCN’s Head of Insights Sheena Patel moderated a lively discussion on how the industry can become more representative of this changing gender balance, how brands must evolve the way they market their products (without resorting to pink-washing), and the role that both traditional advertising and digital media can play in growing the female beer market.
We were first pleased to welcome renowned beer sommelier and award-winning food and drink writer Melissa Cole, who has also authored a book Let Me Tell You About Beer — named after her popular blog of the same name. As well as sharing her own story of making it in the industry, she outlined some of the main issues women face in pursuing a career in the world of beer.
Next followed Brewster’s Brewery founder Sara Barton, on her experiences of setting up her own brewing company, and what she’s learnt along the way. Sara also discussed Project Venus, a network she set up, which brings together female brewers to collaborate and share ideas.
Pippa Morris, senior strategist at Mother, talked us through how attitudes towards beer and our understanding of its audience are changing, as well as sharing insights from the agency’s work for Stella Artois, and how the beer brands image has been transformed in recent years.
And finally, Lauren Pearson — Goose Island Beer Company’s Director of Operations — joined us all the way from Chicago. She discussed what it’s like to lead operations at the thriving US brewery, and gave her perspective into how the company, and the wider craft beer industry, is evolving to become more diverse and representative.
Here’s what we learnt.
A brewster is a female brewer
Medieval women who brewed beer at home were called brewsters, said Sara, explaining the source of her company’s name. “The irony is that women were the first brewers,” added Melissa, “but beer has become a gendered product that is largely aimed at men”.
There’s a misconception that women don’t like beer, preferring sweeter drinks like wines or gins. But gender has no bearing on your palate, agreed our panellists. “Women like the bitterness of rocket, espresso or bitter lemon,” Sara explained. It’s only social norms that limit what we think we like.
“Advertising, and the media more broadly, have been guilty of reinforcing laddy stereotypes about beer,” Pippa acknowledged. Pints have typically been seen as unfeminine, and beer was seen as being “boring, brown and bitter,” said Sara.
But now, a host of different factors are helping shift its image. The rise of craft beer means there are many more flavours and styles to try. Meanwhile the demise of the traditional pub has created new opportunities for women to drink beer, with Millennials tending to socialise more in mixed groups. Younger people are also drinking less, and savouring what they do drink much more.
These factors combine to create beer’s growing audience of women. Pippa’s research at Mother has shown that now 40% of women drink beer, and one in six beers bought in the UK is bought by a woman.
While beer advertising isn’t moving completely away from sports any time soon, brands are beginning to market their products in much more inclusive, gender-neutral ways, for instance by aligning more with food, art and culture.
A different flavour
Mother’s work for Stella Artois has seen them use premium cues to position the beer as a lifestyle brand. It’s part of a wider shift, with many brands and breweries starting to focus on pairing beer and food, creating new and more inclusive occasions for drinking.
A member of the audience also raised an interesting point: as well as still being considered unfeminine, beer is also still seen as unrefined. “There’s an element of classism at play in the way we perceive beer,” she said. You might still struggle to order it in a fine dining restaurant, and people aren’t willing to spend on beer in the same way that they are on, say, wine.
The panel all agreed that the potential for beer and food pairings is promising — for diners, chefs and brands.
Goose Island is partnering with a number of local Chicago chefs, to pair its beers with refined restaurant food. Here in the UK, Melissa and Sara work with high-end restaurants to choose beers to match their menus.
Inside and out
As well as thinking about the way beer brands market their products to consumers, it’s also important to address the challenges faced by women working within the industry.
Goose Island cultivates an inclusive, collaborative culture, explained Lauren, and 50% of its senior leadership team are women.
It’s important to call out the ‘bro’ culture that you often find in breweries, said Melissa, and in an industry that often rewards relationships, that can be particularly challenging. Instead, Lauren argued, management should recognise performance and achievement, to ensure everyone is able to advance.
Putting formal structures in place can also help address the issue of underrepresentation. For example, both Sierra Nevada and New Belgium breweries have established on-site childcare facilities, to accommodate staff with families. “Especially if you are a big company,” said Melissa, “you should shell out to support your staff.”
Whether you’re a woman, a person of colour, or identify as LGBTQ, it’s important to have role models in the industry that you can look to for advice and inspiration. To that end, Sara has established Project Venus, a network for women working in beer. They launch unbranded brewing collaborations to experiment and test their skills, and share commercial advice or production tips.