Here’s a fact: Women ages 21 to 34 are one of craft beer’s strongest groups of supporters. While women enjoying beer is no new thing, one beer festival in Britain aims to put a spotlight on women who are actually doing the brewing within the industry.
FEM.ALE is a “brewster” (the medieval term for a female brewer) beer festival that takes place at the Plasterers Arms pub in Norwich, England for four days in May. During the festival—which features panels of female experts talking about the history of beer and women, as well as gender issues within the industry—all 15 gravity taps at the pub are dedicated to beer brewed by females. Then there’s the Meet the Brewster beer tastings, where festival-goers get to chat up the female master brewers themselves and learn what goes into making their beers.
We caught up with Erica Horton, who runs the FEM.ALE Festival, to pick her brain about women brewers and beer-loving ladies in the UK.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Give us a bit of history on women and beer in the U.K.
It was always women in pre-industrial England that would brew the beer for the local community. While men tended to work the farmland, women would take care of a lot of the processing of crops and food preparation back on the farm, such as baking bread and brewing beer. It was only when beer production became more mechanized in the context of industrialization and monetization that men took over the process.
Often in agricultural England, there would be a particular brewster who would make beer for the whole community and there were certain traditional ales that these women would brew for special occasions. When a couple in a village announced their engagement, the brewster would start brewing a very strong ale for the couple to serve at the wedding. Those who were local and part of the couple’s community would drink at the wedding for free, and anyone from out of town would have to pay to partake in drinking the ale as part of the celebrations. The money made from the ‘bride’s ale’ would become her dowry—this is where, it’s alleged, the word ‘bridal’ comes from (bride ale).
So if anything, it’s quite comical that brewing beer is sometimes seen as this butch, masculine space where only men can nerd off with one another, when the physical process and development of recipes in brewing beer was always a woman’s job (before money become involved). And that’s why it’s great to see women forming so many exciting networks in the beer industry and reinstating their significance in a practice where they had been so completely central in the past.
Why did you make it your mission to put a spotlight on female brewers?
The reason I wanted to start up the FEM.ALE Festival was that amongst the thirty or so breweries we have here in Norfolk, only one was headed up by a female master brewer. So for the annual Norwich City of Ale Festival, which aims to celebrate Norfolk breweries and pubs, only having one brewery supplying beer brewed by a woman seemed to play into the stereotype that beer is a drink made by men for men. Myself and the landlord at the Plasterers Arms pub in Norwich, Benjamin Thompson, decided to create a home for brewsters (female brewers) at this festival, and so we sourced beer brewed by women from all over the UK to challenge the idea that female brewers just aren’t out there.
Women are producing such fantastically diverse and delicious beers that it’s great to be able to showcase them all in the same place and to shake off the assumption that it’s only men that get their hands dirty in the brewing process, or that only men are passionate enough about beer to create new recipes and experiment with traditions.
Are there specific jobs in the beer industry that women tend to occupy—or is it pretty consistent across the board?
What was great about talking to Ben [Thompson] about the idea for the festival was that he was already bringing beer in from female brewers across the country. The more we invested in the idea, the more brewster breweries we found. So, while female brewers are fewer and farther between than male brewers, it’s just been the case that we have to work a little harder to bring their beer together in one place. Women are absolutely at the heart of some of the most exciting product being made, but like a lot of industries where there’s an assumption that women tend not to do certain types of work, you just have to work a little harder to find them.
SheWolf illustration by artist Kat Fish for FEM.ALE
How are women beer drinkers marketed to in the UK?
Similar to America, a lot of beer ads here in the UK assume that beer drinkers are (heterosexual) males, and also sexist at that. Beer companies generally use images of men to describe the drinkers—and if women appear at all, we’re used as accessories to the surroundings.
A big problem for me when buying a traditional ale is the way women are used on some pump clips to describe the beer. For instance, a blonde beer might have a buxom blonde on the clip or a red beer might be called ‘redhead’ so that the beer itself becomes synonymous with a woman—so you get the impression that you’re buying a woman along with your beer. For me this feels again like women are being commodified alongside the beer itself and I find that totally alienating as a beer drinker. As a straight woman, this doesn’t appeal to me and I know it also alienates my gay female friends and my male friends who drink beer too, because they just don’t want to see women being objectified or to be patronized as a consumer by such sexist imagery.
But I think this is less of a problem with the more American-style craft ales that are enjoying a boom here in Britain and influencing what some British breweries are bringing out. These beers are aimed at younger drinkers and tend to side step this kind of sexist advertising which is great. I’m just hoping that the more traditional brewers iron it out all together too.
What stereotypes have you encountered as a woman who enjoys beer?
When I tell people I run a beer festival where all the beer is brewed by women, people are sometimes surprised, firstly, that I care about beer enough—or know about it enough—to run a beer festival at all. And secondly, that there are enough women in the industry to power a whole festival. And this is based on the pervasive assumption that beer is made by men for other men. And that’s the point of the festival entirely, to challenge that assumption.
Here in Norfolk, real ale is such a pub staple that I rarely get a funny look actually ordering the stuff. Most of my female friends will drink beer either as their first choice or we’ll go to one of the many pubs known for serving a range of great ales if they fancy a night on the hoppy stuff. There are still stereotypes about ale, that it’s too bitter for the female palate or that it’s fattening and so puts body conscious women off. But it’s easy to forget about those stereotypes in pubs in Norfolk where you can enjoy such a vast range of flavours, strengths and varieties.
What advice would you give someone (male or female) who is just getting into beer?
See if any breweries near you offer tours so you can see how the beer is made and the ingredients that go into it. It’s a fascinating process and you’ll get to try a range of the beer produced there. If there’s one thing brewers—female or male—love doing, it’s talking about beer, so ask lots of questions. The more you know, the more confident you’ll feel picking a beer that suits your taste.
Go to a great pub, ask questions, and try different things. If you don’t like an IPA, you might like a stout; if you don’t like a stout, try a saison. If that’s not for you, maybe a dark bitter will be to your taste, or a light honey ale. If you’re not big on getting drunk, ask what’s on that’s under 4%. If you want something short and strong, try a third or half of a healthy Belgium brew—big on flavor and big on booze. Personally, I first fell in love with a beer by Hopback Brewery called Summer Lightning, fairly strong for an ale at 5%, but full of grapefruit-y flavor and citrus hops that was completely different to the assumption I had growing up that beer was flat, dark, watery, and feety.
A good ale pub will offer a sample of a couple of beers before you buy a pint, not just to see if you like the flavors, but so you can check its fresh enough for your taste. If you think something’s a bit off, have the courage to say it ain’t right and ask to try something else. Be fussy, it’s your pint! Enjoy it.
What are other exciting brewster and female beer-nerd events to look out for?
There’s lots of exciting networks of female brewers, such as Project Venus here in the UK, where brewsters meet up to brew special recipes and collaborate on ideas they’ve had while running their own breweries. On International Women’s Day last year, Sophie De Rhonde, then working at Brentwood Brewery in Essex, organized an international brew day where women all over the world brewed Unite Pale Ale, all to a similar recipe, to celebrate and further establish women supporting each other in the beer industry. And I know there are similar networks in America too like the Pink Boots Society.