tl;dr The brewing industry continues to be sexist and it makes me sad. Title shamelessly plagiarized.
I’ve spent about a decade-and-a-half writing about the history of alcohol, generally from the perspective of the early modern transatlantic trade, and the transfer of cultural drinking traditions, as well as commerce in types of alcohol. I’ve been brewing beer, both as a homebrewer and occasional collaborator with professionals, for around 30 years. I’ve work with brewers and distillers on various projects, and started and run a university brewing program that oversaw the commercial production of a pretty decent beer. Students of mine (including women students) have served in internships as diverse as a brewer’s assistant to a quality control sensory analyst in a well-known bourbon distillery. Fair to say that while I am not in the industry, I do work closely with it.
So, stories of sexism and racism in the industry are not exactly new. And, unfortunately, not surprising. The craft beer culture that began in the 1970s but really grew up in the 1990s was very much a male-dominated thing, despite the craft of brewing having been an overwhelmingly woman-dominated field up through the 1300s (in the European “west”). The craft beer industry of the 1990s was a “bro” culture even at the most enlightened of breweries. The kind of casual sexism that goes on in so many workplaces (the off-color jokes, the posters and calendars, etc) found an “acceptable outlet” in beer advertising, which had long utilized images of scantily-clad women to sell its product. (There have been some notable, and pointed attempts to highlight this. Heineken was one such effort..)
By the 2000s, women had begun to enter the craft side of the industry in greater numbers, drawn by the same things men were—the craft, the artistry, the simple enjoyment of beer. But despite an outward acceptance by men, they faced hurdles. That is, there was very little outward talk of “this is a man’s job.” Rather the crude, sexist atmosphere in many breweries pushed them away or made their lives very hard. The first intern I ever sent out went to a tiny brewery on the east coast, run by a male friend of mine. He and I spoke extensively about “atmosphere” and expectations. He understood the “none of that shit” that I wanted, and she understood that being a brewery assistant mostly meant shit work cleaning the inside of boilers and fermenters. She reported a good experience, but even so it wasn’t without its moments. Again, crude jokes, light supposedly “good natured” teasing of a women in the brewery, and so forth.
In the 2000s women had also begun to organize. If you aren’t familiar with the Pink Boots Society, you should be. It’s a great organization dedicated to helping women succeed in the industry. (Interestingly, when a woman colleague tried to start a similar organization for distillers in the mid 2010s there was less-than-zero interest. Several prominent women distillers told her “I suffered through a lot of sexism in this industry, younger women have to learn the same lessons.” wtf)
Women had also begun to gain recognition. Kim Jordan at New Belgium might be the most famous example in craft brewing, but Jill Vaughn had been a brewmaster at Budweiser since the early 1990s and Patricia Henry was the first African-American women to run a major brewery (btw, I can change your mind that Coors and Coors Light are high-quality finely-crafted beers. That I don’t like the latter doesn’t change that). Over in England, my personal hero is Sara Barton, co-owner of Brewster’s Brewing in Gratham, Lincs. Aside from being a simply fantastic brewer, Sara has made it her personal mission to help women brewers in the UK, and her various series’ of women-themed beers are as interested as they are tasty. (Wicked Women in the 2010s was her first series, and she let my women students write the back story for the cans for a couple of them).
By the 2010s, it seemed, the industry had become only slightly more sensitive to problems of sexism in the breweries. Certainly not so sensitive as to be intolerant of breweries like Big Beaver Brewing which is about as disgusting a place as one can imagine. But the big brewers, one would hope, had become more sensitive, if only for marketing reasons. Or not, as this list of sexist labels shows.
Still, the #metoo movement helped. In England the Society of Independent Brewers in 2018 drew up guidelines to outlaw offensive marketing.
That’s why it was so, so disappointing to see the news from Cantillon Brewing in 2019. If you don’t know Cantillon, it’s a Belgian brewery located in Brussels that is legendary worldwide for its sour beers. Limited runs, finely crafted beers, an artistry combined with a deep knowledge of how yeasts work all work together to produce beers that are so highly regarded that people travel from around the world to have a beer onsite. Their yeast management, working on an “open fermentation” process, is so careful that when they opened a second brewery a decade or so ago, they brewed a batch of one of their red lambics and used it to fumigate the new brewery in order to have the correct yeasts in the atmosphere and “seed” the woodwork.
Every year Cantillon holds a Zwanze release party for one of its beers. It’s a huge party, attracting people from around the world. In 2018 Cantillon co-hosted it at Moeder Lambic and for whatever reason decided to open the festivities with a decidedly inappropriate burlesque show. You can read a write-up here, which is incidentally where I stole the most excellent article title. I hadn’t heard about the thing with Cantillon until today, for reasons not entirely clear to me. The US industry conference I usually attend was cancelled in 2020, but that’s US-focused and in 2019 there wasn’t any talk of it. A beer tweeter I sometimes see had it in the feed today, and the various beer tweeters are trying to highlight industry sexism this week.
It’s heavy lifting. The ongoing sexism is supported in a number of ways, tacit and less so. Nobody is calling out Big Beaver, and as the linked “Male Gueuze” article notes, attempts to call out places like Acoustic Ales in San Diego are met with derision. Just browse the comments.
I don’t really have a larger point here, to be honest. And this went on way longer than I intended. I don’t tweet, though I keep an eye on some feeds. I wanted to also highlight sexism in an industry about which I care deeply, and this seemed like a good place. This piece was also probably more therapeutic than anything. As someone who teaches the history of alcohol and sends students into the industry, I feel like the effort has to come at all levels, not just on the brewery floor or in the advertising room (though in small craft breweries these are one and the same). I also know that the history of the industry is one in which women were pushed out as soon as it became a profitable industry rather than a household chore that brought in extra income.
So, I suppose it should be any surprise that an industry literally founded on misogyny continues to have problems (including racism, and not just in the US). I’m just sad that the list of really excellent breweries at which I will no longer spend money continues to grow.