AHU: Breaking into the Boys Club

How female brewers are looking to change the face of beer culture

graphic by sasha plotnikova

graphic by sasha plotnikova

Errol Morris, the Oscar-winning director of The Fog of War and The Thin Blue Line, is also the director of a lengthy campaign of commercials for Miller High Life extolling the virtues of being a man and enjoying a beer. Each spot has a 1950s air of male hegemony and revels in it, thick arms, hairy knuckles, and all. In one commercial, the gruff narrator asks a newlywed housewife standing before a supermarket beer cooler what kind of man she wants her husband to be. She chooses a High Life man, of course. Another asks a shirtless beer belly, “Is your name Sally? Sally, the salad-eater? No, you’re a High Life man and you don’t care who knows it.”

It’s not hard to admit that the prevailing undertones of the beer world are masculine ones. If we are to believe the dated notions that beer is the working class beverage and working class families are supported by a sole (male) breadwinner, then the brews in the fridge must be Dad’s, right? Wrong, says the growing number of women who drink, brew, advocate, and otherwise enjoy beer, and they want you to know it.

In honour of last Sunday, International Women’s Day, I propose a look into the crusade to eradicate gender discrepancies from beer. With goals ranging from the promotion of female presence in the brewing community to the eventual erasure of fratboy beer marketing, there are women upsetting the male-dominated breweries of North America.

Alyson Tomlin was drawn to beer after teaching others how to brew at a brew-on-premises store 11 years ago. But when she decided to pursue her love of beer in a career as a brewer, she was met with negative feedback. “I even had one old guy say, ‘You can’t brew; you’re a girl,'” says Tomlin. “Well, then I had to do it.”

Now, at 31, Tomlin is the operations manager at the R&B Brewing Company in Vancouver and one of the relatively few female brewers in Canada. Even though the staff of R&B is 50 per cent women and 50 per cent men, she still sees herself as “one of the guys.” Entrance into the “old boys club” of professional craft-brewing is difficult, Tomlin says, due in part to the physicality of brewing on small, manual systems. “When I was hired, my boss said, ‘If you can’t physically do it, we’re letting you go.’ I’m sure he doesn’t say that to guys.”

Such constraints hinder the development of a female presence in the brewing profession and reinforce the stereotype that women don’t know beer. For the record, Tomlin believes women make better beer drinkers with better palates, and I agree. Just take a look at the Pink Boots Society, which counts Tomlin among its members.

Started by Teri Fahrendorf in Portland, Oregon, the Pink Boots Society was “formed to inspire, encourage, and empower women to become professionals in the beer industry.” The society has members from all over the world but most successfully advocates for the recognition of female brewers in North America. “It’s a sisterhood,” says Tomlin, “It says we can do this and we worked our asses off to do it.”

At this year’s Craft Brewers Conference in Boston, the Pink Boots Society will participate in seminars on women in craft-brewing and women as a target audience for craft beer. If you want more evidence that the gender wall is breaking in the world of beer, just look locally: Laura Urtnowski co-owns and brews Boréale, Ellen Bounsall co-owns the McAuslan Brewery, and Jeannine Marois founded Montreal’s major beer festival, Le Mondial de la Bière. It may be a small community, but it’s growing fast.

With gender more equalized in the brewing world, perhaps a unified Canadian beer culture might more easily emerge. Tomlin is optimistic. “Maybe that’s the secret part about being a girl that the guys don’t see – the idea that if we work together, it’s going to benefit us all in the long run.”

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Filed under Brewers' Profiles, Commentary

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