Standing beside the man with the giant inflatable penis hat, beneath the poster that informed us that we – like computers – were useless unless turned on, It Comes In Pints decided to try and count how many other women we could see at the Great British Beer Festival, held between 13th and 17th August 2013 at London’s Kensington Olympia.
We didn’t get far before our conversation was swallowed up by a swollen roar that started spontaneously on one side of the cavernous hall and gathered voice as it rolled over the hundreds of taps serving Real Ale; the sound of hundreds and hundreds of men simultaneously – exuberantly – raising their branded glasses and roaring: “cheers!”
We can roar with the best of them – but it felt like our voices were lost in the cacophony.
Festival organisers Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) told us that men make up 80 per cent of their 150,000-strong membership. It looked to us like men made up more than 80 per cent of punters at the GBBF. But, as craft beer fledglings, we got to know beer in a world where a woman has been voted Beer Sommelier of the Year; where women brew beer, sell beer, talk beer, and drink beer.
What we found out about women and beer, over the course of that Saturday happily spent at the GBBF, blew us away. Scores of the young women we accosted admitted to crippling insecurities about beer drinking. They worried they didn’t know enough about it to be taken seriously. They worried what people (men) would think of them. So they stopped ordering beer. And as their stories about being snapped at by bar staff got lost beneath the background noise, we wondered – what can the beer industry do to attract more women?
For a start, it can stop giving space to vendors who trade in sexist posters and images. It was fairly pointed out to us that CAMRA has no affiliation with, nor condones the content of, merchandise traded at its event. But we’re pretty sure no one would get away with the racist equivalent of some of the posters we saw on sale, showing:
an overweight woman rendered skinny and borderline pornographic by an empty pint glass. Tag? “Warning: Alcohol seriously affects your judgement”
“What do computers and women have in common? Both are useless until they’re turned on.”
“If a man talks dirty to a woman, it’s sexual harassment. If a woman talks dirty to a man, it’s £1.95 a minute.”
Women at the event were greeted by a wall smothered in slogans telling us that we’re fundamentally useless; scheming opportunists; objects. Desirable unless you’re fat, in which case, men need to be warned to STAY AWAY, because DEAR GOD. As well as being wearily sexist, this poster also won the hypocrisy prize, given the number of larger men (the stereotypical beer drinker) crowded around the stall. You know what? It was intimidating, and women feel alienated by that kind of macho beer culture. It’s an alienation that self-perpetuates, because it subsequently takes a mighty effort for us to insist that we have as much natural right to our pint as a man.
We were overwhelmed by the number of women at the GBBF who told us they would never order a pint on a date. Between sips Emma, 25, told us she would never drink pints on a date – or at a work do. “I think it’s just laddy… it’s really male,” she said. She and her two girl friends were hiding from their boyfriends so they could enjoy their turkey drumsticks shame-free. We wondered what their boyfriends made of their beer drinking. “They think it’s really laddy,” Sarah told us. The boyfriends made a reappearance. “Tell them we’ve been eating salad,” she pleaded. On the other side of the hall Jess, 26, worried that ale wasn’t seen as particularly feminine. She wouldn’t order a beer on a first date, she said – and her friend Andy, 28, agreed that women might do so only to make a point. “You’re quite guarded on a first date,” he said. “What you drink shows something of you as a person. As a guy, I wouldn’t order a sherry. Ordering a beer is a statement – like ordering jagerbombs.”
Acquiring taste – or being criticised for their lack of it – was another concern of the women we spoke to. Hayley, 31, was still reeling from being snapped at by a barman because, she thought, she “didn’t know the lingo”. She told us that she wanted to do a beer course – to help her keep up with male drinkers. “I don’t know what’s good,” she said. “I think we’re all bullshitting a bit… but guys get away with it because they lie to each other. But girls can’t fake it because they’ll be like… she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. So I’m just trying to learn as I go along!” But all the women we spoke to knew what they liked and didn’t like – Emma told us she hated dark beer, Lizzy said she couldn’t stand beers that were marketed as “raspberry flavour” but weren’t; Jess said she preferred the taste of ale to lager. For women drinkers, shouldn’t preference alone be enough?
“If I was a girl and my boyfriend propositioned me to come to a beer festival I’d be like, no, I’m washing my hair,” Alex, 28, told us. “But if I was propositioned to go to a nice bar on the Thames – I might be drinking the same beer but in a different environment.” Similarly, Jess gave us food for thought by suggesting improving women’s experiences could be as simple as providing an array of drinking glasses – she doesn’t like the standard pint glass, but wouldn’t mind a wine-glass-shaped half, or a tall “Peroni”-style glass. Emma said if she did commit to a beer when socialising with work it would only be out of a bottle. Does a pint glass feel like a commitment to drinking a certain amount or is this just an image thing?
We got the sense that both men and women felt that beer was a bit rough and ready for delicate women-folk; the advertising and image a bit heavy-handed. Would we really prefer a “nice bar on the Thames” or smaller glasses to fit in our soft little hands? If image is so important to women, it was surprising how hostile those we spoke to were about the less traditional craft movement, with its halves and thirds and trendy bars. “I think [GBBF] is a bit more authentic. Craft beer is a bit Hackney, a bit East London, trying to be cool,” said Hayley. “It’s all about being seen rather than the beer.”
It was notable that the older festival goers we chatted to seemed less aware of the gender disparity, whereas younger drinkers confided their lack of confidence around beer and their concerns about how it would affect their image in front of men. It is all too easy for some to laugh off the posters and cock balloon hats. We are sure that for many women, it doesn’t stop them enjoying their pints. But it can take many years to develop this kind of self assurance. To hear young women so afraid by what men will think of them for buying a particular drink in a particular volume was kind of crushing for us. We think this is at the crux of the issue with sexism in the beer drinking world – it’s all to do with confidence, and too many women are having their wings clipped at a young age, while older drinkers shrug off their concerns as trivial.
Of course, we weren’t put off. We love beer, and it would take more than dull stereotype and sarcastic comments to phase us. And we must remember that women are not invisible in the beer-verse, by any means. Dea Latis, an organisation dedicated to promoting beer to women, states in its mission statement that “what unites us is our passion for beer and a belief that it’s far too good to be enjoyed only by men”. Women run tastings, run breweries, run beer blogs (ahem). The message is getting out… slowly.
We will definitely return to GBBF next year. But we hope that, when we do, some things will have changed: we hope there will be more women. Beer festivals should be a starting point, a place to jump in and develop your love of beer, not the end of the line. It’s time to take down the posters – and let the women roar.