Beer festivals: it’s time to make space for women

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.”

Charming.

Charming.

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.

D - not scared of pints!

D – not scared of pints!

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.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this story, either in the comments below on on our Twitter or Facebook pages.

– ED

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9 thoughts on “Beer festivals: it’s time to make space for women

  1. Pingback: Craft Beer Rising 2014 | It Comes In Pints?

  2. Emma

    Bit late reading this post, just coming here after reading your CBR post.
    Wow. I feel so angry on behalf any women who would be put off from drinking beer on a date or going to a beer festival because men serving them were unhelpful to them or because they were worried about what men would think of them per se.
    I was always encouraged (by my dad) to not care what anyone thought how I dressed or what I did. So the idea that I would be put off buying a pint because some blokes disapproved or thought less of me for it is hilarious to me. I’ve had plenty of Slaughtered Lamb-esque ‘you’re not local!’ experiences upon entering an old man type pub and ordering a pint, as the only woman in the room. I’ve had whole rooms of men turn and gawp because I didn’t fit into their stereotypical idea of people who are allowed to drink beer. Drinking beer by the pint was so ingrained in me (as a response to male bar staff querying if I was sure I REALLY meant to order a pint instead of a half) that it’s only in the past few years I’ve managed to stop ordering them out of habit. I hardly ever drink pints now. We’re lucky to have incredible choice of great beer in London and I’d rather try six different beers in halves than three in pints.
    So, yeah, I think I kind of auto-tune out some of this behaviour these days. Maybe ten years ago I took it as a challenge if anyone gave me attitude about drinking beer. But now it’s just so fucking tedious I just cannot be arsed to interact with men about that kind of thing any more.
    Also, I’m cross that women would feel inadequate for not being a beer expert when they order beer. As if all men who drink beer are beer experts! Anyway the onus is on the person serving the beer to be the expert, not the customer!

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Great British Beer Festival 2013 – festival report | It Comes In Pints?

  4. Jess Fox

    I just came across this article when googling Camden Ink, Camden Town Brewery (just had one tonight; nice, strong!) I’ve been drinking Beer, Cider, Ale, etc, for years & never felt any anxiety like that mentioned above re; what men think, or whatever! I love trying new things & I’ve tried all sorts of beers, including full flavoured craft beers/ales & Organic Brands like Freedom! I’m not that fussy! But I have only occasionally tried something I didn’t like or wasn’t quite what I’m used to enjoying, so I guess I have a discerning palette a little bit when it comes to Cider, for example– I think I prefer sparkling/sweet to very dry, or such like. I don’t like something that’s too watery either, in terms of beer/ale-I like full flavoured hoppy’ beers; tried bI eers at a little tour of Clarkshaws of Peckham Rye & that was really good! I’ve had a dense Chocolate Stout from Pitfields; a half was enough, just right! 🙂 On reading some of the non sense mentioned above, I’m starting to think I must be some kind of expert then when it comes to my years of Pint drinking experience & my confidence therein– I’ve never had anyone take the piss! Yeah, sometimes I’ve just had a half or whatever, but when I do ‘drink,’ I like to enjoy & taste what I drink– I have a giggle & a laugh! Unlike bingers, my limit is about 3 pints!; ok, I have gone to 4 pints, sometimes! Anyway–here’s to women drinking whatever they ruddy well fancy drinking! Here’s to great flavours & good times! 🙂

    Reply
    1. icipints Post author

      Good for you, Jess! We’re glad you enjoyed the post and that you are so into your beers and ciders. Will you be representing women drinkers at GBBF this August?

      Do give us a follow on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date with new posts. Cheers! Pip & Liz

      Reply
  5. Pingback: ICIP revs up for GBBF 2014 | It Comes In Pints?

  6. Pingback: Great British Beer Festival 2014 – festival report | It Comes In Pints?

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  8. thenoisethatwemade

    Ey up. Shame people still feel alienated.
    I’ve also thought if you really like something doesn’t matter what other’s think. Just go for it. I used to work at a brewery & the industry is mixed men & women (prob more men in certain areas but then it swings the other way depending on department).
    It’s just like any job really where u have to make your point & stand your ground & do a good days work.

    Maybe it’s a regional thing too as loads of women in the North drink beer from my experience.

    From what I see in the fresh crop of indie breweries there’s definitely more mix in the work force & maybe due to this beer is marketed with a focus on the beer – ingredients, how it’s been made rather than ‘to’ a market sector. As this appeals to everyone.

    Indy Beer Man festival & Birmingham Beer Bash I would wholeheartedly recommend as beer fest alternatives to GBBF.

    Cheers
    Jules
    Hop Hideout, Speciality Beer Shop
    http://www.hophideout.co.uk

    The Beer Academy is a great place to do courses. If you’re looking to buy increase your knowledge.

    Reply

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