‘Beers without beards’ at female focused festival of ale

When Aidy Fenwick first moved to the UK from Australia in 2012, she soon found work in a craft beer bar. It was a natural first job for the self-confessed “beer geek” who travelled the world to attend festivals and sample the latest brews.

Jaega Wise, head brewer at Wild Card Breweryin Walthamstow, North London
Jaega Wise, head brewer at Wild Card Breweryin Walthamstow, North London

There was only one problem – her gender. “There would be a difference in the way customers would talk to me about beer versus the way they’d talk to a male colleague,” she recalls.

“It’s quite common for women who work in beer bars to get asked ‘if they even drink beer’ and to be second guessed if they give recommendations – there’s a belief that women don’t enjoy beer.”

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Seven years down the line, the ring-stained tables seem to be turning. This weekend marks the arrival of Women In Beer, one of the UK’s first major female-focused beer festivals.

Held in five venues across Edinburgh over four days, its aim is to celebrate women’s increasing involvement in the beer industry, from bar managers to head brewers and brewery owners.

The festival is being organised by the Beers Without Beards group, whose very name pokes fun at the industry’s latest stereotype of the hipster dude on a mission to create the freshest new brew.

One of the aims of the organisation is to give women a “safe space” to talk about beer and ask questions they may not feel comfortable asking when they reach the front of the bar queue.

While some of its events are women-only, others are open to everyone. Ms Fenwick, who is helping to organise this weekend’s festival which is open to all genders, stresses it is “definitely not” about excluding men.

“The average person when they think of the craft beer industry or the beer industry in general are going to picture men – quite possibly bearded men,” she says.

“But we want to hold a light up to the fact that there are already loads of women who work in the beer industry and encourage more women to get involved. It’s very much not about complaining, it’s about celebrating the women who are already there.”

The festival is also featuring a workshop about sexism and sexual harassment in pubs and bars, which is still a problem faced by women working in the industry.

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Some action is already being taken, such as the decision by the Campaign For Real Ale (Camra) to ban beers featuring sexist names or imagery from its annual event in London this past August.

The traditionally laddish world of beer often leads to female bar staff being asked to pull pints featuring scantily clad women on their pump clips, with names such as Buxom Blonde.

Last year the brewers of the Staffordshire ale Top Totty, which used to bear a picture of a bikini wearing “bunny girl” on its pump clip, changed its name to 1Hop while keeping the recipe unchanged.

Camra’s national vice chairman Abigail Newton says sexist marketing can actively deter women – especially younger women – from drinking beer and even entering pubs in the first place.

“The pub and the beer world has traditionally been a male environment,” she adds. “The idea of the working man rolling into the pub after a hard day’s work has been around for decades if not centuries, and beer has been marketed very heavily to men as well.”

She adds that Camra is “very aware” of the gender imbalance in the beer world, an assertion which is borne out by the fact that only 20 per cent of the group’s membership is female.

However, she says there are already signs that the industry is changing, with brewers, pubs and customers gradually breaking down the barriers facing female beer drinkers.

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“We’re definitely not an organisation full of beards any more,” she adds. “We were in the 70s to some extent, and although it’s still heavily male it’s not what we’re about now.”

At the forefront of the fight to get more women into beer is Dea Latis, a group of female brewers, tasters, publicans and writers who have commissioned research into perceptions of the drink.

Its latest report in May which looked at women’s attitudes to beer found that a large proportion still feel “uninterested, disenfranchised and even repulsed” by it. It concluded that in order for more women to drink beer regularly, its laddish and male-dominated image has to change, while pubs should take the lead from the gin revolution and serve it in more interesting glassware and in more varied ways than a traditional pint or half.

Dr Dawn Maskell, director of the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, says it is starting to see a rise in the number of women enrolling on its courses, but they are still “heavily outnumbered by their male colleagues”.

“I am not sure that women are deterred from the industry so much as it maybe isn’t something that they think of as a possible career,” she adds.

“When I applied to do my BSc in brewing and distilling in 1994 it was seen as something very unusual to be 
going to do at university – much of the time this is still the case.”