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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Women and Beer

I blog in two spheres that are overwhelmingly dominated by men--beer and politics. Politics, like sports, has a strongly macho competitive element that attracts men. But with beer, it seems mainly a cultural issue. In America, anyway, men drink beer, and women drink wine. Somehow, the qualities of beer have become symbolic of manhood--it's working-class, unsophisticated, canned. Wine, with its sensual sweetness, its deep color, the curvy, feminine glass its served in--obviously feminine. (Could the fact that men drink wine support American mistrust of the French? Hmmm.) It probably doesn't hurt that until craft brewing came along, drinking beer was a kind of test of endurance.

Craft brewing abetted these stereotypes in its early years by falling for the foolsgold of "crossover beers." These were light, sometimes fruity, generally insipid beers that early brewers thought could coax drinkers away from their Hamms. The success of Widmer Hefeweizen, McMenamins Ruby Tuesday (as it was called before the lawsuit), Pyramid Apricot Ale, and Saxer Lemon Lager seemed to confirm this. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, as craft brewing was just taking root, these beers were disparaged as "chick beers." They seemed suspicious, as if harboring an innate femininity men feared. (The were also, of course, light and uninteresting, more reasons to shun them.)

You don't really hear that anymore. Go to a brewpub, and you see men and women in roughly equal proportions. A few weeks ago, I was at the Green Dragon, and two couples came in, one with their toddler, and sat at the table next to us. Dad had a light beer and mom ordered an imperial stout. Dad minded the daughter while mom--clearly the beer geek in the family--minded her stout. Two weeks ago, I sat next to two gray-haired ladies at Hopworks. They each had pints of IPA. There is no longer chick beer. There is just beer.

I don't doubt that the culture at the campus level is still beer-fueled masculinity. But in the circles I frequent, we seem to have acheived full suffrage. Among beer writers, we have Lisa Morrison, the Beer Goddess and Suds Sister. Morrison was one of the first women to break into the mens' club, and now she spreads the faith, teaching a course on beer appreciation for women. Two women, Megan Flynn and Annalou Vincent, are the bodies behind Beer Northwest.

Women are not nearly as well-represented in brewing, but perhaps that's changing. (Actually, the stats are still dismal; women probably represent less than 2% of all brewers in the country.) Oregon may be doing better than most. Teri Fahrendorf, an early pioneer in craft brewing, not to mention female brewing, has formed a society for women brewers called the Pink Boots Society. And yesterday I mentioned Tonya Cornett, the Bend Brewer recently cited by the World Beer Cup as "Champion Brewer." There are others working as assistants, and Abby Sherrill is moving into a leadership role now that Dave Fleming has left the Lucky Lab. The upshot is that things are changing even on the brewing side of things.

This is all very good news for Oregon brewing. In terms of numbers, it's obviously good for the market--doubling your target audience is a good thing. But it's also good for the culture that supports Oregon's scores of breweries. The more beer becomes a regular element of living, the more it becomes something native and iconic, like the "cuppa" in England, Italian espresso, or a pint of plain in Dublin. Soon, it could be that a Portland meal without a beer is akin to a Parisian meal without a glass of wine.

What, no IPA? Sacre bleu!

4 comments:

Billy Broas said...

I live in a growing college town and have definitely noticed my female friends getting more interested in craft beers as more restaurants open up with better beer selections. Lately, the craze has been about the Delirium Tremens on tap at a new bar - the women love it. Besides that, the women I know tend to favor wheat beers more than any other type of craft beer.

The Guilty Carnivore said...

Great post, and very astute observations.

billy broas - you describe me to "T" - although I'm male. Now I have further emasculation issues.

Mary Sue said...

A Portland meal without beer is called 'breakfast'.

*nods sagely and points out I didn't say 'brunch'*

Wheat's the gateway drug, soon enough they'll be asking for beer they can chew and calling men sissies for not liking the flavor of hops... um, waitaminute, that was me last weekend up in Seattle....

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