A spotlight on the female brewsters
In case you hadn’t noticed: beer has changed. No longer is your choice at the bar limited to either a bland, yellow lager or a warm, flat bitter. A new world of flavour has opened up in bars and bottle shops all across the UK. Recent figures indicate that over the past 10 years the number of women enjoying beer has more than doubled, and at the forefront of this movement – drinking, serving and sometimes making the beer – are lesbians and bi women. If you’ve been out for a pint recently you could be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed by the range of beer on offer. Real ale is increasingly available in most good pubs, and “craft beer” – a term often used to refer to beer produced by smaller, independent breweries and sometimes served from a keg rather than the traditional British cask – is providing a level of choice not previously seen in the UK.
Beer is usually made from four main ingredients – malted barley, hops, water and yeast – but depend- ing on the type and volume of raw materials the brewer uses, more than a hundred established beer styles can be created, including saisons, porters, IPAS, smoked beers, wheat beers and sour ales. They range in colour from pale straw to rich black, and in flavour from lightly spiced to bitter chocolate, tropical fruit or biting sourness. When additional ingredients or tweaks to the brewing process are thrown into the mix, what is possible in terms of aromas and flavours in beer becomes almost limitless – as
LESBIANS AND BI WOMEN ARE LEADING THE NEW BEER REVOLUTION. BEER WRITER AND BROADCASTER EMMA INCH INVESTIGATES
you’ll know if you’ve ever tried a peanut butter milk stout, a donut pale ale or a gooseberry gose!
Women have always brewed beer. In fact, for much of beer’s 7,000 year history women were its primary creators. In pre- industrial societies, women often brewed beer as part of the regular household chores. Being a safe source of drinking water and some essential nutrients, it was an important part of the daily diet for the whole family, including children. It was only with the advent of urbanisation, industrialisation and the subsequent economic restrictions placed on women that men came to dominate the craft. But female brewers (or “brewsters”, as they’re known), including lesbians and bi women, are increasingly creating beer at some of the UK’S top breweries.
Cloudwater Brewery, based in Manchester, was recently named the fifth best brewery in the world in the prestigious Ratebeer Awards. Robyn Bell is a brewer there. She says that, although the industry is still largely male, she has never felt excluded or out of place among her fellow brewers. She explains, “I find the craft beer scene to be disproportionately filled with thoughtful, well- educated, kind and open-minded people. The kinds of people who get into craft beer are generally looking for the same kind of thing: to work creatively and with our hands, to work with good people, and to make some damn good friends along the way”.
Robyn’s job title is “tank manager” (although she prefers to call herself the “Tank Commander”!), which means she’s responsible for the beer throughout the fermentation and conditioning process. As Cloudwater does not have a core range of beers that it repeat- brews, each beer is unique and comes with its own set of challenges and opportunities which need exploring. Robyn spends roughly half of each day in the laboratory, dealing with quality assurance and recording measurements including ph and yeast cell counts. The rest of her day is spent carrying out “tank actions”, such as cropping yeast and dry- hopping the beer.
Robyn says she worried about the manual side of brewing before she started working in beer. “I’m only small – 5’2”– and quite petite, but I built up my stamina pretty quickly and have always found my co-workers to be incredibly inclusive and thoughtful. I’ve never felt incapable, and my female-ness has never been brought up in terms of the work.”
These sentiments are echoed by Sarah Hughes, head brewer at Tiny Rebel, a multi-award-winning brewery based in Newport in South Wales.
Sarah got involved in brewing after answering a job advert in the local paper looking for microbiology graduates, and says that within a day she knew that this was what she wanted to do. She says, “I’ve always felt accepted in the industry and I love what I do. It’s still male- dominated, but the craft beer scene is definitely changing things”.
That’s not to say that there are no problems at all. Women are grossly underrepresented in the beer world, sexism and homophobia still exist within the industry (often apparent in the names and pump clips associated with certain beers), and there remain preconceptions about women as both creators and consumers of beer. However, some women are coming together to challenge this.
Sophie de Ronde of Burnt Mill Brewery in Suffolk is a highly respected brewer who has been involved in beer and brewing for more than a decade. In 2014 she joined forces with the Pink Boots Society – a Us-based organisation supporting women in the brewing industry – to set up International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day. This takes place on 8 March (International Women’s Day) each year and brings together women across the world to brew beer and raise the profile of women in brewing. She says: “I think the importance of the day has proved itself by the volume of brewers and breweries that get involved. One of the most important things in the industry is the networking, seeing other breweries and having the support. It allows us brewers to develop and create new and wonderful brews and improve our techniques.”
Another event aimed at celebrating and promoting women in beer is the Fem.ale Brewster Beer Festival which runs each May at The Plasterer’s Arms in Norwich and at Brighton’s cultural queer hub, The Marlborough. Fem.ale serves exclusively brewster-brewed beer whilst also showcasing female-fronted bands and hosting discussion panels featuring historians,
academics and beer professionals. Erica Horton explains that the idea for Fem.ale came from the desire to “celebrate those women who are really at the heart of the creative process, designing, experimenting and developing new technologies”. She says The Marlborough is a perfect venue for Fem.ale as it’s “a safe space for all genders to come and enjoy beer in a non- patriarchal setting”.
More and more women are choosing to drink beer, particularly a diverse range of craft ale, rather than other drinks when they go out. A recent survey on behalf of Nicholson’s Pubs found that 57% of women chose beer over other drinks options. As women become more concerned about the provenance of their food and drink, they appear to be choosing to spend their money on local, natural and ethically-produced goods like craft beer.
Many who work on the retail side of brewing agree that specialist beer venues are great places for lesbians and bi women to drink and socialise. Sarah Brick manages craft beer house, The Fox, in east London. “I think the contemporary beer scene has an open mind,” she says. “Trying new beers and new brewing methods is all part of craft beer. I think this open mind translates across to the craft beer community in general, making it welcoming to the queer community.” Melinda Brodelis, assistant manager at the Craft Beer Company in London’s Covent Garden agrees. “It’s a scene that welcomes everyone... I feel it’s so broad it doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, trans, bi or whatever you feel most comfortable being. It’s the beer that’s important.”
The wonderfully-named Bitter Women is a social group for LGBT+ women who enjoy real ale and craft beer, which meets regularly at various venues in both London and Brighton. Founder Elaine Mckenzie says she set the group up in response to lesbians and bi women’s love of beer. She says, “Gay women are renowned for their consumption of beer, so I decided let’s celebrate that! We like a pint, so why not?”
So why not? There are so many new trends in beer including massive hop bombs, beers that taste like chocolate and sour beers so sharp they’ll turn your lips inside out. Even if you’ve never thought that beer is your thing, you might find one or two you fall in love with. And don’t worry if you think you only like lager because – with more than 20 distinct styles of lager to explore – that’s having a renaissance too. If you’ve not yet tried what the contemporary beer scene has to offer, this summer is most definitely the time. Because whether it’s the real ale revival or the craft beer revolution, the world’s most popular alcoholic drink is most definitely back in fashion.
Find out more about the contemporary beer scene by tuning into Emma’s Fermentation Beer & Brewing Show, broadcast monthly on Brighton’s Radio Reverb ( radioreverb.com) or catch up via itunes.
“The beer scene welcomes everyone ... gay, straight, trans or bi. It’s the beer that’s important”