Women drink craft beer.
It seems like a pretty obvious statement, but apparently it needs to be said.
So I’ll say it again, this time with dramatic punctuation: Women. Drink. Craft. Beer.
They drink a lot of it and the number of women who are discovering the craft beer industry is growing every single day.
As of 2013, women account for 25% of total beer consumption by volume in the United States and they account for 37% of total American craft beer consumption.
A recent poll suggests that beer is now actually the first choice of alcoholic beverage for US women aged 18 to 34 (Take that, white wine).
Women work in craft beer, too. According to a 2014 Auburn University study, the United States brewing industry is now roughly 29% female.
And while statistics on gender-specific drinking habits here in Canada aren’t quite so robust as those recorded by our YUGE neighbours to the south, even a cursory glance at our local brewing scene would suggest that here in Ontario women are embracing craft beer just as wholeheartedly.
The Society of Beer Drinking Ladies, a Toronto-based organization founded on the straightforward concept of giving women a safe place to enjoy some beer away from lecherous bar bros, has seen enthusiasm for their efforts swell to the extent that the first 30 women-only events they threw drew as many 350 women. Their most recent event earlier this month drew 500 beer-loving women and, for their next event, they’re trying to find space to accommodate an expected 1000 beer drinking ladies.
Barley’s Angels, an organization dedicated to “the appreciation and understanding of craft beer among women through events with craft beer professionals” has no less than seven chapters in Ontario.
Ontario-based beer writer, Certified Cicerone, Prud’homme Beer Sommelier, and Beer Judge, Crystal Luxmore has recently teamed up with her sister, Prud’homme Beer Sommelier and Community Manager, Tara Luxmore to monetize their vast beer knowledge by offering guided tastings and customized beer events as “The Beer Sisters”
Beer writer Robin LeBlanc just co-authored the soon-to-hit shelves second edition of a guide to Ontario’s craft beer scene.
Ontario is home to Mirella Amato, the first woman in Canada to become a Certified Cicerone and the first non-US resident to earn the Master Cicerone certification.
Jon Downing, Brewmaster Professor and Cofounder of Niagara College’s Teaching Brewery, a brewing program that is the first of its kind in Canada, estimates that women currently comprise around 20% of the brewing students on campus each year.
And while they don’t keep statistics on their member breweries’ make up, the Ontario Craft Brewers recently used the occasion of International Women’s Day to shine the spotlight on the growing ranks of women working in all levels of Ontario’s craft beer scene.
In short: Women like craft beer. Women are extremely knowledgable about craft beer. Women are helping drive this province’s current craft beer boom. Women in Canada are brewery owners, founders, brewers, sales reps, supervisors, communications directors, event coordinators, and directors of marketing.
And yet, people in Ontario still think it’s appropriate to call a beer something like “Farmer’s Daughter’s Melons” or to slap a badly drawn cartoon with big tits on the side of the can.
I was recently confronted with this shitty reality in December when I was gifted with a “beer advent calendar” from the Ontario Craft Brewers–the very same organization that went out of its way to showcase its female members back in March. The calendar, featuring a 24 tallboys from member breweries, was, obviously, a pretty badass gift, but around the fourth or fifth day I pulled out can of Amber Eh! from Niagara Brewing Company. The can for this beer features a scantily clad lumberjack with a jaunty pose, a maple leaf cap, and shorts exposing enough ass cheek to seriously question Amber’s suitability for work in the timber industry.
I hadn’t seen this can before and I remember thinking, “Man, aren’t we better than this?”
It made me consider the fact that the advent calendar, the Ontario Craft Brewers, and the province’s brewing industry as a whole really did still feature some questionable choices when it came to sexist imagery, distasteful names, and objectification.
It made me look back at beers I had, apparently, come to just accept, beers I had perhaps overlooked, and beers that I haven’t purchased because of their cheesy and derogatory marketing and it made want to ask these breweries why, when we all know that women are playing such a vital role in the growth of this industry, they thought it was OK to use them as simply decoration on the can.
And so I asked some of them.
Here’s what the ones who answered me had to say.
“This actually is not a road we’ve been down before, and the story behind our branding has little to do with women in the sense you perceive it to be, endowed generously or otherwise.
Barnstorming is a form of stunt piloting made popular in the US following WWI due to a surplus of light military aircraft in the country [. . .] To better identify their aircraft in the eyes of the public, many of the pilots opted for artwork on the nose of the plane. [. . .] Regardless of any personal belief in the sexuality of the imagery, I think the resurgence of this style of artwork in modern culture exemplifies its timeless appeal.
The history of barnstorming has never been deemed sexist, It was in fact one of the only industries of the time to allow women to compete at the same level of men. The very success of historic figures like Katherine Stinson and Bessy Coleman threatened contemporary stereotypes and served to propagate ideas of equality during a period in which the notion was not yet popular.
Our cans are modeled after these planes; not in sexist fashion, but in respect and admiration of all these pilots, their aircrafts, and their contribution to the growth in civil aviation. Are [sic] branding is not mocking a naughty person next door, or body parts of females, or anything sexual as some other cans are.
Your enquiry actually got me thinking about our business and how women influence it on a day to day basis. I am happy to say our fermenters in the brew house are each named after iconic female aviators, some of which were named above.
[. . .] Yes, we decorate each of our cans with a pin-up girl. Her name is Betty. She has become a focal point of our brand, even has her own twitter account, and a signature component on each of our labels. Like the barnstormer’s [sic] for which our brewery is named, we associate ourselves with this artwork to become identifiable in the public eye. We don’t share the opinion that her presence in our company in anyway objectifies women or damages the credibility of the craft beer industry.
Moving forward, we will update our website to show the historical context of our choices, and the values of our company as a whole. If anyone would like to comment on any part of our business, positively or negatively, you’ll always have our ear and a response.”
The brewery: Nickel Brook Brewery
The offence: The can art for Naughty Neighbour American Pale Ale
The response, condensed from a phone interview with Matt Gibson, Nickel Brook’s Manager, Corporate Sales and Marketing:
“This comes up for us from time to time. We have twitter and we have instagram so every once in a while we get a comment like, ‘oh I love this beer but I wish you guys didn’t have this label.’ It’s not like we’re getting a flood of angry letters, but every once in a while it does come up and it’s something we have to wrestle with. I guess our take on it at this point right now is that our label, I would’t put it in the same category as Farmer’s Daughter’s Melons from Whitewater or whoever that was, or even the ones that are explicitly sexual because it was never the intention of our label to be sexual. Maybe sexy—and I know that’s a fine distinction—and certainly not sexist, that was never the intention.”
Ben’s Beer Blog: “I’m not sure many people ‘intend’ to be sexist…”
MG: “I would argue that something like “Farmer’s Daughter’s Melons” is intending to be sexist in that it’s intending to be provacative. Ours is meant to be more of a play of pin up girls on WW2 bombers or Sailor Jerry Tattoos, that sort of old-fashioned, classic look. Admittedly it might be a little outdated and it is a conversation that we’re continuing to have. One thing that [brewery owner] John [Romano] mentioned when I brought this up with him was that when we did switch the branding from our old label, which was a little more on the nose and a little dumber looking—”
BBB: The old label looked like a porno DVD cover.
MG: “Yeah, it was a girl shushing people. When we switched from that to the current label, our sales went up something like 250 per cent. I’m not saying “screw you women” but it’s an effective label and it is effective advertising. So we have to look at “what’s our imaging and what’s our brand image.”
The other thing that made us excited about it last year was that the Toronto Burlesque Festival approached us—we didn’t engage them—and they said, “We found your beer in the LCBO and we love the logo and it plays really well with what we’re doing.” They’re the largest burlesque event in the country and we sponsored their big festival in the summer and I think we had over 3000 people over three days at Revival and the Mod Club. So a huge group of, arguably, very empowered and sexually liberated women were embracing our thing and just think it was fun and cheeky—which was our intention behind it and never to be sexist but just be fun and sort of playful. ”
BBB: You do have a “less blatant” example when this argument comes up but it wasn’t something—I’m assuming—this isn’t art created by a woman or the subject of the art was not the person that came up with the idea, and that’s typically where the argument lies about whether or not something is objectifying or empowering, i.e is the subject involved? As I’ve spoken to women in researching this article, they see this kind of marketing or they see this beer and it still kind of makes them feel like this isn’t their industry. They’re “the thing on the can,” not part of the community that made the stuff in the can.
MG: “For sure. And that’s definitely a conversation we’re continuing to have. I can’t say where the branding is going to go so I don’t want to say anything ye–or at all–but if we feel that it’s something that needs to be changed, then we will. We’re not married to it forever. It’s an ongoing conversation. We redid it three years ago and maybe our awareness has shifted. And I hate to make this argument because it sounds like “I’m not racist, I have black friends” but at least half of our staff across all areas are women. We’re very much aware that women are driving the growth in craft beer—specifically, women seem more willing to try the sours and the funk beers that we’re pushing out more. We have a lot of success in that market so we definitely don’t want to do anything that’s going to alienate those drinkers.
At the end of the day, our job is still get as much beer to as many people. If we’re finding that people are saying, “I love this beer but I don’t drink it because of what’s on the can,” then it’s something that we have to change. As it stands right now, our sales are strong across the market.”
The brewery: Whitewater Brewing Co.
The offence: The can art for Farmer’s Daughter Blonde, and the name of a variant brewed with watermelon, called “Farmer’s Daughter’s Melons.”
The response, via email:
“We certainly don’t intend the Farmer’s Daughter to objectify women just as we don’t intend the Whistling Paddler to objectify men. For some it may be jokes however, for many of us with a rural background, it represents the beer well in that it is a beer with traditional values. Clean and not complicated. Wholesome. Hardworking. We are in the process of making some changes but it is not because we think the brand sexist but rather a change will be fun.
Farmer’s Daughter’s Melons is as you say, “A boob joke”
Best of luck with your article.
Christopher D Thompson
Whitewater Brewing Company”
Despite five separate attempts to contact Niagara Brewing Company for a response via different media, including two Facebook messenger inquiries that I know were “seen,” the company declined to provide me with any response to my questions about this can label.
I think you’ll probably agree that, with varying degrees, all of these responses suck.
Obviously Niagara Brewing Company ignoring my inquiries entirely sucks.
And obviously Christopher using “it’s a boob joke” as a defence for one of Whitewater’s sexist beer names really sucks (I pointed out that it was a dumb boob joke in my inquiry to show it was defenceless and he agreed it was a dumb boob joke AS HIS DEFENCE. That’s some Donald Trump press secretary level spin right there).
But even the responses that don’t suck as obviously still suck. Matt Gibson, in our conversation, tried hard to show there was no ill intent in Naughty Neighbour’s can design and I believe that he doesn’t think it’s offensive, but having a single group of women use your can for an event does not mean you get to infer that all women are OK with said design.
And while I’m impressed that Barnstormer is open to feedback and willing to make changes, the nod to history for the “timeless” nature of titilating art doesn’t do much for me. It’s great they appreciate groundbreaking women, and I dig the rehashing of the wikipedia entry for barnstorming, but I have to call attention to the fact that it’s Betty, the titillating pin-up who makes the can, and not a likeness of the early aviation pioneers they name dropped like Katherine Stinson or Bessy Coleman–the latter who was actually black and part Apache and might be the coolest potential candidate for a beer tribute ever. (Seriously, how cool would that can art be?).
But let’s be honest, it is perhaps not surprising that all the people I talked to about these labels were men, and it’s likewise not surprisingthat they all essentially failed to see why these types of labels were not harmless or were not “all in good fun.”
And so when I still didn’t have any good answers about why this shit still happens I reached out to Garnet Pratt Siddall.
Garnet is the owner of Side Launch Brewery in Collingwood, the 2016 Canadian Brewery of the Year. She is also the newly-appointed chair of the Ontario Craft Brewers. If pronouns are new to you, I should also point out that she is a woman. Importantly, Garnet (the woman) was also at the helm of Side Launch Brewery when the company opted to release a beer flavoured with clementines that was called “Clementines Gone Wild” and featured a curvy silhouette on its can.
So I talked to Garnet by phone about why this is happening, why this happened even under her watch, and why this is still OK.
BBB: Why is this still OK?
Garnet Pratt Siddall: “I don’t know.”
GPS: “It’s not the answer you’re looking for, but I don’t know why it’s still OK. I can make some guesses about why it still happens, and part of my guess comes from how Clementine’s Gone Wild happened–in an organization I led–being a woman having worked in male-dominated industries my whole life.
I have always been a very firm defender of my own rights as a woman and a person in whatever workplace I am in. What I can say is that, I can remember it very clearly. I was sitting in a room with the three other managers of the business at the time, who were all men, and one is now a woman. Three men and me. And when we knew that we were going to add clementine flavour to a beer, we were just sitting around a table trying to figure out what we were going to call it. And because Clementine can be a female name it started out as “Oh my darling Clementine” and then it was like, well that’s not really jazzy enough from a marketing standpoint. And we did some mock-ups of an orange with a smile on it, it was like, really cheesy, and then all of a sudden we threw the concept out to the guy who does a lot of our design work. He glommed on to the fact that we were releasing the beer right around spring break so he tried to make it a spring break kind of theme.
And so the first mock ups were Clementine, a woman on the can, and they actually were offensive to me. I mean, there was a nipple in the silhouette. It was really, really bad. And it just got scaled down so much that I just kind of just became OK with it, by default. Which is a horrible thing to say, but even as a president of a company, sitting in a room with three guys, who are all sitting in a room looking at me and saying, “This is OK. There’s nothing wrong with this.” We had that conversation and I actually ended up believing it. And that’s the problem.”
Garnet likens the experience to many she’s had in other industries where there’s pressure to speak up, but it’s uncomfortable to do so. She tells me about working in a bar and dealing with an obnoxious customer. He was a regular, well known to the staff and he said things that were offensive to female staff members. “I should have said you have to leave,” she said of her decision to treat the guy with kid gloves, “but I didn’t, because there’s part of me that doesn’t want to make a scene, that doesn’t want to be that shrill, angry, feminist bitch.”
More recently, Garnet’s female staffers at Side Launch chose to wear sexy lederhosen for part of the brewery’s Oktoberfest festivities two years ago. “I made it clear to them that they didn’t have to,” she says. This year, someone suggested to new female staffers they should wear the same outfits and someone came forward to Garnet and indicated they weren’t comfortable with it. “And so I put a stop to that,” she said. “So I’d like to think I’m increasingly comfortable putting a stop to that sort of stuff, but it keeps creeping in. Even in an organization where there’s a female head, these suggestions are made and it’s up to me to say no as opposed to the people who ought to know that it’s not right in the first place.”
And therein lies some of the problem, likely. “This stuff just goes on and it’s left mainly to women (though sometimes men) to speak out,” Garnet says. “And I think we’re putting the onus on the wrong person. There’s a default perception that women who open their mouth get told they’re a bitch and men are assertive. It’s like, somebody at a brewery decides this is a label we’re going to use, and everyone is like, “yeah it’s great” and so the women there are put in the position where they have to be the ones to say, “no, this isn’t cool” and they risk sounding like a bitch and risk not being asked to come for a beer after work. It’s like “Oh she’s one of them.””
Given that Garnet is the newly-appointed chair of the only organization currently representing the interests of the province’s small brewers in any sort of fashion, I was very curious to know if this issue is something that comes up–especially given that every offensive beer label I’ve mentioned thus far does in fact belong to members of the Ontario Craft Brewers. To my mind, this is the sort of thing a member organization ought to tackle. Garnet opened my eyes a little about just how difficult a task that might be.
“We’ve definitely talked about it and it has come up,” she told me. “We have a draft of a code of conduct, and it comes up at every meeting, and it’s going to come up at the next one in two weeks.” The problem, she says, is when it comes down to discussing how to police such documents. “Let’s say someone decides something is offensive, do we vote to decide if it’s offensive? I’m the only woman on the board. Maybe four of us find it offensive and five don’t? Only in the most extreme cases are you going to get consensus.”
What then? she says. Do you revoke a brewer’s membership? Do you ask them to rename their beer? Pull 10,000 or 20,000 cans from store shelves? What if they say, “fuck you. No.”
As Garnet points out, it can become a potentially sticky issue. “The OCB has largely historically received a good chunk of money from the province,” she says “and the government has alwasy encouraged us to be as inclusive as possible, so a code of conduct makes sense, but the province will say, is this product available in the LCBO? And if it is, and the LCBO is OK with it, how come you aren’t?”
So while Garnet assures me she and the OCB are working toward having some kind of guidelines, it’s not as simple as making a rule.
And so, while I’m something like 2000 words into this blog post on sexist craft beer at this point, I am faced with the niggling doubt that there will be dudes–and probably a lot of dudes–who will still read all this (or more likely not) and dismiss it as a non issue.
They’ll see that most of the stats I quoted above show women are still a minority and so it still makes “good marketing sense” to appeal mainly to men. They’ll accept the brewers’ defences that have been offered (by those who bothered to talk to me) or they too will dismiss the boob jokes and dumb names as harmless fun. They’ll gloss over Garnet’s frustration about the inherent sexism of male-dominated industries or they’ll point to Garnet’s frustration with her member organization as a clear indication that this is something that can’t be solved and I should probably move on.
Or, more likely, as I’ve encountered when I raise this topic with men in the beer industry, they’ll tell me I’m being overly-sensitive or trying to make an issue where there isn’t one.
And to that I would like to say a proactive, “Fuck you.”
Because this matters.
We may have our quarrels about what exactly craft beer is, but one thing everyone who works in and supports the industry can likely agree on is that “craft beer” stands in opposition to big beer. Not to put too philosophical a point on it, but whether it’s the boundary-breaking spirt of experimentation, the attention to quality ingredients, the focus on supporting local business, or the collaborative, collegial and inclusive spirit the companies making beer in Ontario and across Canada embody, people who gravitate to craft beer tend to do so because is, to put it in overly-simple terms, it feels like it’s something “better” than the alternative macrobrewing/marketing companies that churn out lacklustre lagers. So why, in matters of marketing, can’t this industry strive to be better than the dude-focused big beer ads of old?
If you’re still not convinced, I won’t preach craft beer evangelism at you any more. I won’t “mansplain” objectification to you if you’re still struggling with why this isn’t OK. I won’t try to (further) shame any brewers with questionable marketing. I won’t even try to point out that alienating the industry’s largest growing segment of drinkers and a massive resource for future employees is probably a bad business decision.
Instead, I’ll offer some words from women working in this industry. These are people who love craft beer as much as anyone else, who have chosen to pursue careers in an industry they are passionate about, just like all of the men out there, but are so often being reduced to decoration for a beer can.
I asked these women one simple question, “How does this kind of marketing make you feel?” and here’s what they had to say.
“Thanks for asking me to participate in this. Here’s my thought on your question.
When I see this type of marketing it reminds me that there are still so many brewery professionals and consumers who are unable to see me as an equal.
I don’t feel as if I am welcome to work in production, especially when I remember all the times where I’ve been ignored while standing next to my co-worker, who has the exact same title as me. When I see these ads it reminds me of the times people have not seen my value as a brewer, but could only identify me as muse or ask if I am even capable of lifting a grain bag. I don’t see an end in sight with these ads and this type of behaviour in the beer world.
I’ve been told to get a thicker skin. I’m working on it.”
Folly Brewpub, Toronto
“I wish I could say that it offends me, but at this point it’s something I’m desensitized to. When I see objectification or sexism in marketing, what I really feel is that it’s low-hanging fruit, and it frustrates me because it seems like everyone knows it. I don’t necessarily care how artistically the woman on the can is depicted, or how empowered you think she feels. There’s too many other great ideas and creative concepts in this world, at this point in time, to still put forward sexist marketing because it was presumably the best idea on the table. So if I had to say anything to the folks putting out this antiquated marketing, it would be this: you can do better.”
GTA Community Beer Rep for Muskoka Brewery
“As a consumer, this kind of marketing makes me feel that those breweries have very different values from my own and it deters me from wanting to buy their product.
As a marketer, I believe that when a brewery puts their beer in a package, the package takes on the important job of telling that beer’s story and communicating the brewery’s values. It makes me sad to see breweries using sexist imagery to tell their stories and convey their values. It also makes me curious to understand why and how the brewery came to the decision to associate their brand with that type of imagery. Who are they targeting? Why do they feel this is this the best way to target those people? How do they want me to feel about their company?
Maybe they are saying that their beer isn’t meant for me or that it’s not meant for 50% of the population. Maybe they are saying that a woman’s value is in her appearance. Maybe that’s not what they’re saying at all, but that’s definitely what I take away whenever I see sexist packaging.”
Left Field Brewery, Toronto
“As a woman who not only loves beer, but also works directly in the marketing of it., when it comes to sexism in beer marketing there is a fine line between a simple fact vs. a blatant tactic to include something that may be offensive. There is no fault in recognizing that your core demographic of, say, a fruity beer or Radler appeals more to women, that’s fact–but hey, it may also be your brother’s favourite beer, too. It becomes offensive when said beer showcases women (cartoon or not) in a half dressed manner and they are turned into an object and not seen as someone who may actually enjoy the beer themselves. The days of beer marketing with half dressed women are over. Canadian craft breweries should relish the opportunity to pave their own path and not make a carbon copy of what the Budweisers of the world succeeded with in 1988.”
“Your question is relatively simple, but the process of trying to answer it was anything but.
This isn’t a problem unique to the beer world, we all know that. But the beer world is where I spend a lot of my time, and it’s the one where I can have an influence on change.
This sort of marketing gives me a lot of feels, and they aren’t positive.
I feel irritated. I feel insulted. I feel degraded. I feel disrespected. I feel unwelcome. I feel distrustful. It bums me the fuck out. But mostly I feel very, very irritated.
It’s irritating that at this stage of the game some people still think it’s a good idea to resort to the sort of played-out, lowest common denominator kind of garbage that we should have left behind in the last century. It’s lazy. It’s myopic. It punches down. It demonstrates a lack of some sorts. Sensitivity? Awareness? Respect? Intelligence?
It makes me wonder about the type of people who create this type of image for their business. What were they hoping to accomplish? Who do they think is drinking their beer?
But mostly, how do they treat the women in their lives?
It’s also irritating because it reaffirms and reinforces an underlying current of systemic sexism in this industry that we all try to ignore or deny. The majority of my experiences during my five or six years in this industry have been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve had some discouragingly negative experiences though, and with the exception of some pretty gnarly stuck mashes and one poorly-timed black eye that was entirely my own klutzy fault, they were all related to sexism of some sorts.
I can’t separate the sexism I’ve experienced with the sexism I see in the marketing. I see these images and I’m reminded of every stupid comment, every slight or creepy exchange, every time I was made to feel powerless, invisible or insignificant because I wasn’t a man.
It’s irritating because I am SO FUCKING BORED of having to have this conversation. There are only so many things you can say about it because it’s always the same faux-pas being committed. But this stuff continues to happen, so I’ll continue to talk about it in hopes that other people are too, and eventually we’ll get through to the last of the dinosaurs holding on to their backwards opinions. Or they’ll die. I’m good with either. I’m irritated because these sexist marketing stunts insult everyone’s intelligence, waste everyone’s time, puts unnecessary emotional labour on women, and divert attention and energy away from the thing that brought us all here in the first place.
I don’t know a single woman who came to the beer world because she wanted to get a cookie for being a special feminine snowflake. We came for the beer, just like all you guys. Dealing with sexist bullshit in all its various forms and intensities is an unfortunate consequence we’ve had to suffer for trying to live our best goddamn lives.
Overall though, the one unpleasant conclusion I draw from these backwards tactics is that someone is telling me that I don’t really belong here.
I don’t have equal standing. I’m not in on the joke, I’m the butt of it. I know that this isn’t representative of everyone’s opinion, but there aren’t too many men willing to call these breweries out and it makes me wonder why.”
Microbrasserie Dieu du Ciel, Montreal
Guess what? I’m not the first person to try to tackle this topic. If you want to read more, here’s some other thoughts on the subject.
- Folly Brewpub brewer, Christina Coady, writing a blog post in early 2016 to talk about her involvement in a special brew in celebration of International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day, opted to use the occasion to muse on What We Don’t Like Talking About
- Inspired by Coady’s blog post, beer writer Robin LeBlanc then wrote about the issue for Torontoist
- Dennis Talon wrote about this issue for Bartowel in August, inspired largely by the beers of Old Flame Brewing, who produce a beer called (ugh) Dirty Blonde. (Incidentally, I contacted Old Flame for this article and they essentially reiterated that what they said to Dennis then still stands and the the branding is supposed to have a “very playful and respectful tone.”
All beer can photos stolen from the LCBO website or my own instagram.
Society of Beer Drinking Ladies crowd photo c/o Ren Navarro.