Women Are Taking Back Beer

Ladies used to dominate the beer brewing game — then men stole it away

Erin Biba
Erin Biba
Feb 26, 2014 · 8 min read

Men and beer have gone together for ages. Beer is crafted by men in factories owned by men, sold to men, and consumed by men.

But women love beer, too. They make up one-quarter of U.S. beer consumption by volume, according to the Beverage Media Group. And the number of women who love beer is slowly growing. The craft brewing industry has allowed them to find new brands and flavors. According to a consumer survey called the Alcoholic Beverage DemandTracker, the percent of women who name beer as their favorite beverage grew from 26 percent in 2012 to 28 percent in 2013. That stat may seem low, but it’s kind of remarkable considering that beer is only ever marketed to men.

And women love brewing too. For a long time, the only way they’ve been able to show it is through small-batch home brewing in their kitchens. Women who have wanted to turn their craft into a career say they’ve had their male counterparts literally laugh in their faces. In the last ten years or so, however, a few female pioneers have pushed their way onto brewery floors to prove that making beer is anything but men’s work.

The movement of women into the industry has happened incredibly slowly. A male-dominated industry is generally considered to be one that has 25 percent or fewer women. While other men-centric businesses have started accepting women over the years (even mining, for example, was 13 percent women in the U.S. in 2011), the brewing industry doesn’t even bother to track how many women it employs. The generally accepted estimate is that less than 1 percent of all brewers in the U.S. are female. Whitney Burnside, who became the first female head brewer at Pelican Brewery in Oregon in January, says that when it came to her entering the industry, “there was a lot of resistance. I felt like I had to work extra hard to show them that I could do it. I never felt like it was acceptable. Now, even being the head brewer here, I still get the looks and the weird responses.”

It hasn’t always been this way. The idea that beer is a man’s domain would have been ludicrous to anyone alive more than 250 years ago. Before beer was taken over by industry, men had little time or care for crafting brew — they were too busy hunting or farming to waste their hours cooking. After all, making beer isn’t all that different from making dinner. Until the modern-era, women dominated everything that went on in the kitchen.

Women were also the first to turn brewing into a lucrative industry, taking beer out of their kitchens and selling it for a profit around town. In medieval Europe, women known as alewives skirted the discriminatory rules against female ownership of land and business by opening ale houses. It was one of the few ways that non-married women could work to support themselves. The government allowed them to operate because their businesses grew naturally out of brewing in their home kitchens, trading with other women in their villages, and eventually selling beer to those who didn’t have anything to trade. Very few men worked in the industry and, as water was unhealthy to drink, women provided huge amounts of beer to the community — nearly a gallon per person, per day. Back then, beer was more of a soft drink, not nearly as alcoholic as it is now and so varied in its production method that we likely wouldn’t recognize it today. In his book “Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,” Richard Unger writes: “Beer was perceived as an integral part of the diet, a source of nutrition and good health, rather than as a drug taken for recreation. … People drank at home at home and in public places, from morning throughout the day until well into the evening.”

Obviously, the female domination of brewing didn’t last forever. The tides began to turn against ladies in the mid-1500s. Social stigmas surrounding women in business began to turn towards alewives and eventually society started seeing female brewers as crooks, deviants, and disobedient to their husbands. The industrial revolution of the 1700s eliminated women from the business almost entirely. As men figured out how to commercialize and mass-produce beer, they took over the process from their wives.

Factory-dominated brewing has gone on for so long it seems that society has completely forgotten that beer was once the domain of women. Even as recently as the 1980s it wasn’t unusual to find male brewers who believed the superstition that women were bad luck on brewery floors.

“There’s a few of us old birds who came into the beer industry early on,” says Teri Fahrendorf, a retired brewmaster who got her start in the industry in 1988 at Sieben’s River North Brewpub in Chicago. “When I was first starting out, I was told no woman could do the job, it’s too physical. There was the superstition that women don’t belong on the brew deck.”

Gerri Kustelski, a chemist who works in quality control for Summit Brewing in Saint Paul, says that she was on an all-female team of quality control scientists when she got her start in the early 1960s. But the team wasn’t allowed to collect its own samples. “We did not go out into the plant at all. We still had brewers that thought if women went into an area where fermentation was taking place our hormones would affect the beer. It wasn’t until the early ‘80s that we started going out and picking up our own samples, which was much preferred,” she says.

According to the ladies of the brewing industry, it was the explosion of the craft beer industry in the mid-1990s that finally enabled women to show they could handle the challenges of brewing. Women avoided the superstitions and sexism by becoming the boss. According to Ellen Bounsall, who left academia to start a craft brewing company with her husband in the early ’80s, the industry was forced to accept women because the entire business was changing. Suppliers were having to re-learn what their customers needed by figuring out how to cater to smaller operations and not just massive, national brands. This made them more open to other types of changes — like female master brewers.

“I was a pioneer 25 years ago. It was unheard of for a woman to be involved in the brewing industry. In the big breweries they weren’t masters, they were only in quality control,” says Bounsall. “The only reason I started was because my husband and I were academic administrators at a community college and we were bored.” While Bounsall’s husband worked in funding and financing, she got the actual brewery up and running. “He was never around to start learning how to use the equipment. I have a degree in biology and brewing was more interesting than what I was doing at the time.”

Bounsall quickly fell in love with the process of beer making and since she was the boss, there was nobody around to tell her she couldn’t do it. “There I was shoveling mash and running about in rubber boots. It was a very different world. Anyone who knew me thought I had lost touch with reality. I was enjoying it.” But when it came to talking with suppliers, the sexism popped right back up. “They’d come by and ask who they could speak to and they’d want to talk to my husband. They weren’t buying into the concept that I was the head brewer. It was an old boys network.”

Eventually, she says, the suppliers had to accept the fact that some of their customers were going to be women. “As craft brewing began to expand and develop within the US, the suppliers began to realize they’d have to start catering to a whole new world. And if there was a women there then OK.”

But that doesn’t mean the industry has fully welcomed women into the fold. Fahrendorf, who runs The Pink Boots Society — an industry organization of nearly 1,000 women who work in every aspect of brewing from brew masters to quality control to beer journalists — still can’t say for sure how many female master brewers there are in the U.S. today.

Pink Boots Society’s Teri Fahrendorf in the lauter tun.

Pelican Brewery’s Burnside says that things haven’t changed all that much since the early days of women in the industry. She faced challenges breaking into the business just a few years ago. “I started knocking on brewery doors in the Seattle and Portland area. I wasn’t having any luck at all. I was actually not taken seriously. I’m really small and I’m short and I look really young. When the big burly guys opened the back door and saw me they were like: ‘You wanna work in a brewery?!’”

Even now, as the head brewer at Pelican, Burnside says it hasn’t been an easy ride. “You have to be kind of brave. I definitely am not expecting to work with women which is weird. It’s really frustrating working with just men because there’s still that bias. There are some men that have a definite problem and issue with working with women and treating them like an equal or feeling like an equal to them. I definitely have to work harder. Not only physically, but I also have to work harder to gain their respect. I’m used to it, and i’m up for it, it’s just frustrating.”

Still, women in brewing agree that the industry is changing. The fact that women are now allowed onto brewery floors at all is a step in the right direction. But it’s 2014 and women should be leaping, not stepping. The industry closely tracks the number of breweries and brewers in the U.S. (the U.S. Brewers Association says there were 2,500 breweries in June, 2013), why aren’t they tracking the number of women? It should be easy to do. If they can’t even put a number on how many women there are, then clearly they aren’t trying hard enough to include them.

Burnside says she hopes that women brewmasters like her will start to change perceptions of what it means to be a brewer. But, more than anything, “women need to drink more beer.” So, ladies, let’s all raise a frothy glass to the women brewers who are taking back beer one pint at a time.

The Only Woman in the Room

What it’s like to be outnumbered, and what we can do about it.

Thanks to LadyBits, Fruzsina Eördögh, and Adrienne LaFrance

    Erin Biba

    Written by

    Erin Biba

    Science Writer — BBC, Scientific American, Newsweek, Popular Science, WIRED, Adam Savage’s Tested and others. Former Fact Checker.

    The Only Woman in the Room

    What it’s like to be outnumbered, and what we can do about it.

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