Until the 18th Century beer was the drink of choice for all Northern Europeans regardless of gender, class and socio-economic status, explains Beer Sommelier Annabel Smith, a regular guest on both radio and TV in the UK and co-author of The Beer Agenda, the recently-published report into women’s attitudes to beer.
“We can identify a change in attitudes towards beer around the time of the Industrial Revolution when brewing changed from being a rural cottage industry to big business; as cities and towns grew ever larger and factories and mills employed tens of thousands of workers, beer needed to be brewed on a mass scale to quench the thirst of the workers and therefore became associated with the working classes. Women were widely discouraged from entering pubs and taverns; they were a male haven and up until fairly recently many trade-associated clubs had ‘male-only’ areas.”
“This whole period coincided with breweries understanding the power of advertising. Beer brands positioned their product as a drink imbibed by men, the breadwinners, served to them by women.”
This attitude prevailed until the late 20th Century.
“If women did fancy a beer, they were offered it in a ‘ladies glass’. Generations of women were led to believe that it was unladylike to drink beer (this opinion was frequently imposed and reinforced by other women as well as men).”
Beer barriers for women
Today, women are embracing the beer market much more openly but when you’ve got 200 years of history to unravel there’s still a long way to go….
So it would be fair to state that at present it’s not as straightforward for a woman wishing to drink beer as a man doing so for a number of reasons.
“It’s not such an issue in the off-trade,” she states, “But in the on-trade there’s still an assumption amongst servers that a woman is unlikely to be the beer drinker. Therefore they don’t get offered a recommendation, or advice, or a taster sample. This is where staff training becomes key: if a women is a novice beer drinker, it’s patronising to assume she will only like something light, fizzy and bland! Staff need to ask questions such as ‘What flavours do you like?’ and ‘What would you normally drink?”.
The Beer Agender research showed that there are still multiple barriers to women drinking beer.
“Some are obvious ones, such as marketing, volume of liquid and concern about calorific content but, interestingly, a big barrier is how others perceive them – both men and women. They worry about how beer-drinking makes them look; does it give off the wrong impression? Are they somehow inferior to the gin and fizz brigade? “When we interviewed men about this issue, the majority were very positive. But when we interviewed women they were very negative about beer-drinking women and were quite judgemental.”
Marketing beer to women
Beer advertising used frequently feature demeaning sexual imagery and not-so-subtle references to who should be drinking it, she states.
The advent of the US Craft Beer movement in the latter half of the 20th Century started shifting attitudes. But some brewers tried to capture the female market by brewing ‘beer for women’ – to widespread derision.
To a certain extent beer producers/advertisers have got the message now, “… but I think their hand has been forced by external regulators. Whilst we may have eradicated overtly sexist advertising and marketing, there’s still a huge amount of masculine-orientated imagery and brand names on cans, bottles and pump clips. Subconsciously, it still gives the message that beer is for men”.
CAMRA’s banning of beers with sexist names or artwork at the recent Great British Beer Festival in London represents long overdue progress she believes.
CAMRA National Director Abigail Newton went so far as to say she found it “hard to understand why some brewers would actively choose to alienate the vast majority of their potential customers with material likely to only appeal to a tiny and shrinking percentage”.
Whilst some may argue that beer names and pump clip imagery are ‘only a joke’, it’s not funny if you’re not in on the joke.
“It makes a mockery of the whole beer industry to name a beer ‘Leg Spreader’ (yes, that’s a real beer!) or feature a scantily-clad busty blonde on a pump clip,” she points out, “Think of it this way: would a global organisation like PepsiCo or Unilever do it? No. It’s lazy, outdated and pathetic marketing which alienates 50% of your potential consumers.”
Annabel feels that a lot of beer producers are now aware of a shift in attitude, understand the issues and have addressed them.
“Ultimately, if they don’t, it will impact on their sales and profits, so their culture has changed.
“Whereas once they would have experimented with the ‘beer for women’ category, they now understand that this isn’t the right approach. They’re starting to understand that there’s a massive untapped market out there if they position their brands correctly through appropriate marketing.
“Retailers are a different beast and this can only be addressed through training,” she believes, “Don’t make assumptions about what a customer is going to order based on their gender.”
On- & Off-trade opportunity
For publicans, the frequency of women visiting pubs has overtaken that of men, she believes.
“Women choose a venue based on safety, cleanliness, environment, staff attitude and the choice of drinks available. There’s a massive opportunity to make a bar ‘beer friendly’ for females and encourage them to embrace the category.
“For the off-trade it’s still largely the female who makes most of the major purchases for a household. In terms of beer purchase, if there’s no advice or guidance, they’ll go for the ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ option as a default. If more information is made available and knowledgeable, well-trained staff can direct that female to a well-informed choice that usually has a higher profit margin than the loss-leaders.”
A question of taste
Everyone’s taste, regardless of gender, is subjective. For example, some people reject dark beers such as stout because when they look at it they think it’s going to be heavy and strong and bitter.
“They drink with their eyes,” explains Annabel, “So I always ask ‘What flavours do you like? Coffee and chocolate? Grapefruit? Tropical fruits? Biscuits? Bread? Dried fruit?’.
“It’s always useful to find out what other drinks they enjoy. If they like the botanicals in gin, they’d probably adapt to a New World IPA. If they love hot chocolate, direct them to a porter. If they love the subtlety and dryness of vodka, let them experience a grassy herbal Pilsner. Champagne fans will adore an ice-cold crisp wheat beer and cognac-lovers will appreciate a strong alcoholic barley wine.
“I also ask what foods are their favourite: a spicy Vindaloo or a mild Korma? Delicate fish or gamey meat? Pairing beer with food can bring a whole new dimension to the drink that wine can’t.
“Try pairing a fruit beer with chocolate, duck or goats cheese.”
And she’s a firm believer in ‘premiumising’ beer.
“It’s not a poor relation to wine” she points out, “it’s a head-on contender. Have a beer menu as well as a wine menu in bars and make food matching recommendations a priority.”
She also suggests having a look at the way it’s served. Ideally, she’d like the trade to stop talking about beer in ‘pints’.
“We need to offer people a ‘glass of beer’ rather than a pint of beer. It removes the ‘volume’ barrier for women.
“Have elegant, gorgeous glassware,” she advises.
Beer snobbery emerging
And just like wine she believes that there’s an emerging snobbery about beer.
“For example it’s cool to drink one brand of artisan craft beer over a mass-produced brand. I feel this is counter-productive to anyone, regardless of gender, wanting to engage with the beer category.
“Drink whatever beer suits your palate, be it a mass-produced lager or a small-batch artisan craft beer. Ignore the snobs, ignore the judgement, it’s your hard-earned money paying for that beer and don’t feel belittled.”