The return of the brewsters

What does it mean to be female in the beer industry?

By Kevin J. Gray

Photo: Massie Lawson from Dark Horse Brewing Company

Before the Industrial Revolution pushed them to the margins, women were the dominant brewers of beer. Today, women are rejoining the beer world. In doing so, they are bringing to light issues related to inclusivity in that industry.

To understand the part gender plays within craft beer today, I explored two questions with three women in the industry. First, what barriers, if any, did women face in the craft beer world? Second, how do advocacy groups help address underrepresentation?

Tara Nurin is a New Jersey-based beer writer, publicity director for Pink Boots Society (an industry advocacy group for women) and co-owner of Ferment Your Event, a beer events planning company. Massie Lawson, from Columbus, Ohio, has worked in many roles within the industry and is the national director of sales and marketing relations at Dark Horse Brewing Company. Natalie Phillips, of Dayton, Ohio, has worked in bars, retail establishments and breweries, co-chairs Big Beer and Barley Wines and co-founded Brew Sisters, Dayton’s women and beer advocacy group.

Nurin saw her gender not as a barrier, but rather as a gateway: “It has opened a lot of doors. The column I write for Ale Street is specifically about women and beer, that’s called ‘Athena’s Fermentables.’ The way I started writing for Ale Street was that I wrote a guest column about women and beer, and some of my articles for other publications have been about women and beer. And I run Beer for Babes, which is New Jersey’s original women’s beer appreciation group. So, I’ve been able to make that a sub-niche of mine and I wouldn’t necessarily be able to do it if I were a man.”

Lawson, however, noted challenges in the industry. “The real problem about women and craft beer isn’t that we’re the minority, it’s the fact the industry that we are in is sexualized, period,” she said. “And it makes it harder for women who are working hard in the industry.”

Lawson blames big beer.

“Before craft beer was booming, you’d see a Bud Light sign or Miller Lite sign with a girl in a bikini. … Women are typically seen in the beer perspective as sexual objects, so when you have women working within the bounds, even though it’s craft beer, you’re still going to be treated in that group.”

Phillips noted the industry has been mostly welcoming: “At least in the Dayton beer scene, everybody here had open arms, nobody ever treated me like I was a minority.” However, Phillips and Lawson each reported situations involving harassment in work settings in which they both felt powerless and ultimately left their jobs. “When you get into the beer world, it’s such a small industry, and everybody knows everybody,” Phillips explained. “Then it comes down to credibility – who they are going to believe – and I didn’t want to have to deal with any of that.”

The issues Lawson and Phillips encountered speak to the need for women to have a larger voice in the industry, but there is no consensus on how to achieve that goal. Lawson explained, “There are barriers in every industry for women. The only thing we can do about it is to continue to fight for a fair wage in every industry and continue to fight to be treated equally.” Lawson has concerns about women-only groups. “The longer I’m in the industry, the more I feel that segregating women as a group isn’t helping us, it’s hurting us. … If we continue to be women and separate, we’re never going to be equal.”

Phillips understands Lawson’s concern, but sees how these groups can help women. “[Groups do] make women feel more comfortable to be around other women, which is where the idea of Brew Sisters came from. I wanted it to pull more women into [craft beer] and I think it does get intimidating when it’s an all-male world and you are the only woman sitting there.”

Nurin doesn’t see segregation, but rather champions advocacy groups as a means towards empowerment. “[Pink Boots Society funds] scholarships for women in all facets of the beer industry; we support and set up chapters all over the world. Much like these ‘women in beer’ groups, Pink Boots chapters bring professional women together in one region for workshops and beer critiques, etc. We have meetings and lectures throughout the year around the world.”

The conclusion? The industry can be empowering, but when gender-based issues occur, there are not adequate means of addressing them. Although women are gaining power within craft beer, they still too often feel marginalized. Yet, women in the industry don’t agree on how to fix these issues. Does “being equal” mean assimilating into a male-driven culture or does it mean bringing additional voices into the discussion? Do advocacy groups help or hinder women trying to find equal footing?

Craft beer’s increasing inclusion of women and minorities is an encouraging sign. However, these issues will become more pressing as the industry diversifies. My hope? That craft beer answers with the overwhelming spirit of social responsibility that often differentiates the craft beer industry.

Kevin J. Gray is Dayton City Paper’s Resident Beer Geek. A firm believer in all things balance, when Kevin isn’t drinking craft beer, he’s hiking or biking to keep his beer belly in optimal shape. Reach Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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