girls just want to drink beer

The brewing industry’s complicated history with masculinity

Historically, brewing has been a feminine trade. Many cite women as the primary brewers in ancient Mesopotamia; Sumerians worshipped a female goddess of beer. Brewing used to be largely a domestic duty—brews were valued more for calories than inebriation. Although they often just made enough beer for their household, successful brewsters (the female form of brewers) could act as small-scale retailers. Alewives in medieval England produced the majority of British beer and occupied a respected, stable profession.

But a shift in the industry occurred after the Black Plague in the mid-14th century. As brewing became increasingly professionalized, men started to dominate the industry. Guilds and regulations shut out home production—and alewives with them. By the 16th century, female brewing became synonymous with sexual promiscuity and sin. An English city even passed a law prohibiting women between 14 and 40 from selling ale, hoping to limit the trade to non-sexually desirable women. In the New World, male brewers reigned—the first American brewster, according to the Institute of Brewing Studies, wasn’t even documented until 1734.

Fast forward to today: Beer is a stereotypically male drink. It’s football, it’s frats, it’s dudes being dudes. Mainstream beer ads are inextricably linked to hypermasculinity: They ridicule men for not conforming to masculine standards, and, as in the case of a series of Miller Light ads, literally tell guys to “man up.” Women typically aren’t present in these ads—they’re not the beer drinkers, they’re probably off drinking something fruity and “girly”—and when they do appear, they’re usually sexualized.

Craft beer companies tend to have less gender-stereotyped advertising. It’s hard to be too misogynistic when all of your ad copy is about heritage and tradition—even if your press photo is of a guy standing proudly in front of the vats of beer. Tacit male domination is the name of the game, though there are women making inroads in the craft brewing world. However, the craft beer movement has started to realize it’s alienating women with its most visible means: its labels.

Pinup models on beer packaging have become almost ubiquitous. Not every beer is named “Crazy Bitch” or emblazoned with busty German girls, but these beers clearly do exist—and they’re not made by Anheuser-Busch, but by your favorite local brewery. Pig Minds Brewing Co. drew criticism this summer when it released its PD (short for “Panty Dropper”) Blueberry Ale. The label pictured a silhouette of a knock-kneed women with panties around her ankles, and the copy advocated using the beer as a way to get into girls’ pants. This may be unsurprising coming from the same company that previously released Donkey Punch Irish Ale, but the label sparked conversation about the treatment of women in the beer community.

This conversation is particularly relevant given the recent surge of brew-sipping women. Women ages 21-34 are now more likely to pick up a craft beer than the national average, and women overall make up about 37% of craft beer’s market share. All eyes are on young women, not the stereotypical beer bro, as the future typical beer drinker—or at the very least a sizeable and increasingly vocal faction. All this despite the fact that beer isn’t marketed towards women, even when it isn’t being outright offensive towards them.

The reasons why the beer community hasn’t caught up to its new demographic are complex: There’s the masculinity baggage, there are assumptions about what women like to drink, and there’s the fact that women aren’t usually  calling the shots. Though there are countless examples of amazing women carving out a space for themselves in the beer world, they tend to abound in fields like sales, marketing, social media, and criticism. It’s much rarer to see female brewery owners or head brewsters.

The beer community isn’t doomed to be sexist, despite its messy origins and current dilemmas. Even those who call for change in the space emphasize the inclusive and accessible nature of the brewing community. Craft beer has a long way to go, but hopefully all the right ingredients are there.