October 31, 2019 | Feature
cracking open a cold one
one woman’s exploration of beer’s past and present
A bottle of Heineken turns slowly on the screen, revealing the logo of the UEFA Champions League. The final game is the coming Saturday and, according to the narrator, “you are going to watch it with your friends, having a Heineken.” This is an actual commercial that aired in Brazil in May of 2014. The best part is, you can do this all “without ditching your wife, because this time, she is the one ditching you.” The narrator then announces the Heineken Shoe Sale: A women’s shoe sale that the company has scheduled at the exact time of the soccer game. The commercial goes on to delve into details and discounts, but the ultimate message remains: Soccer and beer (specifically Heineken) are for men, shoes and shopping are for women. Perhaps predictably, the commercial provoked a public outcry and was eventually removed from Heineken’s YouTube page. However, the commercial’s disappointing—and borderline nonsensical—assertions are nothing new in beer advertising.
In a Business Insider article about the ad in question, reporter Aaron Taube remarks, “It’s a curious business strategy. Why tell an entire one half of the world population not to buy your product? If a beer was advertised to both sexes, would men stop drinking it?” Yet this male-exclusive marketing has, more or less, been the reality of the industry until very recently. Even in the past year, I have seen countless commercials that suggested I, a woman, would and should have no interest in the beverage.
For example, take the 2004 Miller High Life 5 O’Clock Shadow commercial, which describes how every “High Life man” knows when 5:00 p.m.—the universal time at which consuming alcohol becomes acceptable—has arrived from the growth of his beard. Or recall Bud Light Lime’s “The Ultimate Fantasy” commercial, featuring UFC ring girl Arianny Celeste half-covered in a pile of limes, talking about how much she likes a guy that “can go more than one round.” Aside from the fact that these companies divide people up based on the gender binary, a flawed idea in and of itself, and play into stereotypes, they aren’t wrong for having a targeted audience. Brands like Nike or Coca-Cola produce ads directed specifically at men, women, and/or children in order to garner more attention for their products by forming connections between specific identity groups and their brands. What is strange is when an entire industry and its associated brands consistently target one audience exclusively and ignore or alienate everyone else.
In a way, this strategy is effective, given that compared to women, men are far more likely to favor beer over other alcoholic beverages, according to a 2017 Gallup Consumption Habits Survey. A 2018 laboratory simulation corroborated that men consume more beer in group settings than alone in order to assert their masculinity. Indeed, beer has rooted itself in Western culture as the quintessential manly drink. On television, even when shows like How I Met Your Mother and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia feature all people drinking beer, male characters tend to be restricted to beer while women can select from the full spectrum of alcoholic beverages. Additionally, I have heard a myriad of casual remarks made at parties, restaurants, and even family gatherings that paint beer as “a Man’s Man drink” or the go-to beverage for men in social settings and conjure images of men standing around a grill, drinking Coronas. Beer is the definitive cool drink, the opposite of “girly cocktails” or wine.
Notably, the masculinization of beer is relatively recent in Western culture. The earliest hard evidence of beer production reveals that Ancient Mesopotamian communities were brewing barley concoctions as early as 3400 B.C.E., though some historians believe that people had been brewing for hundreds of years prior. At that time, beer would have been a clean, nutritional alternative to drinking water from nearby contaminated rivers. Furthermore, as beer brewing was a kitchen task completed in the home, it was most likely considered women’s work. This is supported by the prevalence of female goddesses of beer in these ancient cultures. For instance, a clay tablet from 1800 B.C.E. contains an ode to Ninkasi—the Sumerian goddess of beer—as well as a female priestess’s beer recipe. Female goddesses of beer were not limited to Mesopotamia—Ancient Egyptians also worshipped a goddess of beer, Tenenit, and in Baltic and Slavic mythology, the goddess Raugutiene gave protection to beer and brewing.
When beer production became a business rather than another household chore, women initially maintained authority. In the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, “every mention of a tavern owner uses ‘she,’” states archeological anthropologist Patty Hamrick. Alewives, women who sold excess beer they’d made, emerged as a group around the fifth century C.E.. A few even ran small bars out of their homes. In the Benedictine Convent of Rupertsberg (12th century C.E.), Hildegard Von Bingen recommended hops as a preserving agent in her medical book Physica, at least 500 years before it would be popularized throughout the rest of Europe.
However, while homebrewing by women would persist for centuries (even well into the formation of the United States), the Renaissance saw the rise of trade guilds and large-scale production breweries. The laws which regulated these institutions excluded women entirely. Even worse, an estimated 80,000 suspected witches were put to death during the witch trials of Europe, 80 percent of whom were women, many female brewers among them. In her article “How Women Brewsters Saved the World,” historian Tara Nunin explains, “Some historians see clear similarities between brewsters and illustrations selected for anti-witch propaganda.” By the time of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, control over the brewing industry had transitioned almost entirely to men.
Teri Fahrendorf, founder of the Pink Boots Society, an organization for women in the beer industry, explains how this historic transition made beer into the cultural touchstone it is today, stating, “Beer became known as a man’s beverage because it was made by men . . . Suddenly it was maybe not so ladylike to have a beer.”
More recently, in the United States, “the tightly defined gender roles of the ’50s and Mad Men-era marketers created an image of beer as a drink for men, made by commercial breweries where women were valued only as promotional vehicles,” according to Tara Nurin. Women were wiped off the byline of beer as if they’d never been there, and beer-drinking was branded as a masculine activity.
One interesting and perhaps counterintuitive residual of this trend is the enduring trope of the beer-liking woman. Popularized by movies like There’s Something About Mary and Miss Congeniality, this ideal involves female characters and love interests enjoying a beer or bemoaning “girly” drinks. For instance, in the former movie, Mary (played by Cameron Diaz) explains her ideal man to a friend: “I want a guy who can play 36 holes of golf and still have enough energy to take Warren and me to a baseball game, and eat sausages, and beer, not light beer, but BEER.” These “cool” girls have miraculously managed to not be turned off by the endless beer ads utilizing rhetoric that ignores or denigrates their experiences. Some advertisements, like a 1996 Bud Light Commercial about a woman who insists on keeping her bottle of beer from her partner, even perpetuate this female ideal.
I have met many women who legitimately like beer, many who drink it if it’s present, and many who despise it. And for every man I’ve met who feels pressured to drink beer, I’ve met a woman who feels a similar pressure. I myself have never particularly enjoyed beer, though I’ve also never actively disliked it. Still, I have certainly picked up a can of Narragansett at a dorm party in an attempt to look cool. Yet the pressure women feel to drink beer is intrinsically different from that of men; while men might drink beer to be “real men,” women often consume the beverage so as to “not be like other girls.” It’s not just that beer is known to be a masculine drink, it’s that other more typically feminine-coded drinks are widely perceived as less than, and thus so are those who drink them. It’s an irrational mindset, basing a person’s value on their alcoholic beverage preference—made all the more ridiculous given that those so-called “girly drinks” tend to have a much higher alcohol content (wine, for example, contains 11-13% alcohol, while beer has only 4.5%) and are thus “tougher” on the body.
However, with the rise of the craft beer industry and cultural movements against sexism like #MeToo during the 21st century, beer is slowly but surely shedding its historic exclusivity. Twenty-nine percent of brewery workers in the United States are female according to a 2014 study by Auburn University, which despite being a small percentage represents a meaningful increase from decades past. In 2018, the first female-focused beer festival in the United States, Dames and Dregs, took place in Atlanta, Georgia, providing an opportunity for women in the industry to share their work and experiences. Women-led organizations like the Pinks Boots Society offer scholarships, networking, and other resources, empowering women in the beer industry to advance their careers. Since its founding in 2007, the Pink Boots Society has expanded from 16 members to over 2,500 in about 30 countries today.
Perhaps the most public display of this shift can be found in the most recent NFL Super Bowl in February 2019. Two major beer brands, Stella Artois and Michelob Ultra, produced commercials featuring actresses Sarah Jessica Parker and Zoe Kravitz respectively. The ads show Parker in her titular role of Carrie Bradshaw, advocating for Stella Artois’s partnership for the #PourItForward clean water campaign, and Kravitz performing ASMR with a bottle of Michelob Ultra. The actresses are shown not as sexualized accessories to their respective beers, but as people who simply enjoy the beverages. Even more exciting: The Michelob Ultra ad was produced by a women-led team. The advertising campaign was also commissioned by a woman, Azania Andrews, who is the current vice-president of Anheuser-Busch Marketing, the department responsible for the public image of major beer brands like Budweiser, Michelob, and Natural Light.
Much work has to be done before beer can truly be considered an inclusive, gender-neutral beverage. Nevertheless, the work of women in beer is slowly but surely turning the tide. Even more importantly, these women are creating a future for others. Andrews states in an interview with Advertising Age, “First and foremost, as a woman in marketing, a woman in beer, with all the conversations around diversity, I feel that I want to use my power for good and I feel a responsibility to try to create equity in the industry by creating opportunities for women.”
As consumers, we also have the power to change the beer industry for the better. Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone has to drink beer. But if you do like to crack open a cold one, perhaps take a little extra time to consider beer’s complex history the next time you do—and pick a brand committed to making beer a beverage for all.