Beer: The women taking over the world of brewing
The number of professional women brewers is on the rise in the UK and they are becoming increasingly influential, according to leading industry figures. Why?
Jane Austen brewed beer when she wasn’t busy writing novels.
Men dominate brewing now and the industry has had something of a beard-and-cardigan image, but in Austen’s day it was part of her household duties and had been women’s work for thousands of years.
But female brewers, or brewsters as they are traditionally known, are said to be on the rise again and are being credited with helping reinvigorate the beer industry.
There is no official figure for how many women currently brew professionally but you don’t have to look hard to find them.
A woman is the most influential brewer in the country, according to industry figures. Emma Gilleland is head of supply chain at Marston’s, the UK’s leading independent brewer. It produces over 60 ales from five breweries and she is responsible for the quality of every single pint.
Jane Austen the brewer
It is a truth that should be universally acknowledged – Jane Austen not only drank beer but brewed it too.
As a teenager she would have learned how to make beer by helping her mother in the Hampshire vicarage where she grew up.
Brewing was part of household duties and even the women of genteel 18th Century families such as the Austens would know how to do it, even if the chores were sometimes delegated to domestic staff.
In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Jane wrote ‘…. and I that have the great cask, for we are brewing spruce beer again…. ‘
As in most houses small beer (low alcohol) was served at the Austen dining table as a safe source of drinking water for all members of the family – children too – so Jane would certainly have tasted the results of her labour.
Another woman held the title of Brewer of the Year in 2013, awarded by the British Guild of Beer Writers. Sara Barton, who owns and runs Brewster’s Brewery in Lincolnshire, was the first woman to win the award in its 20-year history.
Women brewers opening their own businesses are also helping to drive a boom in the number of breweries in the UK, says Roger Protz, editor of the 2014 Good Beer Guide. A record-breaking 197 breweries opened last year, according to its figures. The total number in the UK has hit a 70-year high of 1,147.
“More and more women are setting up their own breweries and becoming head brewers at well-established ones,” he says. “Their influence is really growing in the industry, just look at Emma Gilleland. It’s exciting to see.”
Brewing is coming full circle, say historians. The earliest evidence of beer in Britain dates back roughly 4,000 years and women were the primary brewers from the start, says Jane Peyton, alcohol historian and author of Beer O’Clock: Craft, Cask and Culture.
“Beer was food and food preparation was the domain of females. Ale was traditionally made in the home and brewed for the family. It was part of the daily diet for everyone – children included. It provided nutrition and was a safe source of drinking water. Anything left over was usually sold, often providing a valuable income for households.”
But social and economic change gradually took beer production from the home into factories and out of the control of women. Beer started to be made by men largely for men.
“By the mid-20th Century beer had been assigned a gender and that gender was male,” says Peyton
So why the resurgence in brewsters now? Many things have helped create a “perfect storm” in which women brewers are flourishing, says Melissa Cole, ale expert and author of Let Me Tell You About Beer.
The increased visibility of the few females who were already in the industry has played a big part. Their success has opened up brewing as a career choice to a whole new generation of young women. At the same time society, attitudes and gender stereotypes continue to change.
People are also more interested in what they eat and drink. Provenance, freshness and how things are made have become more important to consumers.
“These are all things embraced by female brewers,” says Cole. “They use local, seasonal fruit, vegetables and spices to brew and play with flavours and people like that. They think of beer and how it goes with food, like you would with wine. They are also collaborative, into sharing ideas and innovating. They want to share the love.
“Women are making beer a lot more interesting these days and as a result a lot more people want to get involved.”
Barton, who founded her brewery in 1998 and has been a trailblazer for women in the industry, agrees that imagination is what women bring to brewing and it is a big part of their increasing success.
“Men can be tied to the more traditional ways of doing things whereas we think outside the boring, brown, bitter box. We’re not forever going down the hoppier, stronger route.”
Many female brewers have found themselves at the heart of the recent boom in craft beer, which generally refers to small-batch beer brewed at smaller, independent breweries. While UK beer sales in general have been in decline for almost a decade, sales of craft beer grew by 79% in the year up to August 2013, according to research by food and drink consultants CGA Strategy.
“Women brewers can take a lot of credit for craft beer’s huge success,” says Tim Hampson, chair of the British Guild of Beer Writers. “They are making some of the best beer in the country.”
Women who love beer
The success of brewsters has been matched by an increase in the number of women drinking beer. The number trying real ale for example has jumped from 14% to 34% in the past three years, according to the Campaign For Real Ale (Camra). Women now account for 22% of its 150,000-strong membership. Female-only beer tasting groups are on the rise and Sophie Atherton was named Beer Sommelier of the Year in 2013.
Established brewsters are committed to continuing to open up the industry and beer to as many women as possible. They realise it’s good for brewing and good for business.
Barton is the founder of Project Venus. It brings together women who brew professionally to showcase the best of female brewing. The group has produced eight of its own beers.
Many brewsters also invite women with a curiosity but no practical experience to brew with them. The aim is to dispel the misconceptions surrounding beer and the mystery surrounding the business. Barton might have a Masters in brewing and a degree in biochemistry, but she says you don’t need either to brew beer.
It can only result in more women in all areas of the industry, say those in the business. And some people have even bigger dreams.
“Alcohol is currently so demonised but I’d like to get to the point where brewing is pushed in schools as a career choice to young girls who are interested in science,” says Cole.