A few weeks ago, Sara and I went to the second meeting of the Burning River Barley’s Angels. For those who are unfamiliar, Barley’s Angels is “a network of local chapters that work with craft beer-focused breweries to advance the female consumer craft beer enthusiast.” While it was my first time going to an actual beer tasting—an experience which I thoroughly enjoyed despite being much more of a wine devotee myself—it was also one of the first times I can remember going to an event designed exclusively for the meeting of women interested in a topic dominated largely by men. In 2013, it’s easy to make the assumption that we’re “post-sexism,” that men and women are generally equal in most things. After all, I wear pants and go to work every day at a job where I’m paid equal to what my male colleagues are. Why do I need to go to a female-only beer tasting?
In ancient Egypt, beer was drunk by all Egyptians, rich and poor, men and women, and the nation consumed great quantities of it. Linked with mythology, happiness, and living a civilized life in addition to providing valuable nutrients, the brew served as an important social glue. Evidence both in artwork and artifacts tells us that brewers had sophisticated recipes, using dregs of preview brews to start new batches and various numbered levels of alcohol content. These brewers, however, were almost exclusively women and in fact, the well-known goddess Hathor was called “the inventress of brewing,” and the “mistress of intoxication.”¹
Somewhere along the way, however, all that changed. These days it’s rare to find women who will even drink beer and far fewer who are enthusiastic about it. Rarer still are women who are active involved in creating and brewing beer. While this is somewhat of a “her loss” scenario—I think it’s a shame if women are missing out but really it isn’t my problem—it can be difficult to get men in the industry to take you seriously if you’re wandering around alone, wearing heels, on your way back from work in the beer cooler at your local supermarket. (See also: being a woman who knows her geek shit in a Best Buy looking for a specific, niche networking cable but that’s a gripe for another day.)
Barley’s Angels seeks to create a space where women can talk with one another about beer without men assuming they’re only drinking beer in the first place because their boyfriends do. At our recent meeting, we had the exceptional double-pleasure of both meeting with other women as well as being instructed by one. Jennifer Hermann, one of the three brewers at the Market Garden Brewery & Distillery, shared a wealth of knowledge about beer and the brewing process as well as her experiences as one of the few female brewers and cicerones in the country. She artfully explained the different brews we were tasting and explained why they fit so well with the various appetizers and entrees we were enjoying too. For a foodie, this was basically my dream scenario. I never once felt as if I couldn’t ask a question or that because my beer knowledge is still sort of limited, that my opinion on how disgusting a very, very bitter IPA are didn’t matter. Jennifer made a comment that she occasionally gives similar tours and tastings other groups largely composed of men and find that they’re more about talking and less about listening and that she thoroughly enjoys the teaching–learning dynamic she finds with other women.
I’m sure I could have tasted a variety of beers in another situation and probably have met plenty of guys who aren’t complete jerks, but this “girls’ club” was perfect for my first time out. I know that the things I learned made me more confident to make educated beer-buying choices in the future and I was inspired to do more research about the history behind flavors I do like. Maybe with more get-togethers like these across the country that open up opportunities to ladies to get to know this industry better, the United States will get back to the roots of its Western heritage and reestablish women in roles as top brewmasters.
So, am I completely off base here? Do you think I could have had as good a time in a mixed group? Do you think there’s value in getting together with people of your gender, sexuality, race, or other subculture group?