Women drinking beer is still an anomaly. Women brewing beer even more so. Why did beer become a masculine pastime?
BY LILY SCHIM VAN DER LOEFF
Last week I went to a bar and ordered a beer. As I was enjoying it, a man approached me. He scanned me from top to bottom and said: “it is extremely unattractive for a woman to drink beer.” He then stalked off, leaving me speechless.
A friend of mine brews and sells her own beer, together with her sister. They started experimenting in their own kitchen and now run a successful company, employing multiple people. Their beer sells all over the Netherlands, and, perhaps more randomly, in China. Recently, she was invited to speak about brewing beer at a public event. As she walked onto the stage, the moderator said: “I’m so glad that you’re here, because of the name of your brewing company”. The name of their beer, Gebrouwen door Vrouwen, translates to Brewed by Women. Again, I was perplexed. Was she only invited because of the name? Incidentally, her beer was definitely more well-known than that of her male co-panelists.
Women drinking beer is still an anomaly. Women brewing beer even more so. For the past few weeks I’ve been racking my brain as to why.
Beer is a beverage as old as time. Historians find it hard to pinpoint the exact moment the drink emerged, but it is generally understood that it springs from the earliest civilisations. The history of beer is entangled with the religious, ethnic and culinary traditions within a lot of cultures around the world. Beer was safer than water, so it was brewed and drunk at home by the entire family, including the children. Like all things made at home, it was the woman’s responsibility. So, the earliest recorded brewers of beer were women. However, at some point, drinking, as well as making beer, became a masculine pastime. What happened?
A Google search leaves us none the wiser. Scientific articles, lifestyle bloggers and beer brewers all seem to have different theories to explain gendered drinking and production patterns.
A theory that popped up a number of times is that women simply enjoy beer less than men and therefore drink it less. There is scientific evidence that supports the theory that women experience taste differently from men. Studies show that women are more likely to be so-called supertasters. A supertaster experiences taste with greater intensity, especially flavors within the bitter range. The skill of next-level tasting can be taught, but women are genetically inclined to learn this quicker than men. This might explain why women appreciate the bitterness of beer less than men.
When I asked a beer sommelier - who’s also a big Gebrouwen door Vrouwen enthusiast - why beer drinking is an archetypal male drink; his answer was that for decades now brewers, men and, let’s face it - most of society - have assumed that women did not like beer. This translated into a marketing system that focused on the male species. When beer turned from a family beverage into an industrialized product sold on a large scale, it became a male drink, a masculine drink.
But, we might all be familiar with this discussion in one way or another. So let’s move the conversation to the present. Studies show that the drinking gender gap is closing. On a global scale women are almost drinking the same amount of alcohol as men. As their position on the labour market improves, so does their alcohol consumption. At the same time, there is a craft beer renaissance, which caters to all sorts of different taste buds. In Amsterdam alone, the number of beer brewers multiplied by ten in the past ten years. So why do we still have to watch commercials with bearded men chopping wood trying to appeal to only 50% of the world’s population?
Old habits die hard. What if the collective misapprehension about gender beer drinking patterns is simply a remnant from the past? Social norms originating from a different time - like so many other behavioural traits of women - pressuring women to be soft-spoken, charming and not to drink beer?
Rebecca Solnit, the accidental instigator of the term mansplaining, wrote in her essay ‘Men explain things to me’ that some men still regard women “as an empty vessel, to be filled with their wisdom and knowledge”. This is no quantitatively measurable statement, but rather her individual experience (and that of many women). It refers to the automatic assumption of some men that women like to have things explained to them. Just like the man who felt that he had the right and need to tell me that drinking beer was an unattractive thing to do for a woman.
So why is beer-drinking still linked to men? I think it’s part of a larger societal issue. Men still write the playbook. Even in the Netherlands, a country which is often associated with progressive policy and social emancipation, women still do not occupy the same professional space as men. It has already proved to be difficult to have women occupy a mere 30% of top management positions in the country.
And as long as men still write the rules, nothing will stop them from telling us what to drink.
LILY SCHIM VAN DER LOEFF