Sisterhood of the Suds

This was featured in the November/December 2011 issue of the Michigan Beer Guide, as part of a series I’m writing on Women & Craft Beer. This is the longer version of the article; you may read the published version at the Beer Guide website. It is reprinted with permission.

Stitch-n-bitch circles, scrapbooking sessions, the Red Hat Society, all-female book clubs, mommy-and-me groups, and the list goes on: clearly, women thrive on sharing experiences and maintaining close circles of like-minded companions. For any interest, hobby or passion, there is likely an all-female group devoted to enjoying it together. And with craft beer stealthily making its way onto the collective female radar, it makes sense that groups of women who gather to appreciate and learn about microbrews are popping up everywhere.

Across the board, women’s beer groups emphasize inclusion and shun snobbery. These clubs exist to promote beer enjoyment among experts and the uninitiated alike, and hinge on creating a friendly, encouraging environment.

On the national level, there are several all-woman, beer-centric groups, each with its own unique focus. Perhaps the most well known is the Pink Boots Society, whose mission is to “inspire, encourage and empower women to advance their careers in the Beer Industry through networking and education.” Members of this Society include any female who earns any portion of her income through the beer industry, whether she’s a brewery owner, bartender, or anything in between. There are about a dozen members of the Pink Boots Society residing in Michigan, ranging from Certified Cirerone Annette May to brewers, writers and owners.

For women not employed within the beer industry, but simply interested in enjoying craft beer, there is the affiliated Barley’s Angels. This group is designed to “foster beer appreciation in women, teach women’s role in beer history, encourage women to homebrew, and inspire the next generation of potential women beer professionals.” There are currently chapters in at least six states including Illinois and Minnesota, as well as in Canada, the UK, Australia and Argentina.

Christine Jump, producer and host of the audio interview program Craft Brew Cast, sponsored the very first Barley’s Angels group. “I thought that I didn’t like beer for three quarters of my life,” recalls Christine. “The idea that I could help other women discover the marvelous variety of craft brew was a very easy sell. My hope is that women will discover that craft beers are so widely varied; there is literally something for everyone.” Another “consumer-focused,” national group is Girls’ Pint Out, established to promote “solidarity between beer drinkers of the fairer sex;” they have chapters in at least five states.

Both consumers and professionals may join Women Enjoying Beer (WEB), “an education based company that develops and serves the female beer consumers … [and] works with professional beer community members to accurately and successfully market beer to women.”

Some groups are based more on face-to-face interaction, and feature monthly events like brewery visits and themed beer tastings. Others, such as Ladies of Craft Beer, are geared towards fostering online communities of women.

In addition to national groups, there are myriad local groups across the country. For example, there’s Women’s In Pursuit of Ale (IPA) Club of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, Beer for Babes in New Jersey and Ales 4 Females in Colorado. In Michigan – a state simply awash in superior craft beer – the female beer appreciation group scene is in its fledgling stages. However, we’re off to a respectable start.

Detroit has Detroit Draft Divas, which launched in the spring of 2011 under the direction of Copper Canyon Brewery head brewer Todd Parker, who identifies himself as “consultant, liaison, and mascot” for the club.

Todd set out to “establish a Metro Detroit area group for like-minded women interested in craft beer … women interested in learning more about beer and brewing in a more comfortable setting,” and the group has more than met this goal. “I am very happy with what we have done. We have created a group that has some dedicated members, and set up a communications structure to get the word out. It is not huge yet, but with time, it will only get bigger.”

The Divas meet at a different location each month; events may include a brewery tour, an informational gathering followed by lunch (and a few pints, of course), or a party at an area brewery. According to Cindy Hegenauer, a founding member of the group, there are currently about 25 regular attendees, representing “almost the whole spectrum of female craft beer drinkers.”

On the other side of the state, Grand Rapids is home to the PussyCat Beer Guild. Inspired by the Pink Boots Society and initiated by HopCat owner Michele Sellers and HopCat staff, the Guild dates to the summer 0f 2008. “We hoped to encourage women to be open and bold about their appreciation for good beer, whether they’re a brewer, an aficionado, or simply just interested in learning more,” explains Sheryl Rose Marshall, who is involved in running the club. “We’ve realized that goal in varying degrees over the years, and continue to attract new members and interest in what we do.”

Ladies of the PussyCat Beer Guild

Meeting attendance usually hovers below 10 women, although there were 20 females at the largest meeting and there are more than 50 “members” in the Facebook group. “Feedback has been excellent,” confides Sheryl. Sheryl admits that there is a certain amount of preaching to the choir, as “nearly every woman who has come to a meeting was already on the craft beer bandwagon in some way.”

But, all members ultimately benefit from the enthusiasm and combined knowledge of the group. “We’ve had a few women who had never homebrewed and were excited to attend our off-site group brew days to learn how. Once in awhile, someone will come in and say she only likes a certain type of beer, but we’ve been successful in encouraging her to try new things by evaluating what it is that she likes about the beer she does drink, then finding a beer in a different style with the attributes she expressed as desirable.”

On a side note, “men often comment that they wish the woman in their life would get involved with us,” says Sheryl.

Also in Grand Rapids is the Ladies Ale Society at Schmohz Brewery, where 50 to 80 ladies attend meetings. Begun with a beer tasting event in October 2010 and scheduled for a meeting in early November 2011, this Society centers on encouraging women “to try beers that they normally might be steered away from,” says Schmohz “Beer Engineer” Chas Thompson. “Too many times, I see ladies being overly influenced by male companions and not getting the opportunity to try very many things,” Chas says.

Although not the brewery-home of a structured club, Wolverine State Brewing Company in Ann Arbor hosted their first “Real Women Drink Beer” event in June 2011. The female-centric night was such a success that similar events are now in the works on a twice-yearly basis, with the next get-together scheduled for February 2012.

As director of sales and marketing E.T. Crowe (also known as The Beer Wench) explains, “I know the traditional ‘Ladies’ Night’ is a ploy to get women in by offering them drink specials. I wanted this to be a true Ladies Only Night where we could gather, meet, drink, learn and relax with a little pampering action.” Notice how she just slipped the “learning” right in there? Perhaps lured by free massages, munchies and henna tattoos, it was the first visit to a “beer bar” for many of the ladies who attended.

"The Beer Wench" leads a tour at Wolverine

“I worried a little that I’d get my regular crowd,” continues E.T. “Nothing wrong with regulars mind you! But I really wanted to offer this as something new for women who would never in a million years consider coming to a “tap room” to meet their friends to enjoy a craft beer. I would guess the crowd was split 20/80, with a solid 80 percent either completely new to the place or to craft beer generally.”

Women living far from the bustle of Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids or Detroit should not count themselves out. It only takes a handful of members to create a successful women’s beer appreciation group. Starting a group can be as easy as visiting a local brewery and talking with a brewer, bartender or female mug club member about when an inaugural meeting could occur, and how to get the word out. Social web sites like Facebook, Meetup and Google and Yahoo Groups also make ascertaining interest, building membership and inter-group communication simple and quick, whether or not there’s a brewery nearby. And, already-established national or international groups are yet another option for finding a female beer clan.

Women and craft brews are a perfect match, and women flourish within groups of “sisters;” female clubs devoted to the enjoyment of craft beer are a natural culmination. Michigan, as The Great Beer State, has a bright future ahead of her, full of passionate groups of ladies who appreciate, evaluate and enthusiastically quaff our outstanding brews.

Advertisements

Maumee Bay Brewing Company at the historic Oliver House

This blog is dedicated to the flavors of Michigan, but once in awhile I venture from our fair state. If craft beer is waiting on the other end, all the better. Recently, I worked up a good thirst during a visit to the Kitty Todd Nature Preserve just west of Toledo, Ohio; thankfully, the Maumee Bay Brewing Company was just a short drive away.

The drive turned out to be intriguing in and of itself, as it took us from rural farmland to busy commercial streets, through run-down neighborhoods and finally into the heart of downtown Toledo. Toledo is a city with a rich past and the potential for a successful future, but that seems to be caught in a backwater of recession. I guess it could go either way for Toledo, but the good news is that it rather reminds me of Grand Rapids, Michigan, about 15 years ago. Downtown Grand Rapids has grown by amazing leaps and bounds since then, so there’s no reason to give up on this other Great Lakes city. Especially not when it features such establishments as the Oliver House.

Over 150 years old, the Oliver House began as a hotel before the Civil War and now houses eight or nine different venues. Located on the second floor in the former ballroom, the Maumee Bay Brewing Company is what drew me to this gracious building. I was disappointed to learn that the brewpub itself was closed when we arrived for lunch, but things quickly turned around when we learned that we could order the Brewing Company’s beer at The Café, a hip spot on the ground floor that boasts a charming patio.

Before we get to the beer, a quick comment on the food at The Café: it was great! Wonderful selection, including many more vegetarian options than I’m used to, plenty of healthy dishes, and decent portions. It would have been a welcome stop even without the beer. But, since we were at a brewery, foregoing the beer just wasn’t an option for me! I quickly ordered up a sampling flight of six different brews.

First on the flight was Buckeye Beer, 5.2% ABV and billed as a “light beer.” My expectations were very low, so I actually enjoyed this brew more than I thought I would. It is a touch better than the token “microbrew for macrobrew drinkers” I’ve come to expect from most breweries. With a pale straw hue and a foamy white head that doesn’t stick around very long, the aroma is sweet and malty. The flavor is crisp and sweet with a faint backing of hops. It wouldn’t be the beer I’d ever order a pint of, but it is highly drinkable.

Next up was the Summit Street Pale Ale, which I learned is the replacement for the Glass City Pale Ale. Glimmering a bright coppery gold in the glass, the nose of this 5.1% ABV brew is herbaceous, with a twist of tangerine. The flavor is grassy and clean, with a drying mouthfeel. Usually I make a beeline for the IPA, but I ended up enjoying this brew more than this brewery’s hoppier offering. One intriguing aspect of this beer is that it’s brewed with a newer hop blend, Falconer’s Flight.

Which brings us to the IPA. At 6% ABV and 80 IBUs, this beer’s got my number. Amber in the glass, this brew has a floral aroma that brought lavender to mind, along with citrus and pine. The flavor showcases a Centennial dry-hopping, but any bitterness is well balanced by malt. In fact, I found myself looking for a bit more bite from this beer, though it is quite decent overall.

Brewed with plenty of Crystal malt and a touch of Cascades, the 5% ABV Fallen Timbers Red Ale pours a deep, clear mahogany red. With a dominance of sweet malt on both the nose and the palate, this beer doesn’t have any bells or whistles. The hops do lend a drying finish to the experience, but the mouthfeel itself is a bit too round and bloated for my taste. Though not a bad beer, the Fallen Timbers Red was my least favorite of the lot.

The most unique beer on offer was King Prunus, brewed with a whole mess of apricot puree. Due to the high volume of fruit in this beer, it is touted as bestowing great antioxidant benefits to those who imbibe. Sure, I’ll take that excuse, it’s for my health! A wheat beer, it was more this ingredient than the fruit that came through in the aroma. With a delicate flavor of both wheat and apricot, this 5.3% ABV beer is by no means a wine cooler beer or a fruit soda. Crowned with a dense, long-lasting head, the flavor of this beer is clean and light, and suggests another sip.

Finally, the lone dark beer on tap was the 4.9% ABV Dry Irish Stout. A gorgeous, creamy nitro head lingered long atop the opaque chocolate-colored brew as I took in the roasty, cocoa aroma. The rich flavor and mouthfeel instantly brought to mind Guinness, which I think should be a compliment more than anything else. Toasty, creamy, a bit of cocoa and coffee, it hits all the right notes for a nitro stout while still managing to taste bright and finish cleanly.

I would jump at the chance to visit the Oliver House again, not just for the beer but also to patronize another restaurant on premise, visit the pub itself and spend some more time checking out the small Brewing Hall of Fame and Museum featured here. If all things were going my way, I’d then cap off the day with a pint or two of Summit Street Pale, enjoyed on the House’s inviting patio.

This one’s for the ladies

I wrote this piece for the May/June 2011 issue of the Michigan Beer Guide; it is reprinted with permission.

Chicks don’t like beer. Step outside of the craft beer community, and this misconception runs rampant. Only, it’s not exactly a falsehood. Although I know lots of  women who absolutely adore microbrews, in general, beer is not the female drink of choice, so what’s going on? To get to the heart of this matter, I interviewed over a dozen female beer drinkers, allowing me to take a highly subjective and unscientific look at women and craft beer.

To begin with, let’s consider women and beer in general. According to last year’s Gallup poll, just 27 percent of women prefer beer over wine or liquor (compared with well over 50 percent of men). In other words, when given a choice of alcoholic beverages, nearly three-fourths of women will not choose a beer. And who could blame them? For those 27 percent of women who prefer beer, and the rest who don’t, “beer” very likely means a mass-produced fizzy yellow beverage. Statistics from the Brewers Association corroborate this notion: the American craft brewing sales share in 2010 was 4.9 percent by volume and 7.6 percent by dollars; either way you slice it, it’s a small share of all beer sales. Clearly, there are whole swathes of people out there who, despite having an affinity for libations, do not have a clue about craft beer.

It’s no surprise, then, that the majority of American women would rather sip a cocktail or a glass of wine than crack open a beer. It all starts with and comes back to the flavor, but that’s not the whole story. There’s also the fact that macrobrew beer is predominantly marketed to men: ponder the legions of commercials featuring “guys being guys” and sharing a few brewskis, commercials in which women are either major buzz-kills or vapid, bikini-clad eye candy. Add to this the stereotypes of beer-bonging frat boys, beer bellies, and guys swilling down yet another cold one while shouting at the TV screen, and the tale becomes more complete. Overall, the beer scene can be less than attractive for women.

But, it doesn’t need to be this way, and in many circles, it isn’t. Gallup also tells us that the percentage of women who prefer beer over wine or liquor rose 6 percent from 2009 to 2010, so the relationship between women and beer is on the mend. And I imagine that craft beer, with its welcoming and vibrant society, wonderful array of offerings, and more sophisticated character, is at least partially to thank for this uptick.

In contrast to “big beer,” female drinkers and craft beer are a natural combination. After all, women were historically the first brewers. And, if women are seeking delicious beverages, the world of craft beer offers an almost unending assortment of widely-varying options.

In an effort to examine on a very small scale the relationship between beer, craft brews and the fairer sex, I interviewed ladies in attendance at the Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival. With a sample size of approximately .2 percent, my findings are far from iron-clad, but a few interesting trends and points did emerge.

I started by asking the all-important question of how each woman first “discovered” craft beer. As it turns out, there was a pretty even split between ladies who came to craft beer on their own or with girlfriends, versus those who were introduced to the scene by a male partner. When boyfriends or husbands turned a woman on to craft beer, it was usually because he started brewing himself, and she got sucked in.

What I found most interesting was when ladies learned of craft beer through get-togethers or events; these ranged from a beer club to a homebrew class staged at a library. So yes, reaching out in friendly ways and “beer evangelizing” does work! In one case, it was the Festival itself that brought an adventuresome lass to craft beer: Annie came from Chicago with her girlfriends to experience the Beer Fest. “This is something totally new for me,” she confided. “My girls brought me out for this; they told me it’d be a great time. This is going to be my first one and I can’t wait!” When I spoke with her, she was in line to sample her first sip of craft beer ever! For me, this is exciting stuff.

Next, enthusiastic answers about favorite beer styles easily shattered the illusion that all women prefer lighter beers or those that are sweet and fruity. Yes, some women did prefer Kolsh- or Pilsner-style beers, and others craved brews with strong fruit flavors. But the female palate is far from uniform. For example, Lauren from Ann Arbor is a self-proclaimed bitter beer addict who declared, “I like my beers to hurt!” One pattern that arose is that many women identified their taste in beer styles as seasonal, ranging from strong stouts and porters in the winter months to refreshingly hoppy IPAs in the heat of summer.

Finally, every lady I spoke with confirmed that it was the flavor of corporate domestic beer that had kept her away from the beverage, but once she tried craft beer, she was hooked. For example, Laura from Grand Rapids said that she used to prefer mixed drinks until her then-boyfriend started brewing; now, she explained, “Craft beer is my beverage of choice, but I don’t drink domestics.”

“I eschewed beer for most of my life,” shared Patti from Ann Arbor. “I drank Labatt’s from time to time. But, then I had craft beer, and was like, ‘Oh my God!'” Said Bobbi from Grand Rapids, “Before [my husband started brewing], I’d drink wine or liquor. I didn’t enjoy those mass-produced beers; I didn’t find them tasty, so I didn’t drink them at all.” Once  she was introduced to craft beer, however, she never looked back. Craft beer, she said, “has become our hobby and our passion. I always buy craft beer now; Michigan craft beer.”

The message that women actually love beer, specifically craft beer, came across loud and clear. Of course, these ladies were at a craft beer festival, so this is no great revelation, and of course my results are skewed. But the point is that not one woman expressed that she was just there because her husband or boyfriend dragged her along; these ladies were present to experience craft beer on their own terms. Connected with this is the actuality that, once they are exposed to it, women are often extremely receptive to and appreciative of craft beer. This makes it clear to me that the craft brewing community must make a concerted effort to reach out to the female population. This is a huge, virtually untapped segment of the population; I would take careful note of this if I owned or worked for a microbrewery.

Craft beer is flavorful; craft beer has nuance and depth and finesse; craft beer has yet to be dominated by male-centric, perhaps sexist marketing campaigns; for these reasons and more, women and craft beer are a perfect match. All that’s needed is some beer-advocacy and friendly educational efforts to distinguish craft beer as a very different entity from commercial brew, to help overcome the general female rejection of beer as a whole, and to allow ladies to truly appreciate all that craft beer has to offer. The rest will take care of itself. I’m a believer. I can imagine a world where one day, a double IPA or an imperial stout are known as “chick drinks.”