9 Mar 2015

Mashing in beer stereotypes

9:06 am on 9 March 2015

Women in beer aren't just bikini-clad brewery assistants, despite what advertising might have you believe.

Two women pour grains from a bucket into a stainless steel tub.

The grains go in for the mashing in Photo: The Wireless

The smell of malt fills a room in central Wellington. It’s full of stainless steel benches, plastic tubs, and women. Eugene, our instructor takes us through the brewkit. “Basically, we’ve added some water, and what we’re going to do is mash our malted barley grains. What that's going to do is convert the starches in the barley into sugars, which are then going to ferment into alcohol.”

The 13 of us are brewing a beer for International Women's Collaboration Brew Day. The idea of the day is to raise money and awareness for an organisation called Pink Boots, which advocates on behalf of women working in the beer industry.

To be honest though, after many years hanging out in bars and listening to brewers talk, I'm mostly excited about actually understanding how brewing works. It's as simple as it sounds. Grain is poured into hot water, and it soaks for a while. That water (or wort) is then drained off - hopefully with not too many loose grains floating in it.

The wort is then boiled, and things added to it - hops, for example, which is what makes beer bitter. After it has boiled, it's cooled down rapidly, and yeast is added to start the fermentation of the delicious delicious alcohol.

Our head brewer, Denise Garland, takes over. "It's going to be an easy drinking pretty red beer," she says. 

We've been set specifications for alcohol volume and IBU (International Bittering Units - basically, how bitter the beer is). Most of the more than 180 brews around the world are done on a commercial scale. We're making about 250 litres. That's still a lot of beer, and it takes about four hours for all of us to be done - from mashing in to plugging up the fermenter.

‘you’re a woman and you’re brewing, how dare you, aren’t your ovaries falling out’

It doesn't take a degree in gender studies to see that women are often left out of a lot of things to do with beer. Aside from the occasional "women in beer" article that pops up, mainstream discourse and advertising of beer generally ignores women. They're either the eye candy, the butt of the joke, or being marketed a low-alcohol, low sugar, fruit beer.

For Stephanie Coutts, who runs Craft Beer College, a beer tasting and education company, that's a constant source of frustration. She says advertising aimed squarely at men alienates many women – many of whom are potential customers.

“For me it just seems a crazy marketing decision. If you've got more women than men, then you should be marketing equally at both.”

Coutts says in tastings, when women say they don’t like beer, it’s often because they’ve only ever tasted “bland, boring” beer. And often people (usually men) who consider themselves die-hard beer fans, can’t handle what she calls “beer with actual flavour.

It’s that bland – mainstream – beer that women say they don’t like that isn’t marketed at them, Coutts says. “Women still manage the shopping budget, they still go to the supermarket; they have great taste. Why would you exclude them from your marketing? It just doesn't make good business sense to me.”

Annika Naschitzki prides herself on her business sense. On Saturday night, she launched her own brewery – Tiamana – only two years after making her first home brew.

She tells the story of attending a gathering of brewers, and while she was chatting to a prominent brewer, someone walked over, nudged him, and said “you’re always with the nice looking women, aren’t you”. “As though I was an object,” she says.

If it helps other women, I'll happily be that poster child – if I am that - but there is that other side of me that thinks ‘why are we even talking about this? - Annika Naschitzki

The Wireless

Naschitzki says people are often surprised to hear she’s not only a brewer, but the owner of her own brewery. But while sexism definitely happens in the industry, it’s not overwhelming.

“I think we’re in a phase where it’s normal enough, that people aren’t shocked, and like ‘you’re a woman and you’re brewing, how dare you, aren’t your ovaries falling out’, but we're also not far enough that it's completely equal.”

She says it shouldn’t matter at all that she’s a woman – the things that make her a good brewer are “gender neutral”. “As a brewer, I am either good, or not, because I am thorough, because I am planning ahead, because I'm good at cleaning stuff, and because I won't slip over things.”

But on the other hand, she agrees, visibility of women in the community is important. Seeing women involved helps other women feel more at home in a male-dominated community. “If it helps other women, I'll happily be that poster child – if I am that - but there is that other side of me that thinks ‘why are we even talking about this?’”

Late last year, it was announced that Emerson’s brewery had awarded its inaugural JP Dufour scholarship to a young woman from Otago University. Bridget Gould is using the scholarship to examine the interaction between hops and yeast, and the way that changes the flavour profile.

“With so many males in the industry, it was so exciting for me to be a female, as well, given the opportunity.” She says if anything, the men around the brewery were excited to have a woman around. “Not in a bad way, more an ‘it’s about time’ kind of way. I guess the only prejudice would be around heavy lifting.”

She says she “has the science behind it all”, so she doesn’t expect to be treated any differently. Since winning the scholarship, she has quite enjoyed being able to say – if anyone assumes, as many do – that she doesn’t know anything about beer “well, actually, I probably know a little bit more than you.”

She’s looking forward to continuing a career in brewing. “If the opportunity was to come, I’d definitely jump at it. It’s a great industry to be in, and there’s a lot of room for women to move into it.”

Back in Wellington, our beer is now sitting in fermenters in a temperature controlled room, doing its thing. In a few weeks, we'll bottle it, and get to the good part - the drinking.

A disclaimer: the Wellington craft beer community is pretty small, so Megan knows most of those people socially. And no, you can’t have any of her beer.