Women in Beer: Inspiring confidence through education and community

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Written by: Jenn Kucharczyk

The notion of beer appreciation as gendered hobby is being peeled apart by the creative outreach work of women in the beer industry. This year marks the fifth annual Girls’ Guided Tour at the Toronto’s Festival of Beer, lead by Mirella Amato, beer educator with Toronto-based firm Beerology. The tour is designed to teach women more about beer’s history and production in a setting that encourages ladies to speak up and pursue their bubbling interest. Amato is a highly-respected individual in the industry, routinely sitting on juries for reputed homebrewing and commercial competitions, as well as becoming the first female certified Cicerone in Canada, and the first Master Cicerone in Canada (of only 6 internationally). Of course, her expertise isn’t just for women – nor is it taken as such.

On the Beerology blog, Amato reflected on her participation in a panel on women in beer, writing that her gender had not been a large barrier in her personal experience in the industry- merely expressing annoyance that it occasionally gets more attention than her qualifications and accolades. However, as she listened to women’s stories from other locations and cultures, it became clear that there was an opportunity to craft women-oriented experiences around beer. Amato’s tours complement the activities of other groups and firms such as Barley’s Angels and Women Enjoying Beer that develop the industry by increasing female patronage and developing a greater sense of how to best serve female customers.

It’s no secret that in recent history, beer has taken on a strong flavour of ‘boys club’, in many ways ignoring that the just-as-large female population segment also has an eye for ales and lagers. Modern advertising trends have catered to stereotypical male fantasies, promoting an idea of beer being at home in the hands of men in jerseys watching the game or throwing massive parties serviced by waxed women in cheerleader skirts and bikini tops dealing out just-popped bottles of brew.

Taking a further leap back into history shows that women played a very significant role in the development of beer, something not exactly suggested with lady’s eye-candy function in TV spots.  Ever since civilizations began to store grain and discovered the naturally fermented gruel that formed in the cereal vats, ‘brewsters’, the term for beer-brewing women, have been the ones bringing beer to life. Artifacts from across millennia record women as tavern-keepers and recipe crafters, producing beer on small scales generally as a domestic duty. Connections between women and beer stretch back to antiquity: ancient Sumerians worshipped Ninkasi, the goddess of fermentation; in ancient Peru, the craft of brewing was revered as a task for women of the nobility.

By the 15th century, more men were entering the game in the Western world as trade and craft guilds formed in Europe, transforming brewing from a domestic task into a more formalized profession. Despite the historical reputation of women manning the brew pot, this prominence didn’t transfer into commercial brewing. It wasn’t until the late 20th century when more women began to enter the commercial beer industry. Learn more about the history of women in beer.

The growth of the Pink Boots Society is a great measure of the current rise of women’s involvement in beer. Formed in 2007 by American brewster Teri Fahrendorf, the Pink Boots Society is a member-based organization that connects women working in all aspects of the beer industry – producing, designing, serving, writing, you name it. Fahrendorf left her role as brewmaster at Steelhead Brewing Co. in 2007 to venture on a cross-country tour to visit breweries, meeting a number of young female brewers who were eager to pick her brain as a lady who had made a name for herself in the industry. These conversations proved that if female brewers could get in touch and stay connected, they could help build each other’s careers and the industry on a whole by inspiring confidence, and consequently, top-quality products. There are now over 900 members worldwide, participating in the organization’s seminar programs, making connections on their social network, and raising funds for educational scholarships to keep encouraging women to be movers and shakers in the industry!

As more women are becoming involved with beer, it is valuable to reflect on the careers of vibrant role models that have helped blaze those trails and raise the profile of women’s modern contributions to beer. Ellen Bounsall, brewmaster behind the McAuslan brand from Quebec, has been a pioneer not just for women brewing in Canada, but for Canadian craft brewing in general. Last November, Bounsall was awarded with the 2012 Prix hommage bâtisseuse recognizing her role in the growth of the Quebecois craft beer industry over the past two decades, ripple effects of which include her mentorship of individuals now running their own celebrated breweries.

In a recent article in TAPS magazine (March 2013), Amato writes about Bounsall’s career, and the gender bias she faced when the brewery opened in 1989. Bounsall entered the brewing world in partnership with her husband, Peter McAuslan, when he sought to expand his homebrewing set-up beyond their kitchen. Despite no previous brewing experience, Bounsall’s took a leave of absence from her job as a Dawson College registrar to learn more about the brewing equipment, processes, and business relationships during the initial brewhouse installation. Her passion for brewing rose quickly and she took on the role of brewmaster for the brand. It was a learning curve for suppliers who would call to speak to her husband, who would inform them that Bounsall was in charge of those decisions and patch the calls through to her. Bounsall described the dynamic to Amato: “When you come out of the world of education, women have always had an instrumental role in education…I wasn’t really used to that form of discrimination but it became very obvious very rapidly.” Nearly three decades later, Bounsall’s career is now one of many that have challenged prevailing stereotypes about women and beer.

Female attendance at the Festival has been increasing each year, a trend that is expected to continue. For the fifth year in a row, Mirella Amato will be hosting five sessions of the Girls’ Guided Tour at this year’s Toronto Festival of Beer. The Saturday session is already sold-out, so act fast to get a spot to learn more about beer in good company.


TAPS article: http://tapsmagazine.com/in-this-issue/feature-brewer-ellen-bounsall/

“Women in Beer” post on Beerology: http://beerology.ca/2012/11/23/women-in-beer/