by Sonia Montisca
The year is 2020. Discrimination of any kind has died out and people of all backgrounds, genders, and beliefs are equally free to enjoy a quality craft beer.
Well, at least part of that statement is true. Even in 2020, there are lots of wrinkles to iron out in the fabric of society, starting with the basics of freedom and equality for all. The slew of ongoing political protests around the world are evidence of that. So are the various human rights campaigns that have been fought over the centuries, from a woman’s right to vote, to the civil rights movement, to Indigenous rights, to same- sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights.
What does any of this have to do with craft beer, you ask? Quite a bit, actually. As a microcosm of its own within society at large, the craft beer industry in BC is an interesting case study to look at when it comes to the progress that has been made for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, the world of craft beer, like many others, is still male-dominated. Estimates place the current ratio in BC at roughly 70% men, 30% women – a noticeable difference in both breweries and at craft beer-related events. Second, the craft beer industry has tended to pride itself on its reputation of being open and welcoming to everyone, but that wasn’t always the image that people associated with beer. Third, craft beer’s growth and maturation, especially over the last decade, has allowed people within the industry to push for more positive changes at a faster pace. Starting their careers two to three decades ago, many of these people are the pioneers of craft beer in BC and the hops they’ve planted, both literally and figuratively, are now flowering.
A woman in a man’s world
Perhaps that’s why the craft beer industry has thrived here in majestic, mild-mannered BC. Its reputation has attracted a diverse group of headstrong people that can get things done. Some of those people are women, paving the way for others after them and helping give craft beer a more ubiquitous appeal.
As more breweries have popped up, opportunities in craft beer have increased as well and women have seized them across all levels of the industry. This phenomenon is also reflected in the expanding range of craft beer consumers.
Even so, many women still feel alienated in some environments, particularly if they happen to work in a male-dominated field as so many of them do. Whether it’s for internal reasons like the common imposter syndrome, or for external ones like real-life sexism in its various insidious forms, they feel like they don’t belong at one point or another or, worse yet, that they aren’t even welcome to try.
One of the pioneer women of BC craft beer, Rebecca Kneen of Crannog Ales, can perhaps best illustrate the sentiment with some poignant examples. She still recalls the early days of her career when she attended brewers conferences in the US, before Canada’s craft beer scene could really hold its own. Her first year, she was just one of four women in non-sales roles in the sea of 1,200 attendees. Another year, some of the workshops were being held in a strip club. More representation in craft beer is helping make sure these examples are no longer applicable, but the under- lying feeling of being unconsidered that it evokes in many women is still real and relevant today.
In BC, the women I’ve talked to over the years about the craft beer industry have all said the same thing. Generally speaking, they’ve had similar opportunities as their male counterparts and are taken seriously in their roles. But all of them have also said that they’ve had to work hard to earn their place and every single one has a memory of at least one moment where she felt her credibility questioned, simply for being a woman in a field with mostly men.
That’s part of the reason why days like International Women’s Day, held on March 8th every year, is celebrated – both as a way to acknowledge the fight of past generations to see how far we’ve come, and also as a reminder to not take the status quo for granted and to continue fighting to improve.
Craft beer and community
Victoria Beer Week usually coincides with International Women’s Day and, as we embark on this new decade of craft beer exploration together, we have a perfect opportunity to take a look around the community we’re building.
“In my experience with craft brewing, people have always been cool, creative, artistic, socially aware individuals.” says Lisa Drapaka, former brewer at Lighthouse Brewing Company here in Victoria. Now back in her home province of Alberta, she’s happy to see craft beer gaining a stronger foothold there too. In the years she’s been working on the production side, she’s seen the amount of women making craft beer, as well as enjoying it, grow. Her hope is that the growth of women in beer continues, with more women in senior ranks and in every other aspect of the industry.
Ensuring that people know it is a welcoming space is an important step towards gender parity and greater diversity overall, both at the consumer and producer levels. A hurdle there has been to redefine the image of beer from the days when macro beer marketing was dominant. The stereotypical ads of a group of men watching sports and being served their beers by scantily-clad women alienated all sorts of potential beer drinkers.
Craft beer has had to undo that damage and, considering the boom, has had success in doing so. The quality and variety of craft beer has something to do with it, but so does its specific identity. Focusing on the landscapes, communities, and the real people that make up the uniquely local characteristics of the craft of brewing has sparked new interest in the age-old beverage. As a result, women are steadily growing as a craft beer consumer group and their increased interest is great news for the industry too.
Space for everyone in the tasting room
As much as craft beer is about the ingredients that go into the brew, it’s also about the people that make it. Ingredients influence the style and flavour profile of a beer. The people involved in its creation influence how that beer gets made and presented to the world.
Lisa’s point still stands. The craft beer industry tends to attract a certain type of person, one that’s creative and passionate, with a bit of an independent or unconventional streak. Whether running the business or the production side of a brewery or craft beer event, the hours are crazy, the profit margins are slim, and the paperwork is absurd; people that stick with it do so because they love what they’re doing. With a focus on willingness to learn and ingenuity, the type of environment they create tends to be open and welcoming, attracting even more creatively passionate and determined weirdos (in the best way possible) to the fold.
That’s part of the reason why BC’s craft beer community has held onto many of its original women pioneers, with more women joining the industry every day. Women like Rebecca (and Lisa who’s now back to leading the charge in Alberta), Nancy More who is the first female brew- master in North America, professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and a recipient of last year’s “Legend” award at the BC Beer Awards, Shirley Warne at Angry Hen Brewing, the Hadfield women at Spinnakers Brewpub, Claire Wilson at Dogwood Brewing, and the countless others on the business or manufacturing side of craft beer have persisted, despite the unconscious biases and invisible barriers they’ve had to overcome. And they’ve worked with their colleagues to continue steering the craft beer community in a more inclusive direction.
Most people that work in the industry today describe a sense of camaraderie that they feel and many say cooperation is preferred over competition. Collaborations are common for a reason. (On a related note, the women of craft beer celebrate International Women’s Day every year with a collaboration brew. Hosted in communities around the world, including most years at Dogwood Brewing in Vancouver, the brew day is meant to connect and encourage more women to get involved in brewing as a hobby or career.)
Societal issues like the wage gap have become more talked about in the last few years, which has helped highlight some of the wrinkles that still remain. Uncomfortable, but necessary discussions around the topics of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and the like are also becoming more frequent too, driving further change. Outdated gender roles and expectations of both men and women are slowly balancing out and unfair privilege is being addressed. As we all become more aware of the injustices baked into the crust of our multicultural pie, how we deal with that knowledge will help guide how we keep developing in the future.
When it comes to the craft beer community, there’s still plenty of space left in the tasting room for anyone who wants to enjoy drinking a great beer among new friends. Come join us and see for yourself.