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The Secret HERstory of Beer

Picture this: Sunday. You’ve cracked a beer and the buffalo sauce is flowing. You turn on the TV for the Big Game, and the first ad of the night begins to roll.

It’s morning, and a woman casually runs around a corner in her activewear. Fast-forward several hours to the end of the day, and she comes around the same corner. This time, she’s in casual clothes — and holding a six pack of ultra light beer! 

Cue the eye roll. 

Since what seems like the beginning of time, beer companies have either exploited or neglected women as an audience. 

For decades, beer ads have been all DUDES PLAYING THE SPORTS this, DUDES, HUNTING THE THINGS that. DUDES, SITTING OUTSIDE OGLING WOMEN IN BIKINIS ON THE STREET. JEAN CLAUDE VAN DAMME, ON A MOUNTAIN, IN A CANADIAN TUXEDO. (HE’S STILL ROCKING THAT DAMN MULLET GOOD FOR HIM). Yada yada, etc., ad infinitum. 

You wouldn’t know it from today’s beer culture, but women were history’s very first brewsters. No, that’s not a typo — the term “brewsters” was once used to describe brewers who happened to be female. Unfortunately, the term has since been lost to HIStory, but today we’re bringing brewsters back.

What most don’t know is that women and beer have an ages-long, symbiotic relationship that dates back roughly 5,000 years, when (wo)man first discovered that the stuff we use to make bread could be transformed into sweet, delicious booze. As kitchen work, brewing was a woman’s job, and these ancient badasses were truly doing god’s work. In fact, ancient Sumerians had a goddess of beer. This dreamy babe’s name was Ninkasi, and everyone loved her (duh). 

But strong female brewsters were more than mythological. Kubaba, the first and only female ruler in Sumerian history, became the ruler of the largest civilization in Mesopotamia not because she was born into royalty — but because she made damn good beer. 

Not only that, but our genius foremothers were innovators. Babylonian women were sick of drinking beer from lousy cups, so they devised straws that delivered that bubbly goodness straight to their mouths with minimal effort, because faster delivery = faster drunkery. I’d like to think this was the precursor to the modern funnel, or the infamous beer hat

Women’s role in beer isn’t all ancient history. In 1734, Mary Lisle become America’s unofficial first brewster when she took over her father’s brewhouse in Philadelphia. And then there’s Thomas Jefferson… effing Thomas Jefferson. He’s often called a “founding home brewer,” but it was his wife, Martha Jefferson, who was really running the show. 

Fact is, women and beer have been intertwined since, well, forever. Which begs the question: why are they so utterly absent from the contemporary conversation? Especially at such a crucial shift in beer consumption, where more American women than ever enjoy a cold one?  

For decades, women were solely the object of, rather than participant in, advertising for booze. Like in the ads of so many industries, women were objectified as an alluring image to sell beer, but not seriously considered as an audience who would drink beer. The result: a long history of sexist beer ads, mostly featuring women serving beer to men, or running around in bikinis, or both.

These days, brands are wising up to the fact that women do, in fact, enjoy booze. But the few brands attempting to reach our half of the population have it so incredibly wrong. Take for example ultra light beers in slim cans, specially designed for the dainty grasp and delicate metabolism of the weaker sex. Ladies, have you ever had a legitimate issue grasping a standard North American sized beer can? Yeah, me neither. 

The other thing that really grinds my gears is the assumption that all we (collective) women care about is our weight. It’s 2020 and we have more important things going on, like, I don’t know, closing the wage gap? Or how about enjoying our lives, and our bodies, which happen to include our taste buds? 

Representation of women who appreciate the taste of beer is nonexistent in ads. I, for one, love a bold, bitter, hoppy IPA. Not everyone wants to drink Mich Ultra because it’s 90 calories. And for those of us who are concerned about calories, guess what? We’re probably not going to drink beer, you idiots. We’re going to order that vodka soda like real basic bitches.

Some beer brands have atoned for their sins, such as Budweiser, which released a special campaign for International Women’s Day that reimagined old, sexist Bud ads for a modern-day world

And more recently, Coors Light has shifted the narrative from calorie-counting to moments of joy, branding themselves as “the official beer of being done wearing a bra.” And to their credit, this isn’t their first attempt. In 2013, Coors launched their Climb On campaign, which shows strong, independent women celebrating their hard work with an ice cold Coors. Is it the most exciting campaign? No. Is it the beer I would choose at the end of a long day? Hardly. But I can raise a glass of craft brew to their effort.

 

 

Meanwhile, Mich Ultra took to last year’s Super Bowl to push a different angle entirely. Who needs tired old gender roles to sell beer when you have the sound of Zoe Kravitz’s fingernails tapping on a glass of booze? Jokes about ASMR may be overplayed, but either way, the ad was refreshingly different from the hypersexualized Super Bowl beer ads of the past.

 

 

So things are certainly looking up, but female-driven campaigns from corporate breweries are still few and far between. Perhaps that’s why craft breweries have captured so much business from women. 

Or perhaps it’s because craft brewing is the new domain of the modern brewster. When it comes to women-owned breweries, herstory is finally starting to come full circle. 

Atlanta is a microcosm of women’s return to the age-old craft of beer. Just a few years ago, in 2015, Sarah Green of SweetWater Brewing was Georgia’s one and only full-time female brewer. Today, she’s been joined by a host of badass women brewing up beer in the A — and beyond. Across the nation, celebrations of brewsters like FemAle Brew Fest and Beers Without Beards are heralding a new age in the old tradition of women in beer. 

Small breweries have re-invoked the spirit of the brewster. Now, we just need top breweries to do the same. 

Women need more representation in the corporate worlds of both beer and advertising, from diverse creative teams to top decision-makers. And we need advertisers and marketers to listen to women. Invest in research that focuses on their unique beverage preferences. Women are multifaceted. Some may enjoy a Coors Light after a workout, others prefer to drink socially, or unwind after a long day.  

There isn’t one way women enjoy beer. If beer brands want to connect with women, they need ads that reflect their realities.

Women made beer what it is today, and they continue to shape the future of booze. Hopefully, Big Brew and its advertising cronies will catch up sometime soon — but I’m not holding my breath. Until then, let’s raise a standard-sized can to the brewsters of old and new.

Cheers!

Written by Jenn Vickery on January 30, 2020

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Written by
Jenn Vickery
Senior Vice President, Marketing