What Brewers Wish You Knew: Beer Festival Edition

I think it's worth our while as beer people to occasionally hear from the hard-working brewers that supply us with our beer.  I've surveyed brewery owners, brewers, and staff to see how the world looks from their side of the jockey box, so that we can appreciate their unique perspective on the beer world.  I hope to do this several times per year, for your reading pleasure.  Today's topic: Beer Festivals.  

Let me state at the outset that I've "sanitized" the quotes and comments I've received, to protect the innocent (I assured the people I spoke to that they would have anonymity).  Also, much like a biopic that needs to cover a lot of ground, I've also taken several quotes and made "composites" of them.  So if you have a problem with any of this, don't blame your local brewer - blame me.

Let me also say that, by and large, brewers don't have any real issues with the vast majority of their customers and festival-goers.  They're not huddling in corners, shit-talking you.  I asked.  I poked.  I probed.  I wanted to know how we can make their lives easier, and pass it on, and here we are. 

Now, back to the show.  Beer festival time!  To you, it's just a field or hall filled with beer.  It's a wonderful social event.  It's a potential learning experience.  It's a way to see what's new and different out there in the marketplace.  

To the people pouring beer, it's work.  Most of you appreciate that, and you're polite and courteous.  Others...aren't.  There seem to be three areas where a lot of brewers wish you were a little more understanding.  In no particular order: The Beer, The Attendee, and The Brewer.

A (Limited) World of Beer

You've bought tickets to an event about beer.  You're surrounded by beer.  Presumably, you like to drink beer (or know someone who does - welcome to the party, DD!).  So it's a little surprising to some brewers that some of you don't seem to care about the beer...or care way too much, given that breweries can't bring every beer with them!

"A lot of events don’t pay for the beer, so please don’t complain if we don’t have the styles you’re looking for.”  This was a common theme - please keep in mind that in many cases, these breweries are simply giving away beer.  Yes, they get publicity and exposure, and yes, YOU paid, but you're getting this stuff at a reduced rate; $40 worth of beer isn't that much anymore.

IPAs also took a bit of a hit from our brewers: "IPAs aren't that hard to make - a lot of you are making way too much of how great so-and-so's IPA was..."  "Learn that there are styles other than IPA."  "Yes, I make an IPA.  No, I don't have it with me."  "Stop referring to every beer by whether or not it's 'hoppy' just because you think every craft beer is an IPA."  Long story short?  Try to appreciate the diversity of beer styles out there, even though it does seem, at times, like every table is pouring an IPA.  This is a vicious and unhealthy cycle of addiction: you keep asking for them, so breweries feel like they need to have them even though they might not be their most interesting beer and you might actually be sick of them.  Secretly, many of these brewers are hoping you'll go for the other tap (whatever it is).  Take them up on it and make their day.

"No - I can't just 'open another keg' for you."  If you want their full range of beers, go ahead and visit the brewery!  “We only bring a couple of beers to festivals.  We might change kegs out for new styles, but that’s usually over the break between sessions.”

And what might have been my favorite expression of beer style frustration: "No, I don't have anything like f***ing Blue Moon..."  Some brewers have a real sensitive spot about these "crafty" beers - maybe just go with a general description of what you're looking for rather than trotting out what might be a loaded name for that particular brewer!

The bottom line here?  Try a variety, and realize that "variety" is probably best had by visiting lots of tables.  The brewers thank you.

The Spectre at the Fest

Alehole behavior at beer festivals is one of the principle reasons this blog exists in the first place, so I can attest to this at first hand as someone who has poured at these events: there's a pretty significant number of folks out there doing some pretty obviously alehole-ish things.  But our brewers also noted some things that aren't as obvious.

"Tell me outright if you don't like my beer."  Brewers have (or should have) pretty thick skins - you don't need to protect their feelings (much).  If you don't like it, they want to know.  Maybe there's another beer they're pouring that you might like better.  Maybe your expectations of what you asked for were off, and we can work through it.  Smiling politely and saying "that's great!" before going to dump what, to you, tastes like backwash sweetened with rotten peaches, isn't helping them (or you).

"The state mandates pour sizes - so no, I can't give you a full pour."  I didn't even know this was a thing people asked for.  But knock it off.  Or at least don't get mad at the brewer for it!

"The beer servers are not there for your viewing/cat-calling/flirting pleasure."  No further comment necessary.

“Don’t just walk up and ask for ‘whatever.’  If you don’t know what I’m giving you, you won’t remember my brewery.  You also won’t know what to expect when you drink it.  So I’d rather not waste that two ounces on you.  It's different than saying that I can pick for you – that’s fine as long as you can give me a little guidance.”  Do people really do this?  Another brewer offered this gem: "Don't walk up and just ask for the strongest beer."  

“I don’t need your credentials.  Telling me you’re a homebrewer or a judge isn’t really telling me anything.  Tell me what you like to drink and why, maybe – at least then I can evaluate your reaction.  If you hate IPAs, and tell me mine sucks, then maybe that’s not going to weigh as much.”  No need to go around the fest "credentialing" all over the place.  And even if you are well-credentialed, so what?  As another brewer put it, “Drinking beer doesn’t make you a beer judge, and if you are I don't necessarily want you to judge the beer.  Tell me if you like it or not, but don’t tell me it’s good or bad.”

Finally, we get that this is a beer event, but that's no excuse to treat it like a frat party.  “If you’re a drunk asshole, you should get a ride home instead of acting like a drunk asshole.” Also, “it’s OK to be a little drunk, but if you’re sloppy I’m going to stop serving you just like I would at the bar.”  Breweries that participate in festivals can still be held liable for over-serving, and they're going to apply the same standard of responsible alcohol service.  You're at the Anytown Convention Center, not someplace where the law doesn't exist like international waters, or north of The Wall.  [How excited are you that GoT is back?  Oh, not at all?  Fine.  Your loss.]

That is the Question

By far the most conflicting comments I got were on the question of questions.  Literally the same brewer would often include, "we’re there to talk about our beer, beer in general, beer styles – don’t be afraid to ask us questions!” and, “sometimes they ask too many questions.”

The contradiction seems to come down to a question (no pun intended) of etiquette.  On the one hand, yes, brewers are absolutely happy to answer questions for days about beer (for the record, I contacted 22 brewers for my little impromptu survey, and got 20 responses.  Long ones.).  They just want to be able to do so while continuing to serve samples to the people in line behind you.  “There’s a line of people – if you want to chat, please step aside so we can pour for the people behind you while we talk.”

So, if I may, I would like to propose a standard maneuver: if you're going to be asking questions, take a half step to the side so the line can keep moving, and limit yourself to two questions.  And as you ask questions/chat with the server or brewer, be respectful of others who are doing the same as they're getting their pours.  Don't monopolize the table.  You can always contact them later - as you'll find out if you spend any time with brewers, they almost never shut up about beer and brewing, which shouldn't come as a surprise.

Brew Life

Brewers are people, too - not just robots in rubber boots who persistently smell of boiled hops and beard cream.  And they're often surprised by your misunderstanding of their lives.

“No, I’m not drunk all the time.”  Brewers have heard every joke there is about being surrounded by beer all day, but this go-to seems to be a very common one.  If they drank all day, when would they brew?

Then there's the work itself - lots of brewers feel a little under-appreciated.  “I don’t have an easy job.  My job is hard, physically and mentally, and doesn’t pay all that much.  Don’t act like I’ve somehow gotten a pass on life because I make beer – don’t forget, I’m working at 4:00 on a Saturday.   You’re not."  That goes for the others at the festival, too - “Most of the people working here are either volunteers, underpaid, or doing it after working crazy hours.”  

And it's a potentially very long day of work.   “Even though the event might only be a couple of hours for you, for us it might be all day.  Two sessions, plus set-up and break-down time, means a 9AM-9PM day at some events.”  

The event itself is also out of their control.   “We don’t control availability of water, dump buckets, or restrooms.  Please don’t get mad at us for things the event does!  Take it up with the organizers.”  The brewer is bringing beer - the rest isn't up to them.  I did, though, love one brewer who told me that s/he was asked if s/he could "do anything about the temperature in the hall."  "I said, 'sure, I've got the thermostat right back here!'  With no sense of sarcasm or irony at all, the tipsy dude gave me a thumbs up and a hearty 'Thanks!'  I hope he wasn't going to be driving - even sober."

And finally, if you liked the beer and you want more information...   “It’s the 21st century.  If you want to remember the brewery, make a note on your phone – don’t ask me for a business card."  What's funny about this to me is what this brewer wrote next: "But if you do, I have business cards.” Analog wins the day.

Good News

I hope that this hasn't come across as too snarky or whiny.  Nearly all of the brewers I heard from also told me that, by and large, they love going to festivals, talking to beer lovers, and seeing their colleagues.  Good news rarely makes headlines, so yes, a lot of this has been the negative stuff.  Most of the time there aren't significant issues.  But.....

There's always that "but."  Brewing is a pretty "cool" industry.  Most of the people in it are obsessive about beer and brewing, but pretty easy-going about most everything else.  They don't want to complain about you (or me).  So it helps if we, as beer people, are proactive.  

Enjoy the festival responsibly.  Try a lot of different styles.  Be understanding if your preferred beer style isn't on tap (yet).  Ask questions courteously, as you would of any other professional.  And the best piece of advice/commentary I got?

“If you’ve just had a cigar, don’t bother me.  You can’t taste anything right now.”

Keep it simple.


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Homebrewing Has a Gender Problem

It isn't necessarily craft beer's gender problem, but it's a problem nevertheless. Now, before anyone gets all up in arms (in either direction) let me state at the outset that this isn't going to be an overtly political, or social, or legal commentary.  There won't be (much) psychologizing.  There will be some empirical observation, attempts at logic, and a not-terrifying bit with statistics.  The upshot is that we have a quantifiable gender problem, and there's not much point in denying it - nor even in fighting over it.  We should skip that part and just get right to fixing it.

A word of warning about this week's post: this is a simple problem with (what I think is) a simple solution, but the explanation is a little complicated, because it needs to be.  If you're OK with that, read on - if not, scroll to the last section.  Either way, I hope that everyone reading will take it in the spirit in which it's intended, and that if you're offended that you know I don't mean any offense.  

Disclaimers out of the way, let's get to work.

Defining the Problem

Here's the short version: on the question of sex and beer, we homebrewers are probably getting the conversation wrong.  Tell me if you've read any of these articles lately (they come in lots of different forms, under different titles, and by different authors, but these are the possibly-hyperbolic archetypes):

  • "Blatantly Sexist Beer Names: How Men Use Porn to Sell Beer to Other Men, Insulting and Ignoring Female Drinkers"
  • "Hey, Women Can Brew Too!  Did You Know That?  Here are Spunky Women Who Can (and DO!) Lift Heavy Things!"
  • "Women Drink Craft Beer!  And It Isn't Even All Fruit Beer!," AKA "How to Deal With an Alehole of a Bartender Who Assumes You Don't Know Beer Because You Have Breasts"

Now, while I agree that all of those articles have legitimate and potentially important points to make, I'm not sure that they apply to home brewing or homebrewers.  These are things that seem to be common in the commercial beer world, and while I'm positive there are anecdotal examples, parallels, and analogues in homebrewing (since a lot of sexism is driven by broader outdated and unproductive social norms), I'm not sure that we have these problems on anything like the scale in which we see them in commercial beer.

Why do I say that?

First off, I just don't see it much in the homebrewing world I inhabit.  Now, maybe it doesn't ping for me because I'm a man, so I did some basic research.  Just taking the beer name thing into account, I pulled up the results of the most recent competition in our area, which had more than 750 entries across 30 tables with three winners each - that's a list of 90 beer names.  Of those 90, only one had a name that could even be described as sexual, feminine, or female-related (much less sexist) - "Red Belle."  Which means that there were as many potentially-sexist and maybe-sexual beer names in this competition's results as there were beers named after Ethiopian emperors (A Dark Mild named Haile Selassie - is that racist?).  There were puns - far, far too many puns - but no explicit (or even implicit) sexual references.  I realize this is one limited data set, but if I stroll through the beer section at Wegmans (another limited data set) I come away with images and language that would have passed for near-pornography when I was a child in the long-ago early 1990s.  So maybe there's something to the idea that sex and gender don't drive nearly as much of home brewing culture as commercial beer culture (though as I said, as part of a broader social phenomenon, homebrewing isn't immune from sexism).

And maybe I'm sheltered, or privileged, or naive, but the homebrewers I know (of either gender) are no longer surprised to hear that women can brew beer, too (if they ever were surprised in the first place).  I personally find the parade of, "Hey, look, female brewers!" articles a little insulting to...everyone.  To women because they often come across as patronizing as hell, and to men because they assume that we need to be "learned up" on the idea that brewing is something women have been doing for centuries (and while some may not know it, that doesn't mean that they've been excluding women from brewing and now they'll knock it off).  

Nor do I find that male homebrewers talk down to female homebrewers.  If anything, I find that they're positively twitching with happiness to find female homebrewers, beer judges, and beer enthusiasts in their ranks.

But having said that, I still say we have a gender problem in homebrewing.  Just not this gender problem.  Ours isn't a problem of rampant sexism or discrimination.  We don't as a rule, or as a community norm, exclude women.  But we still have a problem.  

Our problem is one of inclusion.  Or lack thereof, to be more precise.  Before you accuse me of stupidity or contradiction, let me say that there's a difference between "not excluding" and "including."  The absence of formal barriers doesn't make us inclusive.  And it's evident that women are not well-represented among homebrewers on a very basic, quantitative level.

I have three questions.

  1. Whose problem is it, anyway?  Are there not that many female homebrewers because they don't want to and/or don't like beer as much as we do, or is there something that's keeping them out?
  2. Assuming we have a problem, why do we have it?
  3. What might we do about it?

I'm not looking to blame anyone here.  I'm not looking for someone to accuse.  I'm not planning on making any generalizations that aren't supported by at least some data.  I just want to talk about this in a dispassionate way, because this can be a very passionate and emotional issue.  

I hope you'll tell me if you disagree, but I think we have a problem.  

Whose Problem Is It, Anyway?

There are two possible answers to this question. Either women aren't common in homebrewing because women don't want to be homebrewers, or there's something that's inhibiting female participation in homebrewing.  

Let's add some context here.  Women represent something like 4-7% of homebrewers (American Homebrewers Association, 2013; 2015).  My own surveys and those of other homebrewing publications, conducted periodically for homebrewing articles or activities, show that between 2-9% of respondents were female, which is consistent with an overall "female participation rate" in the mid-single digits.  So there aren't many female homebrewers out there.

Why not?

When I was president of Stoney Creek Homebrewers, I conducted our initial "meet and greet" interviews for prospective members.  I probably did just over 120 of these in seven years, and literally every one was me speaking to a man who had contacted our club.  The only women I saw were part of couples, and they were rare enough.   One of the first questions I always asked was "what got you interested in homebrewing?"  Our Average Joe brewer profile usually came down to three common denominators.  

First, Joe liked good beer (no-brainer).  Second, Joe almost always either cooks (amateur or professional) and/or works in science.   And third, Joe wanted a social experience - brewing is fun, but brewing and tasting and evaluating with a group is even better.

So, a love of beer and an interest in the culinary/scientific and a social interaction.  Simple enough to define our population of prospective homebrewers.  If they're true for Joe, they should also be true for Jane.

Do women love beer?  Yes.  At least, some of them certainly seem to.  As of a couple of years ago when the BA released a study of "who drinks craft beer" (2014), 15% of all craft beer was consumed by women aged 21-34 alone (as in, just that demographic by itself - not "alone" alone, at least I don't think so).  That right there would suggest that as women constitute a sizable minority of craft beer drinkers, then they should constitute a sizable minority of homebrewers.  But maybe they're not getting into brewing because they don't fit the other profile elements.

Do women engage in science and/or cooking?  Yes, they do.  About a quarter of STEM jobs are held by women (Department of Commerce) - lower than desired, but still more than enough to show robust female interest in the sciences (especially when we consider the percentage that hold science degrees but don't work in the field).  Do women enjoy cooking?  Yes, they do.  35% of enrollees at the Culinary Institute of America in 2012 were women.  Are women social?  Yes, of course they are; like men, they are - to quote Aristotle's Politics - "political animals" who value social interaction as part of the human experience.

So whose problem is it?  I don't see any evidence that homebrewing as a hobby is inaccessible to women, nor that they're hostile to it - indeed, we have good evidence that a substantial proportion of women enjoy craft beer, and thus should make up a comparable proportion of craft brewers.  But they're not.  We under-yield on female homebrewers by comparison to the proportion of female beer lovers.

So why so few female homebrewers?  I think the answer is in that "social" part.  

From here on, I'm going to do some speculating, so bear with me.  I welcome and encourage disagreement and debate, and this is just one perspective (though being a social scientist and the author, I obviously think it's a defensible one).

Why We Have a Gender Problem

As I see it, we have two principle problems.  The first is cultural, and the second is social-psychological - and they're mutually reinforcing.  

The culture of homebrewing can be quite gender-specific simply owing to the overwhelming preponderance of men in the hobby.  We can also state without too much risk that men and women exhibit different behaviors, especially in groups.  As a young homebrew club, we often scheduled events that were barely one step removed from college-era pub crawls by a gaggle of scraggly men, with all of the boisterousness and shenanigans that accompanies such events (that poor stuffed cow will never be the same again, and I think one of our members is still banned from Canal Street Pub).  But even that might not be the biggest problem (since many of the women I know can get pretty rowdy themselves, to the point that I'm looking at my watch and wondering when I can head home for a late dinner and some House Hunters International).  No, I think the real issue is the gender homogeneity itself.  

In other words, because we have such a dearth of gender diversity, we run the risk of not getting gender diversity.  This lack of diversity becomes its own gender repellant.  A female homebrewer walking into a homebrewing event would almost certainly have an immediate visceral reaction to the homogeneity of gender in the room.  To quote an overheard comment at the National Homebrewers Conference in 2013, "There's a whole lot of 'dude' in here."  

That kind of immediate and obvious identity homogeneity may well be strong enough to discourage female participation in the hobby.  We all like to find our "niche" in a community, usually by identifying with a sub-group within it (see Blackwell's Handbook of Social Psychology or the literature on voter decision-making for more details).  You've all been to school - you know how that goes.  You want to find your "people."  And when attempts at "clustering" fail that first and easiest test using common superficial heuristics like gender, that failing can be more than sufficient to cause prospective group members to "roll off" and simply withdraw from that community.  

That's my theory.  Our "Gender Problem" begins simply enough: we need more female homebrewers in order to attract more female homebrewers.  How many more?  Hard to say.  When the first female cadets were enrolled in 1976 at West Point, a theretofore all-male institution, consultants that had overseen the integration of other institutions recommended at least 10% female enrollment to allow for a sufficient "support network."  If it's good enough for the US Army, it's good enough for me.

But if we accept that only about 5% of homebrewers are female, that means we need to double the number of female homebrewers to alleviate what might be the problem.

That's a significant challenge.  So how do we do it?

Fixing Our Gender Mismatch

There are more women who fit the profile of a "typical" homebrewer than actually homebrew.  In other words, we have a mismatch between how many women we would expect to see in homebrewing and how many are evident within the hobby.  That mismatch is what I would call our "Gender Problem."  Beyond even that terminology, though, it can't be a bad thing to increase the number of homebrewers, and since we're over-representing men, then maybe we should focus on some gender diversity.

Note that I'm not talking about "parity."  I don't know if you'll ever see a 50/50 gender split in beer and brewing.  That's not what we've been discussing, though.  We've been discussing how to alleviate a potential demographic barrier that's potentially causing would-be brewers to bail out - where it goes from there is beside the point.  Logic would dictate that some kind of equilibrium would be reached, and it doesn't have to mean perfect gender balance.  

If we accept that it would be a good thing to expand the number of women in homebrewing, then the only question is how we do it.  There are two options that I want to address - and somewhat discourage - right out of the gate.

First, I don't think the answer is for every male homebrewer to bring his significant other into homebrewing.  For one thing, it could be construed as being paternalistic as hell.  The idea that women need a man's helping hand to get into brewing has a strong whiff of benevolent sexism to it.  Nothing in the theory I've been discussing says that women are incapable of getting into homebrewing, just that they may not actually want to given the community profile.  So they don't need our help. Also, there's already ample evidence that we've been trying to address this problem in this way, and it hasn't worked: the AHA survey cited earlier found that about 4% of homebrewers were women, but that as many as 30% of male homebrewers brewed at least some of the time with their female partner.  Despite that, there are precious few female brewers about.  And let's not forget that for some people, brewing is escapism, like golf of gardening or yoga.  There are some things you do to get away from everyone, including your significant other. For many men, that's homebrewing.  Consequently, I don't think a male-led effort is the answer.

Second, I'm also not sold on the "all-female" homebrewing clubs and organizations as a way to address this problem.  While I don't object to them on principle (brew with whomever you want, however you want!), I don't think that they're ever going to be numerous enough to grow female homebrewing participation rates more broadly within the homebrewing community.  They also, as noted earlier, can inadvertently perpetuate the idea that women brewing is somehow a novel or radical idea, when it's anything but.

I think the answer is this: if you're a female homebrewer, recruit one other female you know who likes to cook or grooves on science (and who isn't already related to a brewer) into the hobby, and then encourage her to join a homebrew club (especially if it's also yours).  This solution has a number of virtues going for it.

First, it's a female-led effort to encourage female participation in homebrewing.  It short-circuits the lack-of-fit problems that the male-dominated demographic environment might create, since our prospective homebrewing female beer geek is being encouraged to jump in by another woman, which demonstrates not only that women do this, but also that she wouldn't be doing it alone.

Second, it solves our numbers problem in one fell swoop: this would double the number of female homebrewers immediately.  

Third, the inclusion in homebrew club life both provides an immediate community of homebrewers to engage with and also diversifies that homebrew club a bit more by gender, which should yield more "walk-in" female members, especially if your website and social media feature lots of photos of a diverse club.

And last, it creates and/or preserves a sense of mission and gender identity without making it all about gender.  Yes, the mission is greater diversity.  But it's also about expanding the hobby.  Win, win.

Odd Man Out

What made me think of this?  My wife's book club.  I read like mad - it's the insomnia plus the academia.  I read all the time. I take baths so I have an excuse to read.  My Kindle is hot to the touch (fittingly).  I love books.  I love bookstores (when you can find them anymore - my favorite, a place in Wayne, PA, just had PILES of books in no discernible order.  I'm going to miss that place).  

And yet I was never invited to join her book club.  I wasn't excluded, but neither was I included.

Now that wouldn't have stopped me from forming my own, or just reading on my own and commenting on books in forums and message boards.  But that's not the point.

I might even have asked about joining her club...but it was all women.  When they have their rotating meetings at our house, I stay out of sight, for the most part.  No one ever said I wasn't allowed in, or that it wasn't meant for me or men.  But I didn't feel like it was for me.  And let's not forget that that's without an entire commercial book industry blasting advertising showing ripped men in underwear reading books in sexy locations, being objectified by female librarians.  I think there's an object lesson there.

Yes, we have a gender problem.  No, it isn't the same as the commercial beer gender problem.  Yes, we should still address it.  No, this might not be the whole answer, and certainly not the whole solution.

But it can't hurt.

Keep it simple.


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[For those who literally scrolled to the end, here's the short version: more women dig beer than brew beer, a reason might be because homebrewers are more than 90% men, this might give an impression that it's FOR men, and as a result we need female brewers to invite another woman to learn to brew if they like beer.  Thank you for your attention.]