A Brief History of Women and Beer

Illustration: Women and Beer (adapted from an American WWII propaganda poster).

Immersing ourselves in the history of British beer in the last fifty years, we’ve noticed that, though most of the dominant characters are men, women have certainly played their part.

This post is an attempt to shine a light on just a few of the female brewers, campaigners and writers who have helped to shape today’s lively ‘alternative’ beer culture, and also to reflect on the challenges they’ve faced.

Part 1. Equally revolting

Women weren’t made to feel all that welcome in the early days of the struggle against the Big Six brewers.

The essentially backward-looking and conservative Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW) founded in 1963 received its first application for membership from a woman in 1965 — an eventuality which had not been taken into account when the constitution was drawn up. After much debate, founder member John Gore proposed a compromise: that women be permitted to join as associate members.

When the Campaign for Real Ale came along in 1971, it borrowed some of its style and rhetoric from socially liberal protest groups, and its senior ranks were filled with young, open-minded people who had grown up during the sexual revolution of the nineteen-sixties.  Though a streak of ‘robust’ (sexist) humour was, according to Roger Protz, a core part of CAMRA’s identity in those early days, the Campaign not only allowed but positively encouraged women to join.

In April 1973, Valerie Mason was elected to its ten-strong National Executive… as secretary, of course. Margaret Clark-Monks joined the NE in 1977 and served for seven years, though Chairman Tony Millns’ comment when she stood down is telling: ‘She was much more than the statutory woman…’

Bill Tidy cartoon, Good Beer Guide 1985.Christine Cryne, now a director at CAMRA, recalled the experience of being a female member in the Campaign’s first decade:

My grandmother used to drink beer including the bottled Worthington White Shield… [so] I had no preconceptions that women didn’t drink beer… I joined CAMRA in 1977 to attend AGM in Blackpool that year but I had been involved with the local branch (Reading) for about a year before then, helping out at the local beer festival… It was a much smaller organisation in those days and there was a good cross section of people of all ages and a real commitment to making a difference… My second branch was Bedford and, like Reading, there were a few women involved so that helped but I studied a science course and I was the only female on it so I suppose I was used to being in an environment that was male dominated (and having two brothers, both of whom I signed up to CAMRA).

Well into the nineteen-eighties, women within the Campaign continued, on occasion,  to be treated as ‘totty’, pressed into service modelling sweatshirts in awkwardly-posed photographs on the cover of What’s Brewing.

When a full page of the 1985 Good Beer Guide was given over to a bawdy Bill Tidy cartoon (pictured), it was the final straw for member Michelle McBride, who wrote a letter of complaint:

I cannot be bothered to get angry… but must register my quiet disappointment that blatant sexism is still found amusing… It is difficult to believe that the possibility of increased female CAMRA membership is treated with such supercilious contempt.

This kind of issue fed into a greater anxiety about the Campaign’s fortunes: it was generally felt to be dominated by middle-aged, middle-class, boorish, boring men, and membership remained low compared to the late seventies. It needed to change if it was to attract new, younger members.

Though Christine Cryne does not consider it to have been a political decision, the appointment of Andrea Gillies as editor of the Good Beer Guide in 1988 nonetheless sent a strong signal. A 27-year-old English graduate who described herself as ‘a yuppie with principles’, Gillies oversaw a complete overhaul of the GBG, and her arrival was announced in the ‘How to use this guide’ spoof sample entry which opened the 1989 edition (below).

Sample texts from the 1988 and 1989 CAMRA Good Beer Guides.

There was a woman pictured on the cover (sort of — the illustration is dreadful); new female contributors (Roz Morris, Virginia Matthews, Katherine Adams); and a fresh emphasis on food and dining, still regarded by many as the key to making beer more appealing to women.

Just to be entirely sure the message was being hammered home, Adams’s contribution was a polemic entitled ‘Women And the Pub: the bitter truth’:

Speaking personally, the biggest drawback with pubs is, to be blunt, that they were designed by and large for men… [Women] simply don’t feel comfortable going into a pub alone… [Women] who actually like pubs are familiar with… the assumption of the assembled males that a woman who comes alone into a pub must be either a scarlet woman or a pint-swilling harridan.

This lurch into self-conscious female friendliness did not please everyone: ‘I suspect I have a lot of enemies among the old guard members,’ Gillies said in 1988. The point having been made, it was toned down for the 1990 edition of the Guide, which nonetheless retained an emphasis on food and on a more sophisticated approach to ‘tasting’.

A page from the programme for the 1995 Great British Beer Festival.
A page from the programme for the 1995 Great British Beer Festival.

When Gillies finally handed over the editor’s seat to Jeff Evans for the 1991 edition, she left the GBG fundamentally changed — it would never go back to the days of sexist cartoons, and female writers such as Susan Nowak became a fixture, even if they did often end up writing about food and the ‘daintier’ side of beer appreciation.

The following year, another high profile job within the Campaign went to a woman, as Christine Cryne recalled: ‘When I became the first female organiser of the Great British Beer Festival, it created a great deal of media attention and, I hope, encouraged more women to become involved in the event.’ In 1995, the theme for the festival was ‘Women and beer’, and the programme contained the following observation:

No woman at any CAMRA beer festival will get a quip or an odd look if she asks for a pint. We just now have to wait for everyone else to catch up.

Part 2. Slaving Over a Hot Mash Tun

In most manufacturing industries in the post-war period, women, if they were present at all, worked in offices or on production lines. In breweries, they worked as secretaries or in bottling plants, but not brewers.

Of course, there were odd exceptions — hangovers from an earlier age when many women brewed, such as the All Nations Inn ‘homebrew house’ at Telford, Shropshire, described by Frank Baillie in his 1973 Beer Drinker’s Companion:

Mrs [Eliza] Lewis does all the brewing and has done so for the last thirty-eight years… Once a week, when most good citizens are in the depths of their slumber, Mrs Lewis rises in the small hours and commences operations at 3 a.m…. The vats hold about 260 gallons and Mrs Lewis used to move the liquor from once vat to the next by means of a hand ladle.

More typical, however, was the reaction of the Daily Express in 1977 to the discovery that 23-year-old Fiona McNish was working as a beer taster at Paine’s of St Neot: ‘Fiona, long brown hair, topographical as the Alps, a very feminine lady, has worked her way deep into male territory.’

The new generation of less conservative, often very small breweries which began to appear from the mid-seventies onward offered far more opportunity for women to get involved, sometimes out of pure necessity.

The Duke of York, Borough Road, Southwark, formerly the Goose & Firkin.
The Duke of York, Borough Road, Southwark, formerly the Goose & Firkin.

When David and Louise Bruce opened the first of their chain of Firkin pubs in London from 1979, though David was the face of the business, and had experience in the industry, both consider it to have been an equal partnership. (Well, almost: ‘Chauvinist bastard that I was back then, when we set up the company, I gave Louise 49% and I kept 51%, because I had to be in control!’) It was Louise who wrote the original business plan from David’s rough notes, and, later, when she wasn’t ferrying buckets of yeast around London from one pub to another in her car, she also did her share of early morning brewing.

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, Anne Scullion was the driving force behind Hilden Brewery, which she founded in 1981 with her husband, Seamus. She spent two months with Peter Austin at Ringwood learning to brew, before commencing work at Hilden with the assistance of Heriot-Watt graduate Brendan Dobbin. As well as hands-on brewing, she also drove the delivery van. A 1982 newspaper profile calls her a ‘mother-of-three’ and an ‘engaging blonde’ but otherwise treats her with respect. Women in brewing were beginning to be taken seriously.

The Orange Brewery, Pimlico.
Detail from ‘The Orange Brewery’, by Niznoz, used with permission.

It is a sign of progress, perhaps, that we have no idea whether Kim Taylor was ‘engaging’, blonde, pretty or a mother. She was appointed head brewer at the Orange Brewery, a Clifton Inns Firkin imitator in West London, in 1983, at the age of 23. Ann Hills, writing for the Guardian, included Taylor as one of many examples of women finding paid employment in areas previously the preserve of men. Taylor eventually went on to be supervising head brewer for the entire Clifton Inns group of brewpubs, though what became of here thereafter is something of a mystery.

At Traquair House in Scotland, Catherine Maxwell Stuart had been helping her father in the tiny country house brewery since the early nineteen-seventies, when she was around ten years old:

It was a great treat because I was allowed to stay up late and help with the cooling process which involved ladling the beer for up to three hours to help it cool to the correct temperature…Then we had to wait for a Customs office to come out and verify the original gravity so we would sometimes be up until midnight. The other job I did was cleaning the vessels – not so much fun but there was a huge amount of scrubbing to be done before and after every brew.

When Peter Maxwell Stuart died in 1990, Catherine not only became the ‘lady laird’ but also took charge of the brewery, which role she still performs today.

3. Enough to form a football team

Members of Project Venus.
Members of Project Venus, in a photo from their website.

In the last thirty years, though brewing remains male-dominated, things have changed. There are now many breweries owned or run by women, such as Wilson Potter of Manchester, Mallinson’s of Huddersfield, and Waen of Powys.

A number of them have formed a kind of promotional union, under the name Project Venus, and have brewed several beers together to date.

With the increased interest  in producing lager and other European styles among newer (trendy) small breweries, there also seems to be an influx of female technical expertise from continental Europe, such as Italian Giada Maria Simioni at Huddersfield’s Magic Rock, and Swede Sarah Hjalmarsson at Cornwall’s Harbour.

In the wake of Andrea Gillies, beer writing, too, has ceased to be the sole preserve of bearded, professorial men peering over the rims of their glasses. Melissa Cole’s book Let Me Tell You About Beer was published in 2011 and is (we think) the first such general educational guide, after the style of Michael Jackson or Roger Protz, by a female writer.‘I was offered two book deals before Anova came along to write a woman’s only guide for beer,’ Cole told us. She rejected them. Let Me Tell You isn’t a ‘girls guide’, and is admirably gender-neutral in tone and design — no pink, no high heels and handbags, and no Sex and the City nonsense.

Another first was the appointment, ten years ago, of 44-year-old Paula Waters to the top job as chair of the Campaign for Real Ale — a position she would hold for six years. Though, inevitably, the press wanted her to talk about women and beer, and she was obliged to give soundbites on that subject, she always confesses to finding it ‘exceedingly tedious’ and something of a non-issue: ‘I firmly believe that there are no real differences between men and women.’ She is proud of her time as CAMRA chair, but not because of anything relating to her gender: ‘I believe under my tenure CAMRA became very stable financially and the organisation of the Head Office team was restructured, allowing the campaign to grow and develop to meet the needs of the 21st century.’

4. Calm down, dear!

Why do we need a Project Venus? Why, when Harbour appointed a female brewer, did the local newspaper focus on her gender in the first line of the story? Why do some female beer writers feel compelled to call themselves sluts, beauties and babes? And why do women working in pubs and bars still report this kind of incident?

Tweet: "Award for most patronising customer this week goes to the man who said 'Obviously you don't drink real ale but what do you recommend?'"

The simple answer is because the presence of women in the world of beer is not quite completely normal, not quite yet. Melissa Cole:

I think there’s a long way to go. Women have been disenfranchised from beer for thirty to forty years and it’s going to take time, it’s going to take effort, it’s going to take commitment and it’s probably not going to fully turn around in my lifetime.

She might be right, though perhaps Mrs Lewis at the All Nations would have been surprised to hear it.

References

  • Female membeship of the SPBW: Obituary for John Gore, Pint in Hand, the magazine of the SPBW, issue 111, August 2009, p4.
  • Protz on ‘robust’ humour within CAMRA: ’33 years in the mash tun’, Beer Pages website.
  • Appointment of Valerie Mason: ‘The new executive’, What’s Brewing, April 1973.
  • Margaret Clark-Monks: ‘Jim tops the poll’, What’s Brewing, April 1974.
  • Christine Cryne: correspondence, August 2013.
  • Andrea Gillies: (very brief) correspondence, March 2013; ‘Real ale campaigners must brew new image’, James Erlichman, The Guardian, 2 August 1988, p5; Good Beer Guides for 1989 and 1990.
  • Information on the 1995 Great British Beer Festival programme supplied by Linda Hutton, and via her GBBF archive website.
  • Louise and David Bruce: interview, July 2013.
  • Anne Scullion: ‘Hilden’s real ale bubbles in Ulster’, Bob Rodwell, The Guardian, 15 October 1982, p21; Twenty-Five Years of New British Breweries, Ian Mackey, 1998.
  • Kim Taylor: Ian Mackey; New Beer Guide, Brian Glover, 1988; ‘Memo’, Guardian, January 1984, p8.
  • Catherine Maxwell Stuart: correspondence, December 2012.
  • Female CAMRA membership/Paula Waters: BBC news online; CAMRA press release, August 2013; correspondence, August 2013.
  • Melissa Cole: correspondence, September 2013.

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