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.


  • 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.

3 thoughts on “A Brief History of Women and Beer”

  1. And in 2013 CAMRA award­ed Cam­paign­er of the Year to a woman for the first time,

  2. I’m sur­prised by the SPBW actu­al­ly exclud­ing women, although on reflec­tion it should­n’t have been that sur­pris­ing.

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