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What It Means to Be a ‘Beer for Women’

Modern womanhood is riddled with contradictions, and that doesn’t change in the brewing industry

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Photos: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock; mrkornflakes/Shutterstock.

I am alone in my studio apartment, drinking an Aurosa, a Czech Republic-brewed unfiltered lager marketed as "the first beer for women." Downstairs is a pub, catering to fans of the local soccer club, and beyond is the city of Prague, where thousands of people are also drinking beer, alone and together, in higher quantities per capita than anywhere else in the world. I happen to be a woman myself, and an American, and a feminist, and I wanted to dislike Aurosa, which is bottled in faux marble and sold in a boutique drenched in Millennial pink, but it is, as beers go, perfectly drinkable, distinctive and floral and not at all sweet.

Let's get something clear from the outset: Beer, as even Aurosa’s CEO Martina Šmírová concedes, “is for everyone.” In Prague, beer is for the young and the old, for students in university canteens, for the president before he makes an important public appearance. But like the founder of a Silicon Valley startup, Šmírová has built her business around a problem I, for one, didn’t even know I had. “If you go to a restaurant and you order this big huge half-liter of beer,” she asks rhetorically, “Do you feel like this is supporting your femininity?”

Beer — as anyone who’s seen an ad for it can attest — has a woman problem. A 2016 Gallup poll reported that while beer is the preferred alcoholic beverage of some 54 percent of men, only 23 percent of women rank it higher than wine or liquor, a gender disparity that has persisted since the 1990s. That 77 percent of the market represents a vast untapped opportunity for brewers, and it’s opened the door for people like Šmírová to appeal to reluctant consumers.

But what it is that makes so many women unwilling to imbibe in the first place? Is the trouble, as Smirova believes, the beer itself — its bitterness, its caloric content, even its packaging, all of which have been blamed for turning off female consumers? Or is the problem more systemic: that women lack a place at the table in an industry notorious for marketing itself to men and men alone?

Aurosa, of course, isn’t really the first “beer for women.” Over the past decade, some of the world’s major brewing conglomerates attempted to court female consumers with beverages gussied up in ladylike colors and ultra-femme packaging, much in the way that Philip Morris marketed the gender-neutral cigarette to women with Virginia Slims (a move that Šmírová cited as an inspiration for Aurosa).

In 2009, Molson Coors launched its BitterSweet Partnership, a short-lived initiative with the aim of “changing beer’s reputation and its relationship with women.” Their research led to the launch of Animée, a trio of ultra-filtered, lemon, and rosé-flavored “bloat-resistant” lagers with a Belle-Époque logo, a $3.2 million marketing budget, and a sampling partnership with salon brand Toni & Guy. It was pulled from supermarket shelves after only a year.

Also in 2011, Carlsberg launched the similarly ill-fated “beer for beer-haters” Copenhagen, a brand “so insisting that natural beauty needs no makeup, so tastefully stating that blonde is the new black,” as its Jude Law sound-alike spokesman said in a TV spot. The beverage was Carlsberg’s second attempt at a female-directed beer, riding the coattails of Eve, a brand of pastel-colored shandies still available in Switzerland. Eve’s marketers told Fast Company that the drink was to be enjoyed “in a Champagne glass to emphasize its aspirational qualities.”

This is to say nothing of beer’s more distant relatives, “malternatives” like Bud Light Lime-A-Rita, which AB InBev announced last month would be marketed directly to a female demographic. Whether women truly prefer these beverages or men are fearful of emasculation isn’t something that market research can prove. A 2002 story in Slate ranks the most notable offenders of the early aughts with a “Guy Suitability” rating, noting that “[s]urprisingly, the supposed girliness of the malternatives did not lead to more generous scores from women.”

In the craft space, fewer attempts to launch female-branded brews have taken place, according to Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association, a nonprofit that seeks to promote and protect American craft brewing. “Craft brewers are often locally focused, and as locally-focused businesses, have to think about marketing differently,” Watson says. “When you’re trying to attract your local community to visit your brewery, ignoring 50 percent of the population doesn’t make much sense.”

As Watson says, citing a Nielsen survey from 2014, women ages 24 to 34 account for 10.4 percent of craft brew consumers, and women 21 to 24 speak for 4.2 percent. Those numbers may not seem high, but women in these categories are actually over-indexing, meaning that they account for a higher percentage of consumers in the market than their actual percentage of the population.

Women are also likely to sample from a wide range of styles. Nielsen's 2016 survey of craft beer preferences revealed that women demonstrate a stronger preference than men for seven out of 37 craft beer styles: sour/American wild ale; fruit/vegetable/pumpkin; herb/spice; shandy/radler; Hefeweizen; blonde/golden ale; and saison/farmhouse. To craft brewers, that points to an opportunity for growth. So maybe the question for craft brewers isn’t how to get women to drink, but to find out what they like.

Or maybe not. “I’m going to be direct: It’s just as asinine as saying, ‘What kind of pasta do men like?’” says Ginger Johnson, a marketing consultant and marketing research expert who specializes in beer. “I mean, it’s just ludicrous. And everybody’s fucking missing that point.”

As the force behind Women Enjoying Beer, Johnson studies women and their relationship to beer, consulting breweries that want to increase their market share by engaging female consumers. “Scan — quantitative data — will never fulfill the full picture,” says Johnson, who recently published a book with the no-nonsense title How to Market Beer to Women. “It’s tragic that there’s so much weight put on sheer numbers without the ‘why.’ That is what the whole beer industry is missing.” Johnson’s research focuses on that “why”: the psychographics of women’s decision-making, premised on the understanding that women enjoy flavor, and thus women enjoy beer. “It’s a long-held error that women only like certain kinds of beer,” Johnson writes in How to Market Beer to Women. “It’s also inaccurate that they dislike other kinds of beer by sheer virtue of gender.”

Several years ago, Johnson received the opportunity to put her insights to work for a particularly gender-binary entry into the craft scene, a low-cal, low-bitterness, minimal-carbonation lager whose label featured a black bustier and whose packaging was designed to look like a purse. Its name, fittingly, was Chick Beer.

Founder Shazz Lewis reached out to Johnson by phone prior to the launch of Chick Beer in 2011 “to pick [her] brain,” as Johnson recalls. Johnson wrote about their interaction on the Women Enjoying Beer blog, noting in no uncertain terms: “There is no such thing as a women’s beer. Everyone wants the opportunity for flavor, whatever form that may be, and everyone wants to be treated and invited to the product with respect and in a genuine manner.” She recalled on the blog that “[r]egardless of what [Lewis] asked of me … she chose to go forward with her dream. Power to her.”

More recently, Johnson echoed her sympathies for Lewis. “I do understand a little bit of her rationale, based on what the conventional parameters are,” Johnson says. Beer, like reality television or the Capitol Hill intern program, has a representation problem. “Any time a population is not included in the images, is not included in the language, is not included in the aspirational and the inspirational and the actual… of course you’re going to miss them,” Johnson says. “They don’t see themselves.”

This is a sentiment that Lewis herself expressed in her interview with the Village Voice, later pilloried everywhere from Jezebel — the headline: “Ugh, Really?” — to TIME. Lewis recalled that she had come to the realization one day, looking over the more than 400 beers in her husband’s Maryland liquor store, that “there was nothing that shouted out ‘female.’” She told the paper, “As a woman and mother of five daughters, I’m focused on that sort of thing.”

Johnson stressed that delineating a brand with a girls-only approach is the wrong way to go. “Do you need to separate the genders more? No. No! No no no no no,” she says with a laugh. “I would like to work myself out of this job and not have any part of gender difference be any part of the conversation.”

Yet even amongst self-proclaimed feminists in the brewing industry, Johnson’s particular flavor of gender politics sets her apart. I reached out to Kristi McGuire, founder and master brewer at Florida’s High Heel Brewing, to inquire about her decision to position the brand for a specifically female consumer, and was surprised to receive a polite but firm response indicating that I had misunderstood what High Heel was all about. Following a story in USA Today calling it the only female-run brewery to “cater specifically to women,” High Heel was, like Chick Beer, eviscerated for its alleged pandering to female customers (including here at Eater), particularly with its hybrid ale, Slingback.

But McGuire says High Heel wasn’t marketed “exclusively for women.” To the contrary, it was positioned with inclusivity in mind, and the feminine names of the brand and two of its three beers were selected to reflect the fact that High Heel was owned and operated by women. High Heel’s three beers — Slingback, a cross between an ale and a cider; Too Hop’d to Handle, an intense IPA; and Hippie Chick, a draft-only gluten-free brew — were also developed to demonstrate inclusivity, “deliberately and overtly.”

“Just as some craft brewers showcase their beards as part of their image, I am showcasing being a confident woman in the brewing industry,” McGuire, who has worked as a brewer for over two decades, wrote. “I hope that in a small way, this inspires women to participate in the industry and to enjoy craft beer.”

When we finally connect over the phone, McGuire rehashes an episode she had in a restaurant the previous week. “They had several brands on tap,” she says, “and one of them is from Midnight Sun, and it is a tripel — the server said it was a tripel bock but it’s actually a Belgian tripel — and the name of it is Panty Peeler. And I said, ‘I can’t order that.’ And [the server] said, ‘I know, it’s a strong style.’” McGuire breaks into a laugh. “And I said, ‘It’s not the style, it’s the name … even if it’s really delicious, it’s not happening.’”

In a climate where there’s a market for beers called Thong Remover, Mouth Raper, and Date Grape, maybe zeroing in on High Heel Brewing is a little beyond the point. All criticisms of High Heel's name or packaging aside, who benefits from the opprobrium heaped on a woman who’s just seeking a little overdue representation? After all, McGuire is brewing beer on a planet where women — who have been brewers since beer was a thing — still go largely unacknowledged by the malt-beverage industry. It’s a place where a young entrepreneur like Šmírová, based in the beer capital of the universe, can still believe beer to impinge upon feminine sophistication. Bringing beer to a female market is a complicated thing, but so is being a female.

Sipping on an Aurosa, I observe that High Heel’s logo, a hops flower perched on the spike of a stiletto that Refinery29 called “aggressively feminized,” could call to mind the Olympic torch, or an exclamation point. It's a dagger in the heart of so many years of misogyny, maybe. And that hops flower looks like a hand grenade.

Is it pandering? Perhaps. Is it powerful? In many more ways than one.

Morgan Childs is a freelance writer based in Prague.
Photo editing: Esra Erol
Editor: Erin DeJesus