Do You Pass the Test? Or: what can 1980s lesbians teach us about beer?

‘Beer people are lovely people!’ and ‘The beer industry is a wonderful, friendly place!’ are things I’ve been told on a number of occasions since jumping boots-first into the scene a couple of years ago. And, for me, there’s a lot of truth in these celebratory statements. I spent the first two decades of my working life in an environment where I didn’t always see the best of how things could be. As a frontline social worker – and more latterly, a social work academic – I bore witness to desperation, deprivation, and sometimes degradation on a scale most would find hard to contemplate. I met many, many good people on both sides of the intervention divide – some of the bravest, warmest, creative, most intelligent people there are – and I have a lasting respect for them all. I also derived a great deal of satisfaction from my work, and felt immensely privileged to work alongside people in some of the darkest times of their lives. But, in terms of a joyful working environment, I can’t honestly say that it comes close to chatting over a mash tun in a breath-cloud cold brewery just as the sun is rising, or being handed the fullest, maltiest, fattest barley wine by a proud brewer with a grin so wide it must sting, or discovering a taste that will pin you forever to location, a time, an emotion, a memory that  will leave you changed.

But I’m lucky. First up, I’m an old-school butch dyke. I have a quiff and a comb, a pocket watch and a pocket knife. I don’t understand make-up and I sometimes get challenged when using women’s toilets. Men are occasionally scared of me, often confused around me, and regularly amused by me, but I’m absolutely not the kind of woman they want to sleep with. Secondly, I host a beer and brewing radio show, I write about beer for publications in which people want their brews featured, I won a British Guild of Beer Writers Award for Best Online Beer Communicator (I know – I’m shocked too), and I have a website, a podcast, a blog, and so – to my face at least – both women and men in the beer industry are lovely, and the environment in which I work is a wonderful and friendly place.

But I’m aware that’s not everyone’s truth. I don’t need to experience harassment in order to believe the women who tell me they are regularly harassed. I don’t need to feel the creeping nastiness of the belittling, objectifying, ridiculing, rejecting, grabbing, groping, saliva-spraying face of sexism, to know that it exists within the beer industry. I just need to see the dodgy pumpclips, engage with social media, and note the absence of women from many respected platforms within the industry.

But, as someone with a voice that occasionally grabs attention, if I see injustice, I also need to do something more.

DSC_0893

I first came across Alison Bechdel and her wonderful ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ comic strip in the early-1990s when, as a newly ‘out’ lesbian I would scour literature to find any representation of queer culture. In those pre-Internet days, Bechdel’s funny, inspiring and moving series, populated by a cast of lesbians and their friends, was one of the few places where a sympathetic portrayal of ‘women like me’ could be found. Complete with their interests, intricacies and insecurities, Mo, Sydney, Clarice and Toni, held a mirror up to the lives of lesbians all over the Western world, fighting injustice and celebrating personal victories, and all the time providing a community to those of us who were struggling to find a place in our own.

But it wasn’t until some years later that I realised that a 1985 ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ strip called ‘The Rule’ had spawned a way of looking at the world that could be useful across many parts of life. The Bechdel Test – clearly explained in this short video here – is a benchmark or litmus test used to assess the presence of women in movies. For a movie to pass the Bechdel Test it needs to contain three things:

1. Two or more female characters with names…
2. …who talk to each other…
3. …about something other than a man.

This sounds fairly straightforward but, shockingly, around half of mainstream movies – some of our most well-loved films – actually fail this test, including the original Star Wars Trilogy, Slumdog Millionaire, Avatar, The Avengers, Finding Nemo, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the complete Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and many, many more.

Of course, just because a film passes does not mean it necessarily advances women’s rights. The Bechdel Test doesn’t assess whether something is progressive or challenging: it simply assesses whether women are present in any meaningful way. And, in a world in which women’s voices are regularly silenced, the mere presence of women is extremely important.

Over the years, the Bechdel Test has been applied or modified to assess other areas of culture including literature, journalism and even software development. And from there I believe it’s only a short hop to applying it to the contemporary beer scene. It is vital for the future of the industry that women are present on discussion panels, leading or chairing conferences, part of magazine editorial teams, present in beer education, at the centre of judging panels, represented at the highest level in brewing or consumer organisations, and called on as the experts they are to be listened to and heard. Importantly, I’m not suggesting that women are invited into male-dominated spaces solely to talk about incidents of sexism, or what it’s like being a woman in the beer industry. Making time to hear those testimonies is important but they are not the whole story – remember in order to pass the Bechdel Test, women must be talking about something other than men or their experiences at the hands of them. Inviting women into otherwise male enclaves in order to give a ‘woman’s perspective’ is also patronising, reductive and ignores the intersectional nature of all our identities in which we are defined not only by our gender – be that male, female or otherwise – but also our race, age, religion, sexuality, abilities, and so much more. It also causes us to miss out on the vast experiences and knowledge that women have amassed in their chosen fields.

The contemporary beer scene is not alone in sometimes struggling with the representation of women, and there are many examples of great work in this area. But every time women are invisible in areas of influence, every time a beer is marketed solely at men, every time a ‘beer for women’ is produced, every time we have to remind people that women were the first brewers, every time a disagreement on Twitter degenerates into macho posturing, every time craft beer lovers are portrayed as people with beards, every time a woman has to justify why she likes beer, or why offensive beer names are unacceptable, every time sexist ‘banter’ is excused, every time beer fans are greeted on social media as ‘lads’, every time the ‘women don’t drink beer’ myth is perpetuated, every time the consumption of alcohol is accepted as an excuse for sexist, racist or homophobic behaviour, we all lose out.

Having trodden the career path I have, I’m not naïve enough to propose that we should all just be kind to one another. But, at the very least, we need to hear each other’s voices. And, as such, I will continue to ensure that each edition of Fermentation Beer & Brewing Radio is Bechdel Test compliant. And I promise to loudly celebrate anyone else who, within their own field of work, commits to doing the same.

Lucky Beer

I often feel lucky when I’ve sampled great beer. But tonight I feel particularly fortunate because I’ve tasted beer that I may never taste in the UK again. And this wasn’t just a bottle of grog brought back wrapped in dirty laundry  at bottom of a fellow-beer geek’s suitcase: this was international award-winning beer brewed by two of Japan’s very best craft breweries.

IMG_0914

Following changes to Japanese law in 1994 which paved the way for microbreweries, a large number opened up around the country and began introducing novel flavours to a nation of beer drinkers more accustomed to the blandness of Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo. Not all these enterprises survived, but Minoh and Ise Kadoya did, and both breweries celebrate their twentieth anniversaries this year. And what better way to celebrate than flying 6000 miles across the world to pick up a haul of prizes at the International Brewing Awards?

Minoh brewery was founded by Ohshita Masaji and is now managed by his three daughters. Minoh, based in Osaka, is a pretty happening brewery in its home country and has won numerous awards for its innovative beer. Amongst its previous offerings are Minoh Cabernet – made with a large helping of cabernet grapes – and, of course, Mino Bier – last year’s collaboration brew with Brighton Bier brewed with Mugicha (Japanese roasted barley tea). Tomorrow, they collect a gold award for their W-IPA (one of Japan’s very first double IPAs) and a bronze for their stout (which has been declared the world’s best stout on more than one occasion in the past). Samples of each of these were on offer tonight at Brighton Bierhaus as part of this special event. The W-IPA was satisfyingly viscous and bitter, whilst the rich, slight smokiness of the stout showcased the malt in a way that briefly caramel-coated the tongue in a coffee sweetness.

The other brewery showcased at tonight’s event, Ise Kadoya, represents the latest incarnation of a 450 year old family business, and CEO, Narihiro Suzuki, is the charismatic 21st generation, the man who boldly steered the company away from the production of soy sauce and miso paste, into the world of modern brewing. A renowned beer judge in his own right, Suzuki is thrilled to be collecting awards – a gold for their pale ale and a bronze for the brown ale. Again, both beers were available for sampling tonight. Both had a surprising sweetness. The brown ale was, perhaps, a little truer to type, but the pale was my favourite: an ice cream float with a dancing sparkle of tight carbonation of a kind it’s always exciting to find in bottle-conditioned beer.

IMG_0943

I was very honoured to get an interview with Narihiro Suzuki, and you’ll be able to hear it very soon on the Fermentation Beer & Brewing Show.

Japanese beer.zip

And if you missed out on this Tuesday night treat from the Brighton Bierhaus, never fear: I have a feeling that this new addition to Brighton’s burgeoning beer scene has many more surprises in store for us.

Tap Takeover’s over…

So, Tap Takeover – Brighton’s biggest craft beer festival – is over for another year. And quite a large part of me is left wishing that a dozen creative breweries descended on the city’s pubs with their best brews in tow every weekend.

Throughout the three days of the festival I did my best to taste beer from as many of the breweries as I could, and I stumbled across some definite highlights. Garden Brewery, based in Croatia delivered a stand-out Citrus IPA – a full-bodied, golden-caramel, hop-fruit cream with a snatchy, lingering bitterness; Wylam‘s Brodirblod (just don’t ask me to pronounce it!) – a collaboration with previous Fermentation Radio Show guests, Northern Monk – was a rye and juniper feast that left me glowing from somewhere deep down inside; and, of course, the Fermentation Radio Show x Two Tribes collaboration New England Pale was a gem I could be proud of – so much so that it sold out at the Mesmerist within a few short hours!

I managed to record interviews with six of the breweries: Wylam (Newcastle), Edge (Barcelona), Garden (Croatia), Fierce (Aberdeen), Boundary (Belfast) and White Hag (Sligo), and you’ll be able to hear these on the Fermentation Radio Show very soon (make sure you don’t miss the Irish guys – they were a lot of fun!). But I also managed to interview some of the other people whose diverse stories make an event like this quite so special. For example, I caught up with Elaine from Bitter Women – a meet-up group for LGBT women who enjoy real ale and craft beer – to talk about what inspired her to set up the group, and what kind of beery shenanigans its members get up to. And I rounded off my festival by chatting to beer writer, Adrian Tierney-Jones, the new editor of Original Gravity Magazine, about the last twenty years – and the next twenty years – of our favourite beverage. Again, you’ll be able to catch up with those interviews on the Fermentation Radio Show very soon.

Many thanks must go to the Beer Collective and the Laine Brew Co for filling Brighton with so many pints of good cheer. And an extra vote of thanks goes to the weather, which graced us with the kind of sunshine it usually reserves for Brighton Pride or the last night of the Festival. Which can surely mean only one thing: Tap Takeover – a celebration of the contemporary art of beer and brewing – has been accepted as a true Brighton institution.

Sunday Roasting

The continued existence of sexism in beer is something I hope is familiar to all self-aware drinkers nowadays, and has been the topic of many recent articles and blog posts. From sexist beer names and pump clips, to the way female drinkers and those working in the industry are often overlooked, ridiculed and mansplained to about beer, the torch is being shone on those daily microaggressions that continue to make the world of beer less welcoming to women than it is to men. Melissa Cole’s recent column for Ferment Magazine tackled the need to also challenge racism, transphobia and homophobia in the beer industry, and so highlighted the intersectional nature of discrimination and oppression.

We all occupy a number of different identities at the same time – some of which are privileged (in my case my whiteness and my physical ability), and some of which are not (for me, my gender and my sexuality). It’s at the complex intersections of these identities that we experience our world. And it is at these intersections that I experienced the dual impact of sexism and ageism this week via a Facebook advert for a Mother’s Day event at a well-known beer venue.

The advert claimed that Mother’s Day need no longer be a ‘chore’ if ‘you’ bring ‘Mumma’ for a meal in this establishment because,

‘First of all, you get to enjoy some thirst-quenchingly awesome beer from our gargantuan selection. Win. Second, your dearest old lady gets to enjoy one of the best Sunday roasts in town for free. Double win.’

No: double lose.

Admittedly, within the Venn diagram of identity, the ellipse in which I stand – a butch lesbian mother with a penchant for fine beer – isn’t all that crowded. However, whether intentional or not (and I’m optimistically assuming the latter) this promotion effectively excluded me – and many others in neighbouring identity ellipses – from engagement. Strongly implicit here is the assumption that mothers don’t drink beer. In fact, only ‘young’ (male?) people, who usually find Mother’s Day a ‘chore’, drink beer. Mothers are ‘dearest’ and ‘old’ and like a nice roast dinner. (I imagine they might sometimes have a small glass of white wine – as long as it’s not too dry).

There’s been a push in recent years, from venues, marketeers, writers and drinkers alike, to distance themselves from the traditional image of beer – whether it be cask, keg or homebrew – as something ‘old’, ‘boring’ or ‘dated’. But this promotion actually reminded me of all those times I’ve seen mainstream beer television advertising aimed squarely at men to the neglect of women, or of noticeboards outside town centre pubs that advertise themselves as ‘male creches’ – a place to drop off ‘husbands and boyfriends’ whilst ‘wives and girlfriends’ go shopping. It was the self-same message in a slightly different font.

But it was also more worrying because it shows that in our rush to reclaim beer as something ‘modern’, ‘young’, and ‘cool’, we are in danger of reinforcing the exclusion and invisibility of certain groups. And this is particularly concerning when we know that those groups are already subject to layers of discrimination within the industry.

I’m not going to name the particular venue here because, to their credit, less than 12 hours after I called them out on this, the event was removed. I don’t know if this was as a result of my  comment on the event page or not; I just hope that some reflection and learning has now taken place.

And, just to clarify, if anyone would like to buy me a beer on Mother’s Day next Sunday, that’s absolutely fine by me. Just don’t ever mistake me for anyone’s ‘dearest old lady’.

Only with fermentation comes civilisation

There’s a heck of a lot of ‘fuss’ in the modern beer world.

From the excitement generated by the release of a hazy hop-bomb from a brewery you’ve only recently discovered, to the fervour of the beer chasers stepping over each other to get hold of a can (and it does have to be a can nowadays…), you could be forgiven for wondering whether we’re perhaps blowing things a little out of proportion. It’s just a drink after all; it’s only about 5% off being a straight glass of water. But the more that’s discovered about beer – the world’s most popular alcoholic drink – the more its pivotal role in the development of the human story becomes apparent. And two things I’ve been reading this week have thrown that into stark relief yet again.

Firstly, the cover of this month’s National Geographic Magazine features a frothy glass of Bavaria’s best emblazoned with the words ‘The Birth of Booze: Our 9000-year love affair with alcohol’. Inside, Andrew Curry’s fascinating article makes the case that alcoholic beverages, including beer, have been instrumental in shaping human culture from earliest times, and have contributed to the development of, amongst other things, language, religion and the arts.

The earliest indication of beer brewing so far discovered dates back at least 7000 years (and possibly further), with evidence of corn beer being brewed across the Americas and sorghum brewing in parts of Africa. Apparently, by 3150BC, Ancient Egyptians were brewing beer on an almost industrial scale. In response to this, the theory put forward by bio-molecular archaeologist, Patrick McGovern (and others), is that the desire to cultivate plants in order to make alcoholic drinks was one of the key reasons (if not the key reason) why hunter-gatherers began to settle in one place and create what we now term (although not entirely unproblematically) civilisation. And once settled in communities, many peoples drank beer in vast quantities, not simply because it was pleasant, but also because it was much cleaner than water and contained certain nutrients (that we now know to include B vitamins and folic acid), causing it to function as both refreshment and a kind of ‘liquid bread’. And, of course, if nutrition improves, growth – both physical and mental – is enhanced, so who knows what part beer may then have played in the development of culture and language?

Secondly, I’ve started reading Judith Bennett’s well-researched and absorbing book, Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600. In it, Bennett examines the reasons behind the handover of brewing as an occupation from women (most ale drunk in England before 1350 was brewed by women) to men (by 1600 most brewers were male). She concludes that although this was a dramatic change, it was equally part of a continuity in the nature of women’s work – as brewing became a more prestigious occupation, women continued to carry out the low-paid, low-status work they had always done.

This got me thinking about more recent changes in the brewing world. In particular, I wonder how much impact newer micro- or ‘craft’ brewers, who may arrive at brewing via less conventional brewing routes, driven perhaps by novel priorities and values, will have on the profession more widely. Ultimately, could the demographics of the population of brewers shift, or is the way we think about the nature of brewing as an occupation likely to change? As with many aspects of the contemporary beer scene, I expect the answer will be informed by both tradition and innovation.

So, it would seem that all that ‘fuss’ about beer may well be justified – that fluid in your best glassware may well be part of the reason you and I can communicate. And, even if it’s not, every brew coming out of Verdant Brewing at the moment is absolutely ruddy spectacular.