It’s only when it breathes that I know for sure it’s going to live. Until then, I’m never quite convinced I’ve done enough. But the morning after brew day, as I walk downstairs and hear it wheezing into life, taking its first bubbling breaths through the airlock, I know. I wrap my arms around its belly to feel its warmth, and perhaps just the faint beginnings of a heartbeat, and right there, under the bright light of my kitchen, I know I have created life.
‘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.
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.
The October 2017 issue of the US homebrew publication, Brew Your Own Magazine, featured my story and photographs about the contemporary London beer scene on the front cover. I explored the diversity of the London scene and highlighted how the beer and brewing environment has grown and developed over the past ten years.
I also discussed the burgeoning London homebrew scene and its symbiotic relationship with commercial brewing, and supplied four homebrew-scaled recipes from some of the most exciting breweries in the capital.
You can read my article in full by purchasing this issues of Brew Your Own Magazine via this link.
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.