Ladies’ Entrance: This Way to the Brewhouse

Written by George Macke

That image of plaid-wearing 30-something men with big, bushy beards selling you a bitter IPA? Forget about it.

The craft beer industry is ready for a woman’s touch.

General Manager Erica Hughes (left) and Taproom Supervisor Vanessa Taylor help run Upper Thames Brewing and Brickhouse Brewpub in Woodstock

“I think that women have more of an impact on the craft beer industry than ever before in the history of the beer,” said Erica Hughes, General Manager of Upper Thames Brewing and the Brickhouse Brewpub in Woodstock. “There is so much opportunity for different styles of beer, using local ingredients, supporting other small businesses, collaboration and networking — all of which I believe are attractive to women. There has been a shift!”

Hughes was in the franchise restaurant and hospitality industry for 10 years before making the switch to what was then a new craft brewery.

“I didn’t know much about the craft beer industry, but what my past franchised world taught me was valuable: managing people, marketing, and policies and procedures. The question was, could I have a passion for the craft beer industry?”

“Quickly the stars aligned and I was shifting my career to be general manager of the fastest growing and most exciting local business in Oxford County. I was now part of this growing business, in a predominantly male-run operation, that I didn’t know much about.”

“Luckily, I had a team of owners/bosses that gave me full autonomy with my ideas, input, and suggestions for their business. I started doing what I knew best, asking questions and becoming immersed in what would turn out to be a dream job. I learned quickly that the craft beer industry was not so cutthroat, but more collaborative, helpful and open on best practices.”

It was only 50 years ago that women going out for a drink had to enter hotels through a designated “ladies and escorts” door. It made news in Toronto in 1971 when a singles bar opened in Toronto and women could legally enter unescorted. [Women had to be accompanied by a male companion or could be barred from entering.]

A vintage sign indicating the bar door that women could enter through — if they were accompanied by a man.

For decades, big beer companies used bikini-clad women to sell their products to the target audience — men.

“Women can drink and enjoy beer, too,” Hughes said. “And that hasn’t been the belief historically. Instead, women have been used as marketing tools to attract men and increase sales, a trend that occurred with the big domestic brands. I think that it’s most absurd that the belief at one time was that beer wasn’t meant for women to drink and if they did, it wasn’t proper or acceptable, but it was perfectly acceptable to use their beauty to attract men to drink it.”

Still, craft breweries throughout Canada and the United States have had their share of marketing missteps when trying to come up with edgy or punny beer names such as Big Tiddy Assassin, Wailing Wench, Chunky Gal Amber, Midnight Sun Panty Peeler, and Polygammy Porter. Craft brewers today aim higher.

“Beer labels and can designs lead to a big opportunity to be more creative than ever before,” Hughes said. “The flashiest, well-designed, or most attractive label or logo on the shelf are what people are drawn to. These labels appeal to both genders and are a breakthrough in being inclusive of both sexes. Gone are the days of selling beer with sex appeal.”

It’s not just in beer names and label design that women are placing craft beer on the high road. Brew development has become a key role.

“There are beers being created every day that either have women in mind as the target or are being created by a woman based on her tastes or desires in a beer,” Hughes said. They range from low-alcohol fruity beers all the way up the scale to heavy porters and stouts.

In terms of naming new beers in a way that’s catchy and fun for everyone, Hughes points to one she had a hand in, Take A Hike Dry-Hopped Pale Ale.

“Take a Hike has gone on to be listed with the LCBO and sold all over Ontario,” she said. “It’s a close number two seller in our taproom and brewpub and is my favourite Upper Thames beer. I particularly like the sarcasm behind the name, but that it also stays true to our brand and our Canadian or outdoor theme. ‘Take a hike!’, ‘No! You take a hike!’ –– I love laughing with people over the double meaning in the name.”

There are brands to which many female patrons gravitate. “We have an amazing following from both genders at both locations,” Hughes said. “If I were to guess, women make up approximately 30 to 40 per cent of our regular patrons. Craft beer has become a hobby. It’s an opportunity for women to be on the same playing field as men. We have an exclusive mug club — The Voyageur Society — with a membership that continuously grows to include more and more women.”

At Shakespeare Brewing near Stratford, co-owner Katie Anderson-Gautreau’s interest in craft beer was sparked when she and husband Ayden toured Europe.

Katie Anderson-Gautreau is co-owner of Shakespeare Brewing Co., in the village of Shakespeare, near Stratford

“[Being in the craft beer business] certainly wasn’t something I had thought I would be doing in the future, as I was going through university,” she said. “I liked beer back then but I wasn’t very adventurous. I really started to see craft beer as part of my life while Ayden and I were in Europe. When we were staying at a farm in England that had an on-site brewery and a pub over the hill, my appreciation of beer really began to grow.”

“It became a hobby of ours to visit craft breweries and try different styles of craft beer. When Ayden began working at Bell City we knew we wanted to open our own brewery at some point, and it was just a matter of learning as much as we could until that could happen.”

Anderson-Gautreau said women — or anyone new to craft beer — are initially surprised that there are so many different styles available.

“I find my taste buds are constantly changing,” she said. “I go through phases where I love IPAs, then lagers, then sours. There really is something for every taste bud in the craft beer world. The best part about craft beer is that the people in the industry are passionate about it and are happy to share their knowledge and what they create.”

She’s noted little divide between the kinds of beers women order versus men.

“For the most part both men and women like to try new flavours and styles to determine what they like,” Anderson-Gautreau said. “Many times those who are new to craft beer, men or women, tend to lean towards the lighter beers because that may be what they are used to. Once they try the beers they are surprised by how much they enjoy the more bitter beers or the flavours of a dark beer like our milk stout.”

Shakespeare Brewing Co. owners Katie and Ayden and their children Blair and Levi

Craft brewery taprooms have nothing in common with the smoky hotel barrooms of the 1960s and are little like the music-thumping, meat market discos of the 1970s and 1980s. Many taprooms are set up like living rooms or have long, group tables meant to be shared with other patrons to encourage conversation with each other and the staff, including owners and brewmasters.

“Women just want a place they feel welcome and can hang out with their friends, partners, or kids. I always feel so much better when I go to a brewery and feel like my kids are welcome too. It means I can spend my time enjoying and appreciating my beer rather than worrying about the kids.”

“I think in general, everybody likes a judgment-free zone when they go to a craft brewery, whether they are new to craft beer or a craft beer enthusiast.”      


About the author

George Macke

George Macke is a Southwestern Ontario craft beer explorer who spends too much time at the LCBO.