Today I went to the Plasterers Arms on Cowgate to talk to Erica Horton, the brains behind an upcoming festival running alongside the Norwich City of Ale Beer Festival 2014, called FEM.ALE. It’s a 3-day event that focuses on female brewers and the women who love to drink beer, and will include beer tastings, live music, and female-brewed beer available on all 15 pumps at the pub. The beer industry is quite possibly one of the most male-orientated industries out there, with women mainly making their appearances in the advertisements, on the logos, or behind the bar pulling the pints. And when beer companies do decide to attempt to target women, they do so with fruity flavours or low-calorie drinks, with one company even developing a “less gassy” brand specifically for women. I talked to Erica, who is a member of the Norwich Feminist Network, about why a female-focused beer event is so important, and what her feelings are about the beer industry as a whole.
Sophie Elliott: How did the idea of FEM.ALE come about?
Erica Horton: I’m part of the Norwich feminist network, who have meeting regularly to discuss local and international feminist issues. We wanted to have more of a casual meeting and go for drinks and stuff, and the more we talked about it the more we realised that a lot of the women enjoy drinking beer, so we thought we’d have a beer event but make it a bit more female orientated.
S.E: Why did you want to have an alternative festival to specifically celebrate female brewers?
E.H: The beer industry itself has lots of problems with reaching women, in terms of acknowledging that women are doing some really amazing things with beer. There are women brewing some really interesting things and there are some really great networks set up at the moment for women and female brewers – such as Project Venus, which is a network of women dedicated to educating women about beer, and who brew together every couple of months – so there was a great opportunity to draw attention to that and to celebrate it. Norwich is a city that loves beer and ale and quite a lot of women do like to drink it here, but elsewhere there are lots of problems with how women are represented within the production, distribution and serving, and consuming of beers. I’ve always noticed that quite often the beer taps will have a picture of a woman on it and the beer itself will be named after a woman, and I find that deeply upsetting because it is a form of commodifying women.
S.E: Let’s talk about advertising for beer companies. Do you think the degrading images of women mean it’s difficult for female brewers to be taken seriously? And do you think the male-orientated marketing puts off potential female beer drinkers?
E.H: I think that advertisements like that misrepresent women, and use them as a form of selling beer as opposed to depicting them making or buying it. Someone tweeted me the other day saying that beer is marketed towards men because that’s the bigger market, but by what definition is that a bigger market? There are more women in the world so surely that’s the bigger market? We’d like to change the idea that it is all for men. I’ve had tweets from people asking me if there are going to be women at the event wearing t-shirts soaked in beer, and stuff like that, and it’s horrible. Consistently it’s the bigger breweries that are encouraging this culture, like Fosters, and Stella, who are trying to make their advertisements more sophisticated but are still degrading women, and Budweiser, whose advertisements are absolutely ridiculous. So yes, advertising is definitely a big problem in how women are represented as brewers, beer makers and professionals.
S.E: Why do you think it’s important for women to get into beer brewing? Do you think your event will influence or inspire people to get into it?
E.H: That was one of the things I was interested in, for example getting women into the idea of home brewing. It’s a very different process to industrial or commercial brewing, which I didn’t know until I spoke to Jo C, a Norfolk Brewster who’s going to be doing a beer tasting at the event. She was saying how she can’t really recommend any tips for home brewing because she doesn’t know anything about it, because she makes big industrial tanks of beer. We hope to make women more visible in this industry, and to get more women together to talk about their experience and knowledge as professionals who know what they’re doing. I think it’s important to celebrate women striving in male-orientated industries, and to get all these women together in one place to mobilise their understanding and encourage other people.
S.E: What do you hope to get out of FEM.ALE? What’s the message you want people to take away with them?
E.H: It’s a great opportunity to celebrate women who are in the beer industry, and to create a nice women-friendly space. Obviously it’s inclusive and men should definitely come along as well, but to create one space in this city of ale beer festival where it’s particularly female-orientated would be really nice. It’s something that the feminist network was very interested in. Big groups of women, drinking beer? Brilliant.
S.E: Will you be doing it again next year? Have you thought about expanding the event?
E.H: I’m hoping to do it again. We’ve already been talking to the Norwich Arts Centre who want to expand it next year and turn it into a bigger thing, but that’s in the very early stages. We don’t know what that will be like, but yes, we’re hoping to do it again, and if there’s the opportunity to expand then that’d be great. There’d obviously be a much bigger team doing it and a lot more delegation going on. But I’ve got to finish my PhD first! [laughs]
The FEM.ALE 3-day event takes place from the 23rd until the 25th of May, at the Plasterers Arms in Norwich. Event details can be found here.