Fem:Ale a beer festival for women

By Ellie Jones

This weekend sees the first ever Fem.Ale festival taking place in Norwich – a three-day event celebrating delicious beer, brewed by women, enjoyed by everyone. We caught up with festival founder and curator Erica Horton to find out why this is event is so important and why it’s happening now:

The myth that the pub is a predominantly male space, and that beer and ale are enjoyed more by men than women, is unfortunately still resonant at the moment. The assumption that men are making the beer for other men, and women are used as a way of selling it, rather than as collaborators and creators, is a massive problem.

Even something as rudimentary as a pump clip that may go unnoticed, depicting busty women serving ales with names like ‘Buxom Blonde’ and ‘Red Head’, show how women can be seen as a commodity in this business; a commodity that is often sexualised. There is no male alternative to this, though I’m sure the male equivalent would involve beers called ‘Landlord’ or ‘Trawlerboy’, depicting positions of power. However there seems to be a shift in beer culture right now in Norfolk.

Norfolk loves its ale and there certainly lots of ‘old man’ pubs to be found, but not only is it no longer unusual to see women drinking beer, here it’s not unusual for women to make the beer.

I’m not sure this is true on a national scale yet, either because the beer isn’t as good or perhaps the myths hold more weight, but Norfolk seems to be at the forefront of a gender change in the beer industry so it seems apt that we’re having this festival.

One of the ways we can break down the myths surrounding the female relationship with beer is by looking at women who are working within the industry itself. FEM.ALE is focused less on trying to get more women drinking the stuff and on showcasing the female brewers themselves, providing a platform for networking and collaboration to build support for women in the industry. That’s something we hope to get out of the panel on Saturday afternoon. Do women feel separate or other to male brewers? We want to give women space to talk about their experiences as women in what is otherwise perceived to be a predominantly male industry.

I’ve had people (only men up until now) asking me why I am putting on a female specific ale event, saying beer doesn’t have a gender and should just be about good beer. In an ideal world this would be true, but when you look at pub culture and specifically beer culture it would seem that women’s behavior is being policed to a certain extent. Questions are still raised about whether women are ‘ladylike’ enough if they drink beer, should they be having halves if they are going to drink ale? This specific gendering of behavior needs to be questioned on a grassroots level, otherwise the everyday cultures that ascribe and normalise different appropriate behaviours are reinforced.

For me, as a feminist, it is crucial that these heteronormative gender binary distinctions are continually questioned and those constructions of gender need to be broken down. There is an assumption that the pub is a male domain where men make the beer, women serve and men drink. Admittedly this stereotype does occasionally ring true, but we wanted to break with what was perceived as traditional and celebrate the women who make ale and love ale.

It may seem that there are more problematic issues to be focusing on in feminism than simply what alcoholic beverages men and women are typically drinking, that this is a trivial matter, but women working in the industry face sexism and it is important to confront that.

CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) who currently have a female director, Christine Cryne, put forward a motion at the last AGM to tackle sexism and racism within the industry, so this is a really exciting time to be hosting an event like this; there is a real sense of camaraderie and purpose surrounding it.

I hope that FEM.ALE will get both men and women openly talking about these issues. We want to break the everyday cultures regarding what is ‘appropriate’ behavior for women in a traditionally male-dominated public space… whilst enjoying lots of delicious beer in the process, of course.

The three-day event is part of the City of Ale Festival and is providing a home for female brewed beers within the city wide festival. It’s taking place this weekend (Friday 23rd – Sunday 25th May) at The Plasterers Arms in Norwich. It will feature panel discussions, beer tasting, live music, all of which are free apart from Dea Latis’ ‘Beers with Breakfast’, which is a ticketed event. Full event program information can be found on the festival’s website, or follow @FemAleFestival.

Ellie Jones is a musician currently playing guitar with Buoys and Hannah Lou Clark, co-founder of Gravy Records and works with Transgressive Artist & Producer Management. Feminist and beer lover.

Photo: Simon Finlay

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5 thoughts on “Fem:Ale a beer festival for women

  1. Tristan

    All the best to everyone involved.
    I meet quite a few women who love beers and are very knowledgeable, but the sexism struck me at the weekend when I was in a real ale pub and saw a middle aged couple sit down for a drink. He of course had a pint, but she had a glass of (what is usually substandard) white wine- It occurred to me that its not seen as acceptable for women to drink beer.

    I think, in some demographics, this is changing, but its still frowned upon in many demographics and beer is for men, wine and (some) cocktails for women.

  2. gemma

    I think its still a great thing, i love my ales, but i have to point out that there *is* a beer called landlord (timothy Taylor; lovely drop), the camra director is a woman, as you say, and there is nothing unusual about women born before 1980 drinking a short drink. Ale had a different image, we hated handled beer mugs and quite frankly the health advice is that women should drink less overall (personally i don’t understand this, unless you assume all women are smaller and fainter than all men. Not true, as many of us can drink our boyfriends under the table). And anyway, what is a trawlerboy? Sounds like a position of submission to me!

  3. youkayn00b

    hmmmmmm i haven’t ever been to a pub with less than 75% men in the crowd (usually it is about 90%). i think it is predominately a man’s environment, but i don’t think it needs to be. i don’t know if it will change, but on many occasions i’ve wondered where all of the other women are

  4. Roy

    I am all for supporting this. The historical thing to consider was that Women traditionally brewed beer. This was sold from homes which were open to the public (public houses) and became such an industry (cottage industry) that landlords sent inspectors to the houses when they had the poll outside it saying they had beer to check on quality.


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