“I’m here because my boyfriend loves craft beer, and I want to better understand it.”
“I’m here because I want to try something more interesting than Bud Light.”
“I’m here because I need a night out and I was able to find a babysitter.”
“I’m here because I love craft beer!”
The latter answer has become increasingly common as attendees introduce themselves at Hops for Honeys, a Birmingham, Alabama-based women’s beer education group. Those women are part of a larger trend. Overall United States beer sales dropped 1.9% in 2013, according to the Brewers Association, which tracks the $14.3-billion craft beer industry. But craft beer numbers moved in the opposite direction, with a 17.2% increase and 49% export growth.
So perhaps it isn’t surprising that women who consume craft beer are also increasingly visible. And at several breweries across the nation, groups of women are coming together to learn about and celebrate that hopped-up beverage.
The revolution started in 2008, when Cinzia Wallace noticed many women she met enjoyed craft beer, but they were always the minority in the tasting room at Longmont, Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing Company. Wallace, who is the tasting room’s general manager and wife of brewery co-founder Eric Wallace, addressed that discrepancy by founding Ales4Females. The women-only educational group is a safe environment for women to share their enthusiasm for beer.
Now, the twice-monthly meetings regularly hit their 65-person limit with advance reservations, says Ales4Females Coordinator Morgan Zamora, and the group’s email list is up to 450 members. Each meeting features a speaker and at least 16 ounces of beer—sometimes a single beer, sometimes smaller samplings of different styles, or the same style as interpreted by different breweries.
The beers are paired with food, and the women discuss what they taste in both the dish and the drink. “[That] gives us practice on verbalizing what we’re tasting. It makes all of us a little bit more aware of our own palate,” Zamora explains.
Others across the nation have been inspired by Ales4Females. After meeting Wallace during a visit to Left Hand, Melinda Sellers teamed with Kerri Malone to found Hops for Honeys as the educational arm of Good People Brewing, which their husbands own. Sellers was impressed by Ales4Females’ safe environment and educational focus. “I really wanted a place where you could go and ask the dumb questions or branch out and try a beer that you might never want to take a sip of and pay $7 for a pint,” she says.
As with other such groups, Hops for Honeys has evolved over the years. The group now caps its annual membership at 70 members, and lessons are both more sophisticated and more entertainment-focused than in the early days, when Sellers would often read straight from The Brewmaster’s Table by Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver.
Sellers says she knew the group was successful when she and Malone realized each meeting was filled with women with whom the duo wasn’t acquainted before Hops for Honeys. The buzz in Birmingham was that the group was a great way for women to network—but that’s a side benefit in Sellers’ mind.
“My motive is selfish, right? I’m supporting my family by marketing an area that is not typically marketed to women,” she says. “Women are seen as wine and cocktail drinkers, and we’re a huge part of the population. It’s silly for beer companies not to capitalize on that.”
Her work as an attorney often involves work with the alcohol industry, and research shows women are still making most grocery-store purchases. “If I can get women in our community educated on (beer), they’re the ones pulling it off the shelf … Therefore they’re spending more money on craft beer, and that helps me. The byproduct is it’s fun.”
Female employees of Athens, Georgia’s Terrapin Brewing have also found professional and social support through craft beer. While studying for the Cicerone exam, which certifies the beer industry’s equivalent of a sommelier, Julia Weckback and Lauren Dye realized how many women around them were interested in, but shy about, ordering beer. The women, who were then the only female sales employees at Terrapin, formed Lupulin Ladies to build women’s knowledge of craft beer.
“With just a little bit of knowledge, you could go in with more confidence and not feel like you’re going to be ignored at the bar,” Dye says.
The group began with a more formal structure, typically sampling six beers of a style at each meeting. Luplin Ladies meetings are now more relaxed and social, but education remains key. The organizers keep tasting wheels on hand to help members pinpoint the flavors they’re tasting, and they lead the group through aroma, colors and other identifying factors of each beer sampled.
“I do think people want to be armed with just a little bit more,” Weckback says. “There’s so much with beer, so many styles, so many ways you can delve into it.”
As the group has evolved, Weckback and Dye have realized it’s a safe harbor for women to get together without men around—a rarity in the craft beer industry. However, even the balance of genders has shifted slightly since Lupulin Ladies’ launch; now, Weckback and Dye are two of six women on the company’s 21-person sales team.
After all, bringing women together has proven to be one of the great successes of these groups. “Craft beer is about sharing it,” Ales4Females’ Zamora says. “I can’t tell you how many times I get emails from women who say, ‘I’ve just moved to Longmont and I want to meet women who have the same interests as me.’ And they love it,” she continues. “It’s forming a tight community within the beer community as well as the local community.”
Meetings: Held twice monthly at the brewery, $12 per meeting
Left Hand Brewing
Meetings: This Oskar Blues-based club hosts monthly educational events, including hop picking, beer dinners and more.
Meetings: Free, twice-monthly meetings are held at Highland Tap & Burger and other locations around Denver.
Highland Tap & Burger
Meetings: Held monthly at various locations
Meetings: Monthly educational events, co-ed social gatherings
Forty-five chapters in more than 25 states
Meetings: The educational arm of Good People Brewing, Hops for Honeys holds monthly meetings at various locations around Birmingham, Alabama; membership is currently capped at 70 and sold out for 2014.
Meetings: An educational arm of Terrapin Brewing, Lupulin Ladies meetings are held monthly at various locations around Athens, Georgia.
Membership: A national education group for women who earn at least a portion of their income in the beer industry.
Meetings: Chapters are spread throughout the country
Meetings: This educational arm of Avery Brewing opens its monthly meetings to all genders.
Carla Jean Whitley is the author of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music and managing editor of Birmingham magazine in Birmingham, Alabama. She is also writing a book about the history of beer in Birmingham, set for publication in spring 2015. Connect with her at carlajeanwhitley.com.