Why is beer so male and white?


The men at Vancouver Craft Beer Week have a word for Leah Heneghan, the festival’s co-founder and events director.

“The guys I work with, they call me boss,” she said.

Beyond growing a festival that sold just 100 tickets for a single afternoon event in 2010 to hosting a three-day bash this year, Heneghan yields influence in meaningful ways. While they might have gone little noticed, her marketing choices in particular have had long-term consequences.

When she cast Big River Brew Pub’s Claire Connolly (now owner of Dogwood Brewing) in a campaign about brewmasters, for example, or when people of diverse ethnicities are included in promotional shots of partying beer drinkers, it represents a shift in power. It changes how we think  about beer, who makes it and who drinks it.

For generations, women were not sold beer. But their bodies, bouncing hair and perfect teeth have been used to sell it to others, typically an audience of undiscerning white male consumers – no offence to all those discerning consumers out there.

“The dream was to drink a Bud Lite on the beach as women in bikinis would come along running. That marketing was for men,” said Heneghan. “Now we’re marketing to everybody, anybody of any race, colour and gender.”


You can throw contemporary campaigns into the same out-dated heap as Bud Lite, but there are also sexist beer labels from coming from local brands, too. For its line of Red Racer beers, Surrey’s Central City insists on using a revealing illustration of a bicyclist, her thigh-high nylons and white panties on full display as she points her toes and runs a hand through her ginger hair. The retro style of the two-wheel cruiser has its appeal, but the overtly sexual image turns others off.

The brewing industry is generally inclusive, according to Lundy Dale. “We are waiting for advertising to catch up with the industry,” said the founder of the Pink Boots Society, a networking and educational organization for women in brewing.

Advertising is missing out on an ever-growing market, one that is not only female but also comprised of people of colour, said Ren Navarro, a homebrewer on her way to becoming a beer sommelier who is one of the few women in Ontario working in beer sales.

“They forget women drink beer and they forget that minorities drink beer. Because of that, they miss out on sizeable markets,” said Navarro, a black woman who is one of the five organizers behind the Society of Beer Drinking Ladies. As they put it, “real ladies drink real beer,” and there is never pressure to flash your panties, thankyouverymuch.

While young women with particular assets or men with craggy, debonair charm have been a go-to image for beer marketing, by contrast men and women of colour are not frequently cast in beer ads at all — unless it is for malt liquor, a fermented brew that has a relatively high alcohol percentage and is cheaply packaged.

Though the ’40s and ’50s, malt liquor manufacturers advertised to the white middle class but the civil rights movement in the U.S. disrupted that pattern and “alerted many American businesses to the existence of a group that had been largely invisible to them: Black Americans,” begins the excellent essay by Kihm Winship, “Malt Liquor: A History.

Why did they become the target for an inferior, quickly deteriorating but potent product, when about only a third of consumers were black? “Nobody knew why; they just did,” Winship writes.

The brewing marketplace fractured along racial lines, and along came Colt 45, with its uncomfortably predatory tag line, “It works every time.” An image of women draping themselves over a can-popping man, regardless of his race, doesn’t work for Navarro.

“I do not want to drink that beer,” she said.

“There is obviously a huge problem. Still no one really knows how to target a market that is already existing and drinking beer.”

As Navarro’s interest in beer deepened, her awareness of the issue heightened. “For me anyway, craft beer is a white thing. Yes, women are showing up, but they are still white,” she said.

The society she co-runs in Toronto counts similar social clubs across the continent. There are the Beer Birds in Vancouver, for example, and the Crafty Ladies, Hops for Honeys, and the Ales4Females in the U.S. There are websites and podcasts, festivals and scholarships. As sales for Big Beer decline and craft brewing continues to surge, these social clubs will only grow. They talk about beer on their terms and don’t identify with a panty-flashing cyclist.

“We are allowing women of all backgrounds and all colours to come to a place where they can try craft beer, they can talk to other women about craft beer, and feel that this is something for us,” said Navarro.


Canada is a country of beer drinkers. It’s our alcoholic bevvy of choice, and according to the national trade association, Beer Canada, we individually drink an average 63 litres of the stuff every year. That’s about one growler every 10 days for all Canadians of legal drinking age.

Across North America, craft beer consumption is on the rise, an encouraging statistic for the more than 120 craft breweries (give or take an opening here and there) now operating in B.C. No organization tracks the amount of beer women drink compared to men, or the number of female entrepreneurs and brewing professionals working in the industry.

When Dutch and German migrants arrived in Great Britain they introduced lager, and with it came their institutional and trade traditions, which were predominantly male. A boys club, if you will.

“In short, alien beer brewers brought to English towns their growing sense that — as Munich brewers would phrase it later — ‘brewing is a learned art and given to men alone,’” writes historian Judith Bennett in her book Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World.

Limited opportunity and outright discrimination is certainly not limited to the past, but women today find they can forge ahead for themselves. When she started in brewing over 18 years ago, Aly Tomlin met with ugly resistance from an established brewer at a well-known company. She was determined to make beer and started asking for advice. “And so I called all the local breweries — and back then there weren’t tons — and I was like, ‘Hey, I want to be a brewer. What do I do?’”

Some said get experience, others recommended training and school. “Everybody told me this, except for one brewery. That brewery said, ‘You  can’t, you’re a woman,’” said Tomlin, who is now co-owner of Riot Brewing in Chemainus. “Because someone told me I couldn’t do it, I was like, ‘Fuck you, I’ve got to do it because you told me I couldn’t.’”


This year on International Women’s Day, the co-owner of Moon Under Water brewery in Victoria, Chelsea Walker, and graphic designer Bjauna Sorensen created a label for a farmhouse IPA that hit back at gender expectations. The image for Hip as Funk is a Shannen Doherty-look-a-like holding an even gaze and bearing golden tattoos under a simple crew-neck t-shirt. It’s beautiful. It’s appealing. We can’t see her panties.

It is possible to use a beautiful image of a woman to sell beer without exploiting her or the consumer with sleazy imagery. This shift comes about when women have a voice. Just imagine a man reclined on a bike with his delicates exposed, says Heneghan.

The VCBW team pulls off one of the best-attended parties in the city, but on marketing material, they turn to her. “Sometimes I point something out, like I’ll say, ‘Actually it would be really nice to have a female face here. If you’ve noticed, the photo is all men.’”

This influence will draw more drinkers to the tap, an unequivocal win for all brewers. “I’m not brewing myself, I’m throwing the party,” said Heneghan. “I want everyone to come to the party.”

Illustration by Lindsey Ataya

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