Craft beer culture and gender explored in Wellington University research

Think beer and the chances are you may also think of a largely male-dominated culture.

But that hasn’t always been the case, with women doing most of the work in the brewing industry since ancient times.

It’s only since industrialisation that most brewers have been men, but the rise of the craft beer industry in the past decade or so may be starting to drive an encouraging change in gender representation, albeit a very slow one.

So, is the craft beer movement making a difference? That’s one of the questions Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies senior lecturer Dr Kathleen Kuehn is investigating.

Dr Kuehn says there has been an increase in the number of women working in the brewing industry thanks to craft beer, but there is still a long way to go to reach any kind of gender balance.

“Up to industrialisation, beer brewing was considered women’s work. That got lost with industrialisation, when they wouldn’t allow women to work in factories or access bank loans, plus the fact that someone had to stay home with children when the men went off to work.

“Over the years there’s been a shift towards marketing hypermasculinity in beer. But with craft beers things have been changing—there’s a higher price point, an ethos of community, of drinking quality over quantity, more progressive management and community engagement.

“When it comes to gender representation, however, there may be more women now involved in the industry through craft beer, but there are still only a few who are running their own labels. That percentage is still very, very small.”

In New Zealand, women make up about 25 to 30 per cent of craft beer drinkers, Dr Kuehn says.

“There’s been no research done on just how many women are engaged in various aspects of the craft beer industry here but it would be good to know some of those more detailed demographics.

“I found that of the 194 breweries considered ‘craft’, only 12 are run by women or have women with some ownership stake. That needs to change.

“However, it’s good that some women are finally getting to tell their beer story.”

Dr Kuehn started this research because of her interest in labour and its value, what kind of work is valued, how that value gets assigned and to whom, and the various ways people make meaning from their work.

“As a feminist and an academic who researches cultural labour, I felt a great deal of shame about my lack of knowledge regarding women’s historical relationship to beer brewing, the ways in which it’s transformed into a male-dominated cultural form and then craft beer as a potential site for women’s re-emergence as legitimate beer producers.

“I started digging around and learned that women in craft beer is a vastly understudied subject, especially in New Zealand. As far as I know, my research is the first to focus solely on women in craft beer in the country.

“In the era of MeToo, Lean In, closing the gender pay gap and other social changes, it’s time to take a hard look at institutions like craft beer that might fly under the radar for being perceived as comparatively progressive and more inclusive than other industries—because from what my research shows in practice, craft beer doesn’t lie outside gender inequality.

“When we stop being surprised that women want to be brewers or work in beer, when certain beers stop being associated as a ‘girl’s beer’, when women no longer feel like they have to erase their gender identity from their brands or labour because there’s no gender expectations attached to what constitutes a legitimate brewer, then maybe we’ll have gotten somewhere.

“Rather than it being about ‘women in beer’, craft beer needs to make space for a range of identities – feminine, masculine and in between—and stop attaching gender to perceptions of legitimacy, authenticity or value,” Dr Kuehn says.