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What We Talk About When We Talk About “Bitch Beer”

April 03, 2018

Story: Gray Chapman

art: Lydia Ortiz


What We Talk About When We Talk About “Bitch Beer”

April 03, 2018

Story: Gray Chapman

art: Lydia Ortiz

Craft beer’s bro code is still enforcing outdated stereotypes about what we define as good beer, bad beer and who drinks which.

Bethany Baker doesn’t remember the exact beer she had in hand the first time someone accused her of drinking “bitch beer.”

“I’m pretty sure back then it was a fruited beer like Long Trail’s Blackberry Wheat or Sam Adams’ Cherry Wheat,” says Baker, now an established craft beer enthusiast who lives in Boston and tweets about beer as LipstickNLager. “It was such a common term when I first got into beer” in the mid-aughts, she says. “And honestly, I think it still is.”

Beer is inextricably tangled up in gender, and no one understands this better than the women who choose to drink it. Much of its history is rooted in a blue-collar, canvas coveralls–tinged vision of masculinity that’s still evident in almost every aspect of its supply chain; label art commonly recalls Axe Body Spray at best, cartoon porn at worst. Less aggressive but more ubiquitous is the practically algorithmic aesthetic of craft beer bars, with their warehouse-industrial interiors and a Ron Swanson-esque penchant for rough-hewn wood and leather, evoking a nostalgia for a time and place where Real Men and their work-calloused hands made things.

The beer industry has spent decades constructing this elaborate milieu, largely through advertising. It’s easy to poke fun at the ads that shaped American beer marketing in the early midcentury as almost quaintly sexist, with their retro illustrations of hourglass-shaped, lager-pouring housewives slaking husbands’ thirst in more ways than one. But we haven’t exactly evolved. Beyond the bikini-clad models, straight-up rapey catchphrases and beers labeled “Panty Dropper” or “Tramp Stamp,” today’s boys’ club of beer manifests itself in less visible, yet arguably more pervasive ways.

Just a couple years ago, a Budweiser Super Bowl ad sent these messages loud and clear: Beer is for men to drink and women to serve; beer is meant for pint glasses, not finicky, delicate chalices; and beer certainly isn’t meant to have fruit in it. If you’re a woman, you’re not invited into our treehouse. And if you’re a guy who likes any of these things, you can kindly see yourself out. Even as more women continue to enter the market, wield more purchasing power and brew more of the beer itself, craft beer’s bro code is still enforcing outdated stereotypes about what we define as good beer, bad beer and who drinks which.

Baker no longer has qualms about ordering a fruited wheat beer in front of male friends, but she admits that gendered attitudes toward her preferences shaped her relationship with beer early on. “Their behavior really sparked this rebellious attitude to ‘show them’ that I was serious and knew about, and enjoyed, all styles of beer,” she says. “Instead of gravitating toward the lighter fruity styles, I found myself ordering more double IPAs and bourbon barrel–aged stouts.”

Sociologist Helana Darwin, who studies gender and loves craft beer, has observed these dynamics firsthand, too: Male bartenders regularly assume she is new to beer and reflexively recommend styles like hefeweizens, when she’s actually partial to bourbon barrel–aged stouts. That’s why, in 2014, Darwin set out to document the phenomenon by analyzing the gendered language of 50 beer blogs, then conducting interviews with 93 patrons at craft beer bars in New York.

Her findings, which were published in the book Untapped and in the academic journal Social Currents, depicted what many women know all too well: They are often seen as eye-rollingly amateur for drinking “girly” beers, like fruited wheat beers, and eroticized for knocking back IPAs and other “manly” beer styles. (For women who drink whiskey, this probably rings a bell.) Dudes, however? “Men permit one another latitude with beer experimentation that isn’t similarly being extended to women,” Darwin says. In other words, guys can line up out the door for a craft brewery’s hot pink raspberry sour release, and everyone chalks it up to being open-minded. Women aren’t afforded that same flexibility.

Beyond the bikini-clad models, straight-up rapey catchphrases and beers labeled “Panty Dropper” or “Tramp Stamp,” today’s boys’ club of beer manifests itself in less visible, yet arguably more pervasive ways.

From casual enthusiasts to women working in the beer trade, every woman I spoke with has encountered this binary. Kristina, a craft brewery sales rep (who asked that Punch not use her last name, because she’s still affiliated with a small market), deals with plenty of sexism in her job, from buyers calling her pet names to sending her dick pics on Snapchat. Sometimes, though, the more subtle jabs are just as degrading. She recalls a group of male buyers at one tasting responding to her brewery’s grisette, a lightly hopped, low-ABV farmhouse ale, by declaring that it was a beer “for the chicks.”

“He said, ‘That’s why you have it, right?’ I responded with, ‘No, it’s our brewer’s favorite,’” she recalls. “My favorite is our imperial IPA.”

What does it take for a beer, like Kristina’s grisette, to become dismissed as “chick beer” or “bitch beer”? The men and women interviewed by Darwin both draw the gender line mostly around flavor: Beers that are light, sweet and, yes, fruity, are meant for chicks. Meanwhile, flavors that require time and practice to cultivate an appreciation for, like bitterness, are generally understood as elite and, by default, manly. Which is why fruited sours and tropical IPAs are an exception—and why IBUs have become, in Darwin’s words, “a dick-measuring contest.”

In her interviews, Darwin asked male bargoers for their impressions of women who preferred these beers. The ensuing commentary ranged from corny sexualized rhetoric (“bet she likes to be on top”) to hypothetical marriage proposals. She argues that when women become knowledgeable about things that men revere, it’s treated not as something to respect, but as something “cute and sexy and quaint and tokenized,” she says. “You’re always [treated as] the exception to the rule if you’re a woman who knows a shit-ton about beer.”

That’s something Felicia D’Ambrosio, who worked at Monk’s Cafe in Philadelphia on and off for much of the mid-aughts, has encountered a lot. D’Ambrosio, a self-described beer nerd, says men often responded to her wealth of beer knowledge (or what she calls “dazzling the geeks”) with admiration, but also shock. When I ask if she feels that admiration is genuine respect, or something more tokenizing, she says, “It’s both; it’s them being genuinely impressed, but it’s also a very typical male approval. Men assume that, as women, we want their approval, so they’re giving it to you, and they feel generous in giving it to you.”

She relays an anecdote in which a male member of the beer industry drinking at her bar insisted that Lost Abbey Devotion, which was brewed for Monk’s Cafe and had been on their taps for more than a decade, was dominated by coriander. “He goes, ‘Look, sweetheart, my company’s spent a lot of money to train my palate. This beer is loaded with coriander,’” D’Ambrosio recalls. Rather than demurring, she texted the brewer on the spot and got the definitive answer: no coriander. “He went from being extremely condescending to respectful and civilized,” she says. “That is what’s frustrating about being a woman in beer… There’s a small segment of drinkers—a determined, vocal minority—who, no matter what you say, because you’re a woman, will question you.”

The irony here is that, as D’Ambrosio points out, women were historically the ones in charge of beer, back when homebrewing was a domestic handicraft along the lines of bread-baking and preserving. Then capitalism happened. Men took the reins once beer became a profitable business venture, and as America’s nascent beer industry bloomed, its advertisers spoke directly and exclusively to men by repackaging beer as a symbol of hardy, proletariat manliness. Beer’s narrative shifted out of women’s hands and into the realm of the working man, the soldier and the veteran. Women’s role within this paradigm was strictly servile: Ladies greeted their hard-working husbands with a cold lager after a long day on the assembly line, but they certainly weren’t consuming it. After decades of upholding beer as a necessary tool for proving one’s masculinity, and of painting women as mere vessels in that pursuit, these stereotypes have culturally calcified. 

Annie Sugar, a media studies scholar and beer researcher in Colorado, agrees that craft beer is still saddled with gendered tropes. As a woman who enjoys porters and stouts, Sugar has encountered the occasional man praising her for drinking “advanced” beers—but she says she’s noticed far less of those attitudes in the past five or six years. In fact, Sugar argues that craft culture at large has placed emphasis on the product itself, rather than who’s drinking it. “I just find that much of craft culture, serious craft culture with experienced drinkers, is full of people who are about appreciating the product,” she explains. “They like a well-brewed beer and don’t buy into the gendering of it anymore.”

Even though the phenomenon of unsolicited male beer commentary was pretty universal among the women I spoke with, some of them, like D’Ambrosio, agree that the culture is changing for the better. “I think the fact that we’re having this conversation is really important,” she says, “because 12 years ago, we weren’t.”

But even if one binary is blurring, like fruit versus hops, Darwin is quick to remind me that women are still held to different rules than men in craft beer, whether subtle or overt. “Women have to prove ourselves to be taken seriously,” says Darwin. “And unless the patriarchy crumbles overnight, I don’t see this going away anytime soon.”

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Tagged: beer

Gray Chapman is an Atlanta-based freelance journalist who writes mostly about behavior, subculture, and spirits. She's the former editor of Tales of the Cocktail, and has contributed to Vice, Atlas Obscura, Gravy, Atlanta magazine, Bon Appétit, and Racked. See more of her work at graywrites.com.