Raising a glass to women in beer

When Sheffield Beer Week begins next week it will raise a glass to female brewers and ale drinkers. Daniel Dylan Wray reports.

Heather Griffin assistant manager at the Rutland Arms in Sheffield, the venue for the Women in Beer event. Picture Scott Merrylees
Heather Griffin assistant manager at the Rutland Arms in Sheffield, the venue for the Women in Beer event. Picture Scott Merrylees

It was while enjoying a pint or two in Belgium that Jules Gray had her Eureka moment. The founder of Sheffield craft beer shop Hop Hideout, Jules reckoned that we could learn a thing or two from our European cousins when it came to celebrating real ale.

“In Belgium you could pick up detailed city beer guides everywhere, making exploring the city fun and simple and I thought we could do something similar here,” she says. That was in 2015 and rather than sit and ponder on it, Gray threw herself into the project and launched Sheffield’s first ever Beer Week the same year.

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“I’m a big believer of action speaking louder than words. The mission was then to beat a unified drum for ace independent beer in Sheffield as well as recognising the superb global beer landscape too.”

Jules Gray director of Sheffield Beer Week at her shop Hop Hideout on Abbeydale Road. Picture Scott Merrylees

This year the event, which runs from March 12 to 18, will be much as it has always been but, to tie in with the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 which saw women given the vote for the first time, there will be a special focus on females in the industry.

“I have been working in the industry for 10-plus years, but there is still a way to go when it comes to the gender balance. Even now you still see sexist beer labels, but there is also a need to increase equality when it comes to career opportunities and pay for women. I also think increased diversity is a good thing as it’ll ultimately make the beer culture more interesting and be better for it.”

The celebrations taking place as part of Sheffield Beer Week will culminate in a Brewsters’ [female brewers] Tap Takeover event at the Rutland Arms pub, where another woman – Heather Griffin is assistant manager – and there will also be a hosted tasting by Liverpool-based beer consumer group Ladies That Beer and the Norwich-based Brewster festival organisers Fem.ale. The event is open to men, but Gray hopes that it will open up the beer industry to more women.

Erica Horton of Fem.ale founded her Brewsters festival back in 2013 and says the event was born out of the fact that the image the beer world presented tended to be very masculine.

“People had, for a while, been criticising the tendency for some breweries to advertise to a male market of drinkers,” she says. “It was men who tended to feature in their TV and print advertising, so we wanted to start a conversation, not just about women as beer lovers but women as the makers of beer, working in an industry which is still dominated by men.”

Fem.ale will be hosting a tutored beer tasting with Leanne Rowe from Norfolk’s Grain Brewery and they will also be showcasing the Brewster-brewed beers that will be on tap at the Rutland Arms. Ladies That Beer will also be running a bottle and can tasting event, where for £8 you can try four different beers that span a variety of styles and flavours.

“These are high-end beers, so we get a share of each rather than a whole bottle, allowing us to try some special beers at a bargain price,” says Fiona Hood from the group, which was founded in Liverpool. “Our organisation was the brainchild of Julie O’Grady, a beer lover who had noticed the scarcity of women at beer festivals and that women often avoided beer in pubs.

“With women who did drink beer often subject to unsolicited comments on the size or strength of their beer or stupid banter, it wasn’t that surprising that women did not feel welcome.

Jules Gray director of Sheffield Beer Week at her shop Hop Hideout on Abbeydale Road. Picture Scott Merrylees

“Julie decided to form a friendly group to encourage women to try a beer, to learn about beer, and feel welcomed in a pub or festival environment. So, she gathered a few fellow beer-loving women together and the rest is history.”

With such female-led groups being more visible, vocal and prominent at major festivals like the one on Sheffield, Hood hopes it will begin to change some of the longstanding issues the industry has faced.

“The default assumption is often that women don’t know much about beer and are not interested in it, or good at it,” she says. “You don’t have to look far before you find anecdotes from expert women in the beer industry who have been ignored at a beer festival, bar or event in favour of an often less-knowledgeable male colleague. People may not even realise they are doing it.

“To address this we must ensure that women in a variety of roles within the beer industry are visible as role models. We also need for breweries, pubs, industry groups, consumer groups and festival organisers to listen to what the many talented women who are already in the industry have to say about the subject, and act upon it in order to make working in beer an interesting and appealing prospect to women.”

One brewery that is making working in beer appealing prospect to women is the Little Valley Brewery in Hebden Bridge. Whilst they are not involved with Sheffield Beer Week, they are an example of a brewery leading by example.

“Everybody in our brewery, other than my husband Wim, is a woman,” says co-owner Sue Cooper. “That includes the person who goes out and delivers the kegs, the brewery team, the accounts and sales department. That’s just how it is.”

“Women are often hidden in the industry, you often don’t see them or hear from them as much but there are some fantastic female brewers out there. They might not be as shout-y but they are just getting on with it. I think that can only be an asset to any brewery if you’ve got women behind it.”

Sheffield’s fourth annual Beer Week will run from March 12 to 18 and will feature a full week of beer-related activity.

There will be festivals, tap takeovers, tastings, showcases, meet the brewer events and even a Sheffield pub heritage walk. As well as the programme dedicated to championing females in the beer industry, there will also be a one-day Indie Beer Feast celebrating craft beer in the Abbeydale Picture House.

Event director Jules Gray says: “The week wouldn’t be what it is without those involved. It shows the unity and community of the Sheffield and international beer scene.

“Beer tourism is a growing area and I see this as a crucial cog to Sheffield’s continued beer success and positive economic growth city-wide.

“This year has a number of really exciting strands that I can’t wait to celebrate including all new ingredient hub venues and celebrating women working in the beer industry.”

For the full programme of festival events go to sheffieldbeerweek.co.uk