My first alcoholic beverage ever – that is, the first one of which I had more than a sip – was a can of Coors, shared with one of my closest college girlfriends over Christmas break. (I've never supported Coors with my own money, but we'd snagged it from a case her parents had bought, with their informed consent.) My first legal drink was a glass (not a pint, but a glass) of Rogue Dead Guy Ale, with which I washed down dinner on my 21st birthday. Mike's Hard Lemonade was the "girly drink" du jour when I was an undergrad, and I can't say I ever refused it; I was also a fan, in the first part of my drinking career, of the cheap, sweet plum wine my roommate got at the Asian market. But I was a beer drinker from the beginning, and while my palate has expanded considerably over the years, a beer drinker I remain.
I've always been perplexed by the stereotype that women just don't like beer very much. The stat I hear most often – which I quoted in my post about Teri Fahrendorf – is that only about 30 percent of American women prefer beer to either spirits or wine. Of course, if I were asked the question that way, I'm not sure which of the three I would choose myself. Wine has always intimidated me a little bit, because while good wines can be had at any price point, the quality and flavor varies year to year, and getting really, really into wine seems to require more disposable income than I have. Liquor is, well, quick, and a well-balanced cocktail is a beautiful thing, but can also come with a hefty price tag. With beer, there's enormous variety; while lots of breweries do special seasonals that vary year to year, or super small-batch brews that are both tasty and a little expensive, there's a remarkable consistency and affordability to beer, and it's likely I spend the bulk of my booze allowance on it.
I see plenty of other ladies at brewpubs, beer-forward bars and beer tastings I go to, but the conventional wisdom is that I'm a rarity. I wondered what, if any, actual research had been done on women's purchasing and tasting habits where suds are concerned. So I chatted with Ginger Johnson, the founder of Women Enjoying Beer, a southern Oregon-based business that does qualitative research and marketing for beer companies, as well as educational events for women interested in beer. Johnson told me she started the company because she ran across the same problem I did: "There's not a lot of stats. There's stereotypes," she said.
Both industries and consumers often make decisions based on old information, Johnson told me. Consumers can get set in their ways, becoming reluctant to try new things, and beer industry players have long made the assumption that certain segments of the public – particularly women – just won't be interested in their product, so they don't bother to market to them. Hence, beer advertising has historically been more interested in the male gaze than the female palate.
Johnson said her research hasn't turned up any marked differences between male and female beer preferences. While that's totally unsurprising, consider that the beer press – talking about the discrepancy in the market – sometimes deteriorates into weird, ev-psychish discussions of the difference between male and female palates. (As in, women have a more developed sense of smell – which may be true, at least on the whole – because it helps us cook. Never mind that domestic division of labor is a relatively new invention.)
Johnson encourages her clients to educate the public on different types of beers and flavors. That tends to have better long-term results in terms of getting women more interested and involved in beer. "Everybody likes flavor, and if you can break down the stereotypes and assumptions that most people have, you find there's no such thing as a women's beer, there's no such thing as a man's beer."
Apart from helping businesses grow their female market share, Women Enjoying Beer is about encouraging beer enthusiasm among lady drinkers, and hosts events as well as creating affinity groups for women who want to get together to drink more beer and learn about it together in a lady-friendly environment. (Whoa, no mansplaining? No eyerolling as I explain I prefer malty beers to hoppy ones? Heck yes!)
Whether my love of beer places me in a minority of ladies or not, it's telling that the beer industry has only begun to think about women as potential customers in the last few years. Of course, the possibility of beer marketed just to women raises its own set of problems and concerns. Maybe I have an overly active and nauseous imagination, but when I think of beer marketed to women, I imagine nasty little purple labels! With little pictures of stiletto heels and handbags! Maybe non-alcoholic beers for pregnant ladies, with little strollers on the label! (These, of course, would be available in both pink and blue.) All of these are reasons I should probably not work in marketing, basically. Johnson has the right advice for beer companies, I think: don't treat women like a special segment of the market; talk up to your customers, not down. And of course, notice that women beer drinkers are here in the first place.
Previously: Race, marketing and uneasy relationships