Much ado about nothing? Women in Newfoundland Craft Beer

When we think about the what makes this province’s craft beer unique, we might think about foraged ingredients, like crab apples and blueberries, or the tasty salted sour beers that have been popping up in flights all over the island. I think we should also include the people who make our beer, and that half the brewers and brewery owners are women.

Owners of  Port Rexton Brewing  Alicia MacDonald and Sonja Mills

Owners of Port Rexton Brewing Alicia MacDonald and Sonja Mills

On March 8, I’ll be celebrating International Women’s Day by raising a pint amid the annual flurry of media coverage on female brewers. The Pink Boots Society, a nonprofit that supports women in the beer industry, coordinates a collaborative brew day annually in which members of different chapters across North America come together to make limited-batch brews to celebrate female brewers and raise funds for beer-related scholarships.

A few headlines from the 2018 International Women’s Day coverage included: WBUR in Boston (“Not Just The Boys' Beer Club: Female Crafters Tap Their Skills For Brew Day”), WABI in Maine (“Female Craft Beer Brewers Raise A Glass To International Women's Day”) and The Telegram in Newfoundland (“Hops and hopes: Female brewers toast Women's Day”), amongst many others.

But what’s so special about women brewing beer? In Newfoundland, not much. But in the history of craft beer since the 1990s, the sheer numbers of female brewers and brewery owners in the province is actually really uncommon. According to a study by Auburn University, women represent just 29% of brewery workers. In 2016, Toronto was still covering female brewers like they were an endangered species. It’s taken years for women to get a toehold in the industry, but as women become more common on the brewhouse floor, should we keep highlighting their presence there as if it’s something unusual? In “Women in Beer,” a 2017 episode of the Beervana podcast, Emily Engdahl, Executive Director of the Pink Boots Society, said, “It’s not necessarily that I think that it’s not a valid issue to talk about. I just get tired of being told that it’s something we should make an issue of.”

Landwash Brewery  owners Chris Conway, Christina Coady and Jennifer Defreyne.

Landwash Brewery owners Chris Conway, Christina Coady and Jennifer Defreyne.

Women have broken in, taken over, and smashed ceilings in a lot of male-dominated industries, from politics to medicine. In this episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain, I learned that Florence Nightingale pretty much made nursing into a female profession, albeit with the help of gender stereotypes, like the idea that women are natural-born caregivers. On February 5, 106 U.S. congresswomen wore white in tribute to the women’s suffrage movement and as a way to draw attention to women’s presence, and power, in Congress. These are a few some positive examples of women killing it in their chosen industries, but a lot of women in North America still face discrimination and harassment in the workplace and their everyday lives. So how does beer fit into all of this?

Beer brewing has sort of come full circle. In the 1600s and 1700s, women brewed ale for their families. Beer became a male-dominated industry when it moved from domestic labour to the realm of capitalist production in the 1800s, and pretty much continued that way from the craft beer boom in the 1990s to today.

My own theory is that brewing has become a sort of poster child for women breaking into male-dominated fields because it combines physical strength, scientific skills, and creativity. We live in a world where women still fight discrimination in the workplace, and brewing provides an engaging vision of strong, creative, business-savvy women. I am impressed by anyone who can throw a full keg over their shoulder, and watching a female brewer do it makes me think, “Heck yeah!” (For the record, I cannot throw a keg over my shoulder, and I still feel empowered dragging them around and walking like a hunched over crab.)

Brewing beer with Stacey Pike as part of Queer Beer.

Brewing beer with Stacey Pike as part of Queer Beer.

So is the annual celebration of women brewing beer much ado about nothing? I think Newfoundland is pretty lucky to be home to so many female brewers, but that still makes the province unique in the North American craft beer industry. Celebrating women in craft beer, even if it’s pretty common in Newfoundland, is just another way to show that women can excel in whatever industry they choose (this interview about a female bricklayer in Baltimore made me sob because we can do anything). Representation is important, not just for women, but for people in general. For me, seeing a woman behind the bar and on the brewhouse floor just confirms that we belong wherever we feel inspired, in whatever profession that may be.