Bitter babes take up the tankard of ale for all

Beer drinking is no longer just for the lads. Decca Aitkenhead on the women at the bar
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT ISN'T hard to picture a member of the Campaign for Real Ale. Bearded, elbow on bar, boring for England.

"I find that infuriating!" snaps one member. It's the facial hair thing that really offends, and perhaps understandably - for this particular member is one of Camra's 45,000 women. Ten thousand of them are expected at its Great British Beer Festival in London next week.

Women, it would appear, are turning to bitter. According to Whitbread, one-quarter of all women are drinking more beer than they were five years ago.Women constitute one-third of all Camra members, and 16 per cent of draught ale drinkers. And the organiser of next week's festival - ale's annual Olympics - is a woman.

"Drinking beer has only been a male thing since the Industrial Revolution," says Christine Cryne, festival organiser and Camra member since 1977. This is a point Camra is anxious to convey and it is repeated several times in the course of conversations. Socio-historical analysis is on tap.

"We have gender constraints about what constitutes masculinity and femininity, which in other cultures would be meaningless," sighs spokesman Stephen Cox. "Queen Elizabeth drank beer by the bucket. It was only with the commercialisation of brewing in the 1800s, when men realised there was money in it, that it became a masculine thing. Victorian prudery finished it off for women."

Deborah James, 28, is a recent recruit to the current post- industrial revival. I am proudly informed that "she's only been converted a couple of years and before that (hushed tones) she used to drink lager". A prize convert indeed.

"When I first started drinking I went on to that horrible medium sweet white wine. Well, I thought, it's men who drink beer, isn't it?" Deborah recalls. "But I went to a beer festival and tried some beers, and that was that." She speaks with all the fervour of the religious convert.

"I know people think real ale drinkers are all train spotters in open- toed sandals. That doesn't annoy me. They are small-minded and they just don't know. I feel sorry for them." The festival is little short of a pilgrimage - "If you haven't worked at a beer festival, you haven't lived." Next week she will be serving behind one of the bars. "But women aren't just doing traditional jobs. The head of security is a woman, which is brilliant."

Past prejudices against bitter babes should not be forgotten. Ordering a pint of Old Peculier might just raise eyebrows today - 10 years ago it might well have met with a refusal. A publican's refusal two years ago to serve Sarah Hallam a pint of cider ended in court. He said it was pub policy, and therefore his right. She claimed it was sexual discrimination, and won.

Breweries have been quick to exploit the growing female market. Whitbread's award-winning advertising campaign for Boddingtons, starring the formidable Gladys Althorpe, was a landmark in bitter marketing.

Women drinkers have also been won over by Whitbread's special beers. Recent offerings have included Scarlet Lady (flavoured with juniper berries), Fuggles Chocolate Mild and Colonel Pepper's Lemon Ale.

Sales of real ale are showing the benefits. They have been rising since 1987, currently at a rate of 9 per cent a year, despite an overall decline in beer and lager sales. There is some cause for concern in recent Department of Health statistics, though. While the number of men who drink more than advised is falling, the figure for women is on the up. Is Camra alarmed?

"Well, it all depends whether you take the mindless killjoy approach that any alcohol is wrong," Stephen Cox retorts, "or you take the intelligent view that alcohol in moderation is a positive joy."

Few people today have a problem with women enjoying a good pint. That she might have a taste for Camra culture is more difficult to swallow. Savouring the intricacies of arcane brewing techniques is a distinctively male preserve.

"That's just a stereotype," insists Christine Cryne. "You see I would never touch milds - I don't like them at all - but for others, that's all they like."