Beer and Boobs
This is what I look like.* I’m male, white, thirty-one years old, wear glasses, and have a big bushy mass of facial hair. On any given day I’m generally wearing a pair of jeans and a brewery T-shirt. I am the very image of what generally comes to mind when you hear the words “beer nerd.”
And god, do I ever find it disappointing how many other beer nerds pretty much look exactly like me.
I caught this on BeerPulse (formerly BeerNews) this morning:
On a day-to-day basis my gender rarely crosses my mind when I’m working. If I’m judging a beer competition for example, I’m not relegated to fruit beers and low-alcohol products lest I am over-challenged — and I am generally on the top-flight panels because, quite simply, I’ve earned my right to be there by being good at what I do.
So writes renowned UK beer writer and enthusiast Melissa Cole in a recent op-ed. In the piece, she briefly sketches some of the problems she has had in being taken seriously in the world of beer as a woman — men relegating her opinions as being somehow lesser, making hasty assumptions about her sexual preferences, making bawdy jokes about her appearance, et cetera. She goes on to bring up how similar issues plague the world of journalism in general (this is far from an issue solely relevant to the world of craft beer), and finishes thusly:
All I can ask is that the media takes a long hard look at its role in portraying women and, also, to advocate that more women stand up and say “judge me on my abilities, not on my boobs” then maybe, just maybe, we will have a slightly better world for the next generation of budding professionals.
To expand on Cole’s point, we’re really talking about privilege. Male privilege, and (though she doesn’t get in to it), white male privilege. If I’m walking around a beer fest or go into a brewery, tasting room, or bar, my white skin and flowing beard give me an automatic “one of us” identification card: just look at that guy! Of course he knows his beer. And I certainly do — I’ve worked very hard over the years to develop my palate and knowledge to the point that I have, and I certainly spend a great deal of time, energy, and no small amount of money on this hobby.
But because of how I look, I’m pretty much automatically going to get to be one of the in-crowd. I can sit down, mention a couple of hop varieties and I’m instantly taken seriously by the large craft beer community (both online and off) that pretty much looks exactly like me. Not so for women and people of color, who often understandably feel left out of the very homogeneous beer nerd groups. How many times have I been to a homebrew club meeting or a craft beer event with only a handful (or less!) of token female faces, and with nary the sight of a person whose face would be darker than about 5 Lovibond on the color scale? It’s not that the craft beer community at large is sexist and racist (at least, no more so than the societies in which it is embedded), but that the attitudes and perspectives of many in that community prove to be hurdles to getting those outside the narrow confines to join us.
How many beer geeks think nothing of making racially-charged jokes about the drinkers of malt liquor, for instance? Or Corona, Tecate, and other Mexican lagers? How many times have I heard a less-than-stellar brew (usually one with fruit) referred to as “chick beer,” or a “panty dropper” by some white guy in his twenties with a scruffy piece of face fuzz? I’ve even seen beers referred to as “faggy,” which just makes me want to punch the jerkwad saying it. This stuff hurts those to whom the insulting names are targeted, and it just makes us look like xenophobic jerks.
Not only does it hurt women and minorities, but it also hurts us, the straight white guys who are already in the “in” crowd. It hurts us because we’re sidelining perspectives and attitudes that can provide information and knowledge we don’t already have. Everyone’s palate is different, and getting the widest possible array of perspectives is the best way of really understanding a beer — I was once reviewing a beer with Shana, and until she mentioned that she was getting dried apricots on the aroma, I wasn’t getting it at all. Once she mentioned it, it was not only present but overwhelming. A wider range of palates and food histories allows a broader conversation that helps us all in our love and appreciation of fermented barley and hops.
So what’s the take-away here? Simple: stop exerting your privilege when you think you’re in the in-crowd. It’s not okay to refer to malt liquor drinkers as being “from the hood.” It’s not funny to talk about how “gay” a beer is if you don’t like it.
And it’s really not a good idea to greet a woman talking about craft beer with a comment on how attractive she is, rather than on how good her palate is or anything else about the actual topic at hand. Talking about a female beer geek’s appearance is a way of belittling her opinions and experience in lieu of her appearance — it diminishes her words and makes her less likely to join us in conversation. Don’t believe me? Imagine if every time you tried to talk about how great the tripel you’re drinking is, you got back a pair of sultry eyes and were told what a “tall drink of water” you are, without actually having your opinions taken seriously.
Guys, we’re better than this. And I think it’s damn time we started acting like it.
*Apologies for the low-resolution image, by the way. I’m using the webcam on my laptop and typing this in the morning while my fiancee sleeps next to me. Hence the low light.