Brown's beer: Why pubs must wake up to women

After writing my last column about excellent pub service, it’s back down to earth with a bump this month as my wife and I find ourselves at the other end of the scale of what London’s pubs can offer.

My wife is not a beer geek – she’s a self-confessed Beer Widow. 

She’s a tolerant, open-minded person, which she has to be because she is married to me. 

When she meets people who have read my books and seen what I did in order to write them, they greet her with admiration and awe at her serenity and obvious sanity. 

She knows what she likes, my wife, and if the occasion and the location are right, she does enjoy the occasional beer. When I ask her to try a new one, there are only two responses: ‘that’s horrid’, or ‘that’s my new favourite beer’. From much trial and error, we now both know she prefers lighter, hoppier ales and American IPAs. And if a pub serves these, she’ll order one even if I’m not with her.

She did this a few weeks ago when she walked into a pub in east London with a (female) friend. Like an ever increasing number of pubs, the bar featured a bank of five cask ale handpumps among the silvery, glistening lager fonts, so when she came to be served she asked, ‘could you tell me which of these beers is the hoppiest?’

The barmaid stared at her incredulously, said ‘no,’ in the tone of voice you might reserve for someone who’s just asked you if you fancy committing an indecent act with an animal, and went back to arranging bottles in the fridge. 

I won’t name and shame the pub, because my wife complained to the manager and has subsequently received a full written apology. But I thought it worth writing about the incident because it reveals much about attitudes surrounding beer, as well as customer service in pubs.

“There’s still a widespread sense that it’s OK to treat beer as inferior to other drinks, which by implication means treating beer drinkers as a lower class of human being than wine drinkers” 

When I’ve talked about it before now, some people have accused me of being snobbish towards poorly paid bar staff. If I was complaining because a young barmaid on minimum wage didn’t know which of five cask ales was the hoppiest, they’d be right. 

It would be brilliant if bar staff did know, but you can’t expect them to unless they work in a pub like the one I wrote about last month.

No, the problem here was that the barmaid didn’t just say ‘I don’t know’; she made it obvious that she thought the question was an absurd one to ask in the first place. And that gets me riled for two reasons.

Firstly, if my wife had stood at the bar and asked, ‘could you tell me which of your white wines is the driest?’ I can’t imagine she would have had the same response. If the bar staff didn’t know, I’m sure they would have said ‘No, but I could try to find out’, either by asking the manager or another member of staff, looking at the wine list, or even reading the label copy on the bottle. 

I do get defensive about this, but there’s still a widespread sense that it’s OK to treat beer as inferior to other drinks, which by implication means treating beer drinkers as a lower class of human being than wine drinkers. 

If you know what style of wine you like, you’re considered a connoisseur. If you know what style of beers you like, you’re considered a geek. 

I’ve often spoken to people in bars and at parties who clearly think they’re showing superior taste to me because they’re drinking wine and I’m on beer, no matter that my beer might be a rare, expensive import brewed by some mad monk on a mountain using fermented angels’ tears and aged for a year in rare whisky casks in a ship on the ocean floor, and they, when asked what kind of wine they would like, simply answer, ‘white’, and when pressed, are unable to elaborate.

Don’t get me wrong, I love wine – I drink at least as much wine as I do beer – but both drinks include examples that are rare, exquisite and make you glad to be alive and in possession of taste buds, and others that are bland, mass-produced without care, attention or love, and have to be drunk ice cold because any warmer and you’d realise how horrible they taste.  

“In the UK, only 15 per cent of beer drinkers are female. In the United States, that figure rises to twenty-five per cent. In Spain it’s forty per cent”

I’d just like beer to be treated with the same respect as wine, that’s all.

The second reason this incident riles me is that, just as my wife wouldn’t have got the same reception if she’d asked a question about wine, I don’t think I would have got the same reaction if it was me asking about the hoppy beer instead of her. 

The idea of a woman showing some discernment about her choice of beers is still seen in some quarters as absurd. 

I know this, because this isolated incident isn’t that isolated at all: my wife has been treated by bar staff with scorn and open hostility for daring to ask about beer by both male and female servers alike, and by those who are ignorant about beer and those who profess to be experts.

And that’s what really pisses me off here. In the UK, only 15 per cent of beer drinkers are female. In the United States, that figure rises to twenty-five per cent. In Spain it’s forty per cent. 

There’s nothing intrinsic in the product that alienates women (unless you believe beer can only be yellow, fizzy and drunk in multiple pints), but culturally in the UK, we’ve made beer a male only preserve. 

This is now starting to change – the number of women drinking cask ale has doubled in the last few years. 

Go to any hipsters’ hangout in Dalston or Stoke Newington and you’ll see girls as well as boys quaffing pints of ale from those old-fashioned dimpled glasses. True, current hipster fashion means many of those girls are dressed like the old ladies you see sipping halves of mild in archive black and white episodes of Coronation Street, but that’s not the point: beer has something to offer everybody. Increasing numbers of drinkers are realising this. 

It’s about time more pubs did too.

Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers, working across business and consumer press. He’s the author of several best-selling books and blogs at petebrown.blogspot.com. Hewas recently named joint-37th most influential person in the British pub industry – a claim he strenuously denies.

Readers' comments (3)

  • Pete is right - to survive & thrive, pubs need to be aware of their women AND ENTIRE TARGET MARKET. People 1st is providing help & support for new pub start ups be successful - using the research on falures.

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  • Jane  Peyton

    Thanks for writing this article Pete - so true! It'll take an awful lot of effort to change cultural attitudes ref women & beer, beer vs wine, so we need more blogs and features like yours.

    No excuse for ignorance or bad manners from the bar staff, but where was their training about the products they are selling? Not least their customer service?

    Pubs, beer companies, and beer marketers who ignore such a potentially lucrative market - 85% of British women who might be potential beer drinkers! - must be operating in a parallel business universe where they can afford to ignore millions of potential customers.

    Cheers, Jane

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  • "the old ladies you see sipping halves of mild in archive black and white episodes of Coronation Street"

    Actually they were mostly sipping milk stout - which itself (eg Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout) is now to be found being drunk by Hoxton hipsters in the bars of Shoreditch.

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