In the spring, a London brewery is to launch a new range of beers aimed at women, in response to customer demand. Adrian Tierney-Jones reports.
The past few years have seen the rise of the drinking woman. Most bars and pubs now keep women in mind if they want to succeed. Back in the 1990s, Bass Leisure (now Six Continents) set the ball rolling with its bright and airy All Bar One chain. Meanwhile, London gastropubs such as the Eagle Tavern in Farringdon, the Anglesea Arms in south Kensington and the Chelsea Ram in south Brompton combined good food and stylish surroundings, making women feel at home.
"We have done market research, set up focus groups and discovered that a lot of women visit our pubs - and come in by themselves," says Geetie Singh, one-half of the Singhboulton partnership which runs three much-acclaimed organic gastropubs in London - the Duke of Cambridge, the Crown and the Pelican. Everything, from food to spirits to cask ales, has official approval from the Soil Association, Britain's organic produce authority. "The pubs are not consciously designed with women in mind," says Singh, "but, because we're a female-run business ourselves, we designed the place with our likes in mind - open space, not too smoky, comfortable, warm, clean, quality food and drink, lots of choice."
On the drinking side, women are starting to down pints as well. So-called "ladettes" quaff loads of Stella Artois on a Friday night, while the Campaign For Real Ale (Camra) claims that women make up more than 25% of its membership. There are also more women working in the brewing industry. Sara Barton runs Leicestershire-based Brewsters and her excellent beers have won much acclaim. On the negative side, though, there has also been an accompanying rise in the number of women suffering from cirrhosis, as last year's Government report noted.
Years ago, if a woman went into a public bar, she was expected to look like Ena Sharples and to sit quietly in a corner, sipping a port and lemon. If it wasn't a port and lemon, the tipple of her choice was probably a milk stout or a light lager. In The Book Of Beer (published 1956), author Andrew Campbell described lager as "the drink popular with the ladies". Women never drank beer - that was left to the chaps. Even if a woman was bold enough to sup an ale, woe betide the one who asked for a pint - the landlord would refuse point-blank to serve her.
As for the pub's architecture, this was also designed to keep women in their place - the lounge bar, that is, usually in the company of a husband or parents. In the dingy, smoky public bar, men could booze, swear and tell dirty jokes to their hearts' delight. It wasn't much better in more refined places - as recently as the 1980s, a City wine bar made headlines by refusing to serve a woman a drink.
Goddess of beer
But it wasn't always like this for women. In ancient Babylon, the deity of beer was the goddess Ninkasi. And folk in the Middle Ages weren't fussed, either - women, or brewsters, were mainly responsible for the making of ale.
As for women's choice of tipple today, alcopops, pre-mixed spirits and the ubiquitous Chardonnay still figure largely. However, there is a growing trend of which both brewers and bar and pub managers would be wise to take notice: women are starting to drink beer, and not the clear liquid that one US mega-brewer tried to woo women with in the 1990s. Even though the proportion of women who drink beer is only about 11% of the total, 45% of all beer sold is paid for by women - and not all of them are buying lagers for their blokes.
"Women drink beer in our pubs," says Singh, whose pubs stock cask-conditioned organic beers from breweries such as Pitfield, Brakspear and Caledonian. "As for the style of beers, because the beers we sell are not brand-led, people are more experimental." There is repeated evidence of a female preference for beers with non-traditional tastes. Wheat beers, clean-tasting Pilsners and fruit beers, especially Belgian krieks, are popular in London watering holes such as Bierodrome and the White Horse in Parsons Green.
"There are more women drinking beer," agrees Barton. "I think a lot of them have come in through the Belgian beer route. Also, a lot of pubs are opening up and becoming more roomy. We need to try and sell cask ale like a quality wine, such as Bordeaux. Show to women that you can drink it with a meal - there are lots of beers that will go with different courses. I like a Belgian cherry kriek with chocolate cake - it's almost like a dessert beer. In some ways, there is still a macho attitude towards drinking beer, that it has to be downed in lots of pints. It doesn't."
So what styles of beer do women like? Last year the annual Beauty of Hops competition put women's taste-buds to the challenge. An all-female panel of brewers, distillers, tasters, beer retailers and journalists were asked to find Britain's most female-friendly ale. According to the competition's organiser, Rupert Ponsonby: "The Ultimate Fem'ale competition was saying that, as a result of the food market's increase in flavours, brewers would realise that people were ready for more flavours in their beers. The other thing that was interesting was the main conclusion that women like sweetness in their beers, but only if it's backed up with other adjectives like 'chocolatey' or 'honeyed'. Sweetness on its own is no good - think how we turn our noses up at a sweet white wine."
Despite this, first prize went to Coniston's Bluebird, a gorgeously fruity and citrusy beer, which also has a generous amount of hop bitterness on the finish, although not the sort of aggressive, mouth-numbing bitterness usually associated with English bitter.
Aimed at women
Ponsonby is also involved with London's Meantime brewery, which intends to launch a series of beers that have tastes, bottle shapes and label designs apparently aimed at women beer drinkers. This will include a raspberry wheat beer, an organic chocolate beer, a Belgian-style wheat beer, a Bavarian festival beer and an organic Viennese-style lager.
"What's missing are more feminine-styled beers," says brewmaster Alastair Hook. "We are focusing on the flavour of the beer, and a modern, feminine approach away from the 'cloth cap' image of beer. You look at something like Hoegaarden - it succeeded because of its beautiful aroma, crisp acidity, refreshing taste, and also because it was served in a startling way in places where women feel comfortable."
Ponsonby agrees, saying: "Through their glass design, Belgian beer makers have allowed women to buy in to beer drinking. Holding a beautiful glass says, 'I am beautiful,' while holding an interesting one says, 'I am interesting.'"
Women beer drinkers do not have to go down the route of watered-down, highly branded lagers. Events such as Ultimate Fem'ale and venues such as the White Horse and the Singhboulton pubs prove that beer is no longer a men-only drink. As brewers emerge from the mild-and-bitter straitjacket and interesting beers from Europe and the USA find their way into our bright and airy bars, there's a well-crafted, deliciously flavoured beer for every woman these days - even Ena Sharples.