Women’s relationship to beer is akin to Sharon Osbourne’s relationship to Ozzy: complicated, inextricable, and possibly toxic. Yet it’s impossible to imagine one existing without the other.

In the beginning, women ran the beer show. A 4,000-year-old Sumerian hymn contains the oldest-known record of a recipe, and it was dedicated to Ninkasi, goddess of beer. Ancient Sumerian and Egyptian women brewed beer, as did women in ancient Baltic, Slavic, and Finnish cultures. The women who made beer back then were revered and, frequently, the process was part of a religious ceremony.

By the Middle Ages, women were still brewing beer, though their role was decidedly less sanctified. Water was putrid, low-alcohol beer was a more sanitary option, and brewing became just another unglamorous to-do for housewives.

By the 1700s, when Guinness began producing print ads, men had officially supplanted women as not only the target consumers, but as the primary makers of beer. Suddenly, beer was for men, by men. That bias continued through the 21st century in print and television advertising and on labels.

The craft beer explosion upped the ante, as myriad smaller-scale producers sought to attract customers by appealing to both their thirst and a perceived shared culture. The lingua franca was a devotion to esoteric hops, radical rock n’ roll riffs on established European beer styles, and clever double entendres (some of which veered into fairly lewd territory). Who can forget Midnight Sun’s Panty Peeler, MobCraft’s Date Grape, and SweetWater Brewing’s Happy Ending. Cue the Mad Men-style images of nude ladies with big bosoms striking lascivious poses.


Changing the Script

“We were concerned that women were less likely to support a product that didn’t seem female-friendly.” —Julia Herz, Brewers Association

Brewers Association (BA), the not-for-profit trade association dedicated to small and independent craft brewers. In 2016, a comprehensive study of 10,000 drinkers conducted by demographic trend forecasters Yankelovich Marketing found that just 28 percent of craft beer drinkers are women. But are men the primary consumer because men’s palates are genetically more inclined to appreciate beer, or is something else going on?

“We were concerned that women were less likely to support a product that didn’t seem female-friendly,” says Julia Herz, the BA’s craft beer program director. Herz acknowledges that “slicing and dicing data” is challenging for several reasons, including margin of error and the fact that respondents to the study self-identified as “craft beer” drinkers, which is a “moving target.” Says Herz, “There are many data points from over the years showing us that beer can do better when it comes to inspiring women to enjoy the beverage.”

It was time for the organization to exert its considerable influence and, at the very least, crack open a (largely ceremonial) can of whoop-ass.

In 2017, the Brewers Association updated its marketing and advertising code to help its 10,000-plus membership maintain high standards and act as responsible corporate citizens. Among the changes was the addition of new language to establish that, while any producer (even those with questionable advertising practices) could join the association and compete in its competitions, including the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Fest, winners with deemed “offensive” names or labels would not be celebrated during awards ceremonies (only the style of beer would be announced) and could not tout the accolade when marketing their product.

The most relevant language in the association’s updated marketing and advertising guidelines (they were first issued in 2008), forbids “sexually explicit, lewd, or demeaning brand names, language, text, graphics, photos, video, or other images that reasonable adult consumers would find inappropriate for consumer products offered to the public.”

Response to the guidelines has generally been positive, with outliers split on whether it didn’t go far enough or that consumers should be able to make their own choices. And while BA-member brewers with “demeaning” and “lewd” ads aren’t being ousted from the ranks, entities that have attempted a more serious smack-down have been met with outrage and, ultimately, failure.


Free Speech Stymied?

In 2009, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission (MLCC) objected to Flying Dog Brewery’s Raging Bitch label, which was created by the now 82-year-old Ralph Steadman, an artist who rose to fame illustrating works by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

MLCC objected to the image on the label, which it described in documents filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit as, “a wild dog presenting human female genitalia as well as possessing semblances of human female breasts,” and also the text, written by Steadman, which reads in part, “enjoying a RAGING BITCH, unleashed, untamed, unbridled—and in heat—is pure GONZO!!”

But after a protracted six-year legal battle, the Maryland-based brewery won the right to sell its beer in Michigan’s restaurants and stores; in the process, it also won a public relations fight it didn’t pick, as the public bristled at a legislative power deciding what was best for them. The state ended up shelling out $100,000 in attorneys’ fees and $40,000 in damages to Flying Dog.

Jim Caruso and Ralph Steadman [Photo courtesy Flying Dog Brewery]

Flying Dog CEO Jim Caruso relishes the victory and says the brewery used the funds to found a nonprofit to protect the free speech of other companies. “In addition to our win against Michigan, which established that the First Amendment applies to alcoholic beverage labels, we founded the nonprofit 1st Amendment Society using the damages we received from the case,” he explains.

For his part, Steadman says the label’s memorable design “gave it wings, immediately,” and helped push its sales—which, at last count, comprised about one-third of the brewery’s total output—while also (unexpectedly) becoming a symbol of free speech. (Steadman has illustrated several labels for Flying Dog in his inimitable style, but only Raging Bitch has been protested.)


Weighing the Costs, Benefits of Change

Caruso sums up the whole situation as, “just another case of a few people using political correctness as a side door to censorship.

“I think it just bugs a couple of people at the BA that consumers keep buying beers with names they don’t like, so they’re trying to force brewers to self-censor, and perhaps hurt their businesses,” he says. “Freedom of expression is an essential element of entrepreneurship. On principle, we will never support, contribute to, or in any way sanction any organization that’s so averse to freedom of speech and creative expression that it actively engages in any form of censorship. After 27 years as a member, Flying Dog terminated its [BA] membership shortly after the announcement.”

However, other brewers and label designers, of their own volition and for a variety of reasons, have felt compelled to change their labels. Take 4 Noses Brewing, a family-owned brewery based in Broomfield, Colo.

“Our labels have evolved over time,” explains Dustin Ramey, head of sales at 4 Noses. The brewery rotates its beers seasonally, making a few dozen per year. It’s rolled out new designs—and in one case, a new name—for its three core brands Perfect Drift Pilsner, ’Bout Damn Time American IPA, and Raspberry Blonde [previously Bareback Blonde].

The initial design for Bareback featured a horse, but over time, the woman riding the horse became the focus. Between the sexually charged name and the sexy woman on the horse, 4 Noses began inciting what Ramey characterized as the “wrong kind of buzz” at festivals.

“4 Noses is a family business,” he says. “We have one woman owner and several female employees. We noticed at festivals, especially, that the name and image created an uncomfortable vibe, eliciting rude remarks from some men and making some women uncomfortable.”

Social responsibility has always been at the core of 4 Noses’ mission, Ramey explains. The owner and head brewer, Tommy Bibliowicz, and co-owner and head artist David Bibliowicz collaborated with design firm Studio-Mast on a new design. The freshly minted Raspberry Blonde aims to be “subtle and empowering,” Ramey says. “We never want to do anything but make people feel good with our products.”

Other breweries have policed themselves as well. Brazil’s Skol, for example, last year owned its past by offering six female illustrators the chance to recreate its most sex-soaked ads. The witty (fully-clothed) revises went viral. The U.K.’s Castle Rock Brewery did a complete edit of its popular Elsie Moe brand, which previously featured a pin-up girl in underwear and now features a female fighter pilot.


Defining Sexism?

Is there a clear line between offensive images and free speech? Is featuring a boobalicious canine the graphic design equivalent of screaming “fire!” in a crowded theater? Maybe and maybe not, according to current popular sentiment.

Designer Alexandria Hall has helped Two Tides Brewing in Savannah, Ga., capture attention via her stunning murals inside the brewery and her evocative label designs. [Photo courtesy Alexandria Hall]

One thing everyone can (probably) agree on, though, is that getting more women in various decision-making capacities at breweries across the country will likely bring more women to the bar.

“At the Brewers Association, we’ve created an entire committee devoted to beer and brewery diversity to create a more inclusive environment,” Herz says. “I’m starting to see more progress and sensitivities at breweries across the country, and that’s good for everyone.”

Twenty-three-year-old designer Alexandria Hall has helped Two Tides Brewing in Savannah, Ga., capture attention via her stunning murals inside the brewery and her evocative label designs, that are equal parts 1960s pop art and bold, Matisse-inspired masterpieces, rendered through a decidedly millennial, Instagrammable lens. Some of her designs are whimsical (the adorable, but alien-like insect tottering around Six Foot IPA, or the man leaning over a psychedelic pond for Currents session IPA), while others are more abstract.

For Tan Lines (a dry-hopped pilsner), Hall, a self-identified feminist, says she consciously set out to depict the female form in a way that counteracted the “countless instances of illustrative or advertising work, mostly created by male artists, that objectify the female in a way to entice buyers or promote sex as a marketing tool.”

Granted, it’s difficult to identify the empowering elements of the “tasteful”-but-“sexy” depictions of women Hall and other graphic artists (both male and female) are churning out. The whole conversation brings to mind the phrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used in 1964’s Jacobellis v. Ohio when describing how he decides what hardcore pornography is: “I know it when I see it.” Like obscenity, images that fit the current zeitgeist of non-offensive sexiness are instantly recognizable.

Stale ads like Old Milwaukee’s circa 1960 “free girl with every can” and “our girls are easy to pick up” have been replaced with more subtle, but equally degrading wolf whistles, Hall argues. But she also notes that she’s only seen “truly offensive” labels online, and that none of the shops she frequents have ever carried anything so offensive she’d spurn it on feminist principles alone. Perhaps the market is changing, she suggests.

Last year, Pizzeria Paradiso’s craft beer director, Drew McCormick, and owner Ruth Gresser (pictured) decided to only sell beer with inoffensive, inclusive labels.

The Path Ahead

Last year, Pizzeria Paradiso’s craft beer director, Drew McCormick, and owner Ruth Gresser decided to sell only craft beer from independently owned breweries at their Washington, D.C. mini-chain; what’s more, they also decided to only sell beer with inoffensive, inclusive labels.

Hall believes that she and other up-and-coming graphic artists have found ways to portray women in “a realistic and expressive way” that disrupts the “stereotypical representation that degrades women by capitalizing on their sexualization.”

Can women and beer finally sort out their differences and ride off into the sunset together? And if they do, will the women be wearing clothes? The court hasn’t rendered a verdict yet, but it seems, for now, that a healthy dose of freedom, tempered by restraint, may deliver a (pardon the sexually charged pun) happy ending for this long-suffering relationship.

Or maybe, as Flying Dog’s Caruso would have us believe, it’s at once more complicated and more simple than we ever thought. “Everyone is offended by something,” he says. “This is beer. And brewers answer to consumers.”