MILWAUKEE — Meagan O’Brien sipped her beer and bit her tongue as the man next to her tried to describe to his date some of the 60 craft beers at Sugar Maple in Milwaukee. Turns out, he didn’t know his ales from his hefeweizens.
“You could tell it was, like, a first date,” O’Brien recalled. “She kept asking questions, and this guy just kept making up stuff to answer her questions.”
O’Brien, 31, easily could have set him straight. A sales representative for Tallgrass, a craft beer brewed in Kansas, she’s also a certified Cicerone, kind of a sudsy version of a sommelier.
Although O’Brien didn’t correct the man at the bar, she had the satisfaction of knowing that the men-know-beer/women-prefer-wine cliche could be on its way out, thanks to a growing wave of interest by women in craft beer.
Groups for beer-drinking women are springing up nationwide, including Barley’s Angels, an international club that started a Milwaukee chapter last fall.
Craft beer sales in general have doubled in the past six years and are set to triple by 2017, according to BeerPulse.com. Many of those customers are women between 25 and 34 who appreciate the nuanced flavors of small-batch beers.
They’re also the ones surprising bartenders with orders for IPA instead of Chardonnay, and they’re brewing their own at home, too.
According to a 2012 Gallup poll, beer has been the favorite beverage among drinkers since 1985. It typically held second place as the adult beverage of choice for females, but recently, beer has edged out wine among women ages 18 to 34.
O’Brien and three other women started the local chapter of Barley’s Angels dedicated to beer education and discussion. Monthly meetings, held at various locations, are open to the public and are announced on the group’s Facebook page. They draw as many as 40 women, most in their 20s and 30s, who talk about beer, share home-brewing tips and, of course, sample their subject matter.
Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Colorado-based Craft Brewers Association, has her own theories on why many women are moving toward craft beer, defined as the product of a brewery with annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less.
Women in their 20s and 30s are in “the sweet spot” for craft beer consumption, Herz said. They’re the same quality-minded people who are buying artisanal cheeses and fair trade coffees and who don’t mind waiting for a bartender to shake a craft cocktail.
Craft beer is an affordable way to buy artisanal. The cost of a bottle of beer, usually less than a bottle wine, affords aficionados a chance to sample several craft beer flavors for a “simple trade up in price compared to wine,” Herz said.
When Holly DeShaw, 31, opened Blackbird Bar in 2008, she decided to sell 80 varieties of craft beer because that’s what she likes to drink. She says her customers are knowledgeable about craft beer and the state’s craft beer in particular.
“We do have wine, but it’s not our focus,” said DeShaw, whose tavern is part of a hub of craft beer bars in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood, including Sugar Maple, Romans’ Pub and Palm Tavern, which made Draft Magazine’s list of the top craft beer bars in the country.
Some women DeShaw’s age jokingly refer to wine as “mom juice,” because their mothers drank wine or girly cocktails, thanks in part to the Cosmo craze popularized by “Sex and the City.”
Image also factors into the reason that woman are gravitating to craft beer.
“This is bold for me to say, but beer in the past has been marketed as a gender-specific beverage to men,” Herz said.
While some macro beer producers use women in tank tops to sell beer, the 2,300 craft brewers in the U.S. generally market in a way that’s not gender specific.
One exception is Monroe’s Minhas Brewery, which makes Chick Beer, a light beer created by Shazz Lewis and her husband, Dave. When their research showed that women drink 700 million cases of beer a year, Shazz contracted with Minhas in 2011 to create a 97-calorie brew. Chick Beer is sold in Wisconsin and several other states and comes in a six-pack carrier made to look like a purse.
If craft beer producers have learned to make beer a genderless beverage, bartenders are still on a learning curve. Beer expert O’Brien recalls the time she ordered a $12 glass of Angry Monk. The bartender asked what she thought of it, and she mentioned that it seemed a little sour, a term meaning that the beer would benefit from more time in the bottle to mature the taste. He offered to add soda water.
Milwaukeean Lucy Saunders, author of “The Best of American Beer and Food: Pairing & Cooking with Craft Beer” and beercook.com, says many bartenders are missing the boat by underestimating a woman’s palate and knowledge of beer.
When Saunders goes out to drink, she said, “They hand me a wine list.” At some bars, if she orders a beer, she gets steered toward fruit beers.
Many women, such as Christine “Boo” Wisniewski, of Milwaukee, found their way into craft beer by learning to brew it. The former Milwaukee Brewing Co. brewer is particularly fond of IPA although, she said, some bartenders seem surprised when she orders it. It’s the beer she prefers to brew herself.
For Andrea Miller, 31, learning about craft beer at a holiday beer exchange at work turned her from a wine drinker to a beer connoisseur and home brewer. “I can bottle a beer in 19 seconds,” said the group sales manager at the Milwaukee Public Museum.
Still, beer “is a little bit of a boys’ club,” Rachel Reiman said during a home brewing session of Barley’s Angels in Milwaukee.
She notices that whenever she and her husband tour a brewery and mention that they’re home brewers, “They immediately start talking to my husband.”
There were even fewer women brewers in 1989, the year Wisconsin native Teri Fahrendorf became only the second woman craft beer brewmaster in the country. Bucking the male-dominated beer culture wasn’t easy, but the former systems analyst has known that she was destined for her current career since she was 9. That’s when she spent a dime on a book about fermentation and brewing at a rummage sale in Wauwatosa.
“I was disappointed to learn that you had to have a factory,” Fahrendorf said, laughing.
In 2007, she hit the road to meet other brewers and blog about her travels. She called it the “pink boots tour,” named for her version of the rubber boots brewers wear. Her travels led to the formation of the Pink Boots Society, an organization for women who earn an income from beer.
She’s the specialty malt account manager for Great Western Malting in Vancouver, Wash. Beer cook Saunders has found a few places, including Sugar Maple, where she’s comfortable sitting by herself and ordering an IPA without being steered in a different direction. It’s a sign of changing times for women who are serious about beer.
“I think women ordering more diverse styles of beer as a matter of personal taste and not being guided into the light and pretty category is evolving,” Saunders said.