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Women and ale: There's an ale for everyone

The Independent
Britain's only female beer inspector tells Helena Pozniak about the new generation of real ale drinkers


If you want women to drink beer, whatever you do, don't call it "bitter". Try "brunette", "blonde" or "golden" instead, or mention "floral", "honey" and "caramel" flavours. Finding the right words to describe real ale is an important business; even more so when attracting new consumers.

"We've been brainwashed into thinking it's not right for anyone with heels and lipstick to drink beer," says Annabel Smith, Britain's first and only female beer inspector.

"We're still stuck with the beard-and-sandals image of the real ale drinker. Women are conditioned from quite young to think bitter is not for them. And then it never features in their repertoire of drinks."

In fact, women are turning to real ale in ever-growing numbers. In the space of one year, the number of women drinkers trying real ale has nearly doubled from 16 to 30 per cent, following a concerted effort by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) to make the drink less blokesy. Now there are 1.3 million women drinkers of real ale, as erstwhile fans of gin and tonic, and wine, are being won over to the brew's aromas of vanilla, banana, honey and chocolate.

Research showed many women wouldn't even try real ale because they didn't know what it was, where to start or because they thought it would taste too bitter. Women were turned off by the misconception that real ales are alcohol-heavy. In fact, some are as low as 3.4 per cent ABV (alcohol by volume), and consequently light, refreshing and low-calorie.

So bring on the golden beers with names such as Organic Honey Dew, Waggledance or the award-winning Triple Chocoholic chocolate stout – a dark ale which Smith declared "blew my socks off when I first tasted it". While connoisseurs will lead real ale beginners towards the lighter, fruitier brews, in blind tastings women in fact also like the darker porters.

And increasingly, brewers are accompanying their ale with tasting notes for fledgling drinkers. Pubs are happy to offer samples for beginners, and enlightened publicans will suggest beers to accompany food. While this all taps into current sensitivities about the provenance, ingredients and methods of producers, brewers still have far to go in targeting women, says Smith.

"It wasn't that long ago when bottled lagers were advertised by busty blondes," she says. "You've already lost half your market." Marketing and packaging have been slow to catch on too, she adds. Perhaps laddish names such as Skull Splitter and Dogs Bollocks don't endear themselves to a female market. And then there are the glasses. While some women drinkers pride themselves on enjoying a pint, many are simply turned off by a large measure in a clunky glass.

So some pubs have introduced one third-of-a-pint glasses along the lines of the smaller European measures. Some beers have their own glasses – in Belgium, after all, different beers are served in their own particular glassware. "It's a common misconception that beer is always served warm and flat in an ugly glass," says Smith. Stemmed glasses – so popular on the continent – are appearing in British bars, and do much to persuade women who think the traditional pint and half-pint glasses just too masculine and unappealing.

Real ale will, Smith believes, help pubs to ride out the economic downturn. Cask ale must, after all, be drunk fresh, so it's not a drink for enjoying at home. It does exist in bottled form, but purists prefer it straight from the barrel. Unlike keg beers, it's unpasteurised, unfiltered and contains live yeast, and must be stored and served according to scrupulous standards. As it ferments for a second time in the cask, timing is everything. Serve it too soon and it's not ready; too late and it's past its best.

While pubs are still closing every week, the rate has slowed this year from 52 to 39 a week. "There are fewer pubs, but they are busier," says Smith. "A lot of dead wood has gone. Those pubs who survive will do so on quality, and real ale has a major part to play in this."

Smith works alongside 50 male inspectors employed by Cask Marque to ensure beer is kept and served in optimum conditions. When the organisation was set up in 1997, by a group of British brewers, 40 per cent of beer was served or stored wrongly. Real ale has a shelf life and must be served at the correct temperature. "You have to know how to pull a pint properly," says Smith. "Pull too hard and you'll smash the life out of the beer."

Unlike keg beer and lagers, real ale has no extra gas added at the pump. "Pull too gently and you won't get a head." Once a cask is opened, ale must be served within three days. More than 6,300 pubs now carry the blue Cask Marque plaque, which means their ales have passed Smith's and her colleagues' exacting standards. Inspectors call unannounced twice a year to examine the appearance, taste, aroma and temperature of the beer.

If anyone questions her qualification to judge a traditionally male preserve, Smith, 41, points to her career pedigree. She has been in the industry for 20 years as a landlady and an adviser at the drinks company Diageo, where one of her jobs included training publicans and staff how to serve the perfect pint of Guinness.

She undergoes an annual review of her taste buds so she can be confident of detecting tainted or infected beer – bacteria in beer aren't harmful, but don't taste that good. Women are more sensitive to bitter flavours, she says, which are detected on the sides and back of the tongue. Perhaps this is why brewsters – or female brewers – traditionally produced the bulk of ale consumed for hundreds of years, selling it in taverns and beer halls. Only when brewing changed from a cottage industry into big business did it become a male-dominated environment.

"It's a bit like cookery," says Jean Timmons, microbiologist and brewer at the Shepherd Neame brewery in Faversham, Kent. No ale leaves the brewery without being thoroughly tasted and checked by a brewing team. "I love the recipe-making side of it, the smell and the look of it. This is still hand-crafted beer – it's all hands-on. I've got great pride in what we're producing."

Cleanliness is one of the many secrets of a good real ale. Because it's not treated like keg beers, the equipment and conditions must be sterile, and the quality of the yeast is key. "Cask beer is live – you add yeast into the cask for a second fermentation to give it sparkle and fizz, and you can really taste the flavours."

And women do have sophisticated tastes, says the Colombian-born Paola Leather, a food scientist and brewer with Cornwall's St Austell Brewery. She left an enviable job as a coffee and chocolate taster to join the small but successful beer producer. While she declares the British climate too cold to drink lager, she was bowled over by the real ales she tasted – St Austell produces the acclaimed Tribute, one of the top 20 real ales in the country. "No way is it for men only – that's just the culture. Women are good tasters – we like aromas and flavours just as we like perfume. But pint glasses just aren't appealing."

It's a popular misconception that beer makes you fat. It doesn't, or at least not as much as wine and spirit mixes. While half a pint of beer of about 4.5 ABV (alcohol by volume) contains around 110 calories, a gin and tonic has 120, and a small (125 ml) glass of wine or a Bacardi Breezer nearly 200 calories.

The figure-skater Joanne Parr, 5ft 2in and less than eight stone, is living proof that you can enjoy a jar without the paunch.

"People will ask where I put it, but if I was drinking wine or stronger gassy lagers, they'd blow me up. I can comfortably have three or four pints in an evening."

Parr, who's striven for years to enlist friends and family into appreciating real ale, is planning to turn her May wedding into a mini beer festival. She will offer bespoke bottles from a microbrewer in her home village of Hathern in Leicestershire, and will offer a range of ales from microbreweries in her local pub.

She learned to love real ale while at university in Norwich, and has been on a quest to convert other drinkers ever since. "I like the idea real ale contains no chemicals – it's just water, barley, hops and sugar; very simple. It doesn't give you that horrible 'red wine' headache."

Full of B vitamins, iron and anti-oxidants, a litre of beer provides 10 per cent of daily protein needs (wine has none), while dark real ales can prevent tooth decay. Furthermore, a daily beer lowers the risk of kidney stones, and moderate beer drinking can lead to stronger bones.

Whether bitter or mild, strong, stout or golden, real ale is now the only type of beer seeing its sales grow, thanks largely to its new female fans. "For me, it's up there with British icons," says Parr. "Fish and chips, HP Sauce, pork pies – and real ale."

'Women are more confident coming into pubs on their own'

Vicki Faulkner, licensee, runs The Hogget in Hook, Hampshire with her husband, Tom.

"We offer three real ales. Women tend to go for the blonde, lighter beers or sweeter, dark porters. I don't push a real ale on anybody – they do sell themselves.

Cask ale is still very much a man's drink, though – there's a lot of scope for marketing it to women. We've changed our glassware from the chunky pints – that's helped change the feel of the drink. I never make the assumption a woman wants to drink a pint.

Women are more confident coming into pubs on their own these days. We've worked hard to make women feel comfortable. Lighting is important – I don't like dingy or "romantically lit" pubs. Ours is quite bright.

Some nights we can have all-women groups come to eat and drink. A pub needs to feel friendly and welcoming – my bar staff will greet customers as soon as they come in and make eye contact. Everything, especially the loos, has to be very clean, too.

I've never felt threatened as a landlady. I think it's easier for me to intervene in any disputes than for my burly, 15-stone husband.

I used to work in HR in the city at quite a senior level, although I learnt most of my people skills working behind a bar in my youth.

My husband was involved in an online information service. We both had a strong work ethic, and kept thinking we'd like to work for ourselves and have a family.

We first got a leasehold in 2002. We didn't have a clue what we were doing, but we changed a quiet place into a buzzing country pub. We both enjoy food and wine, and we're both entrepreneurial. The lifestyle suits us, although my husband did bring me in the cash till to hospital the day after I'd given birth."

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