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Women and Beer: The Story of The Black Squirrel

The typical craft beer drinker is often characterized as a white male (or perhaps more specifically, a mustachioed and flannel-clad white male). Women are still a minority in the craft beer drinking population, but as the number of women enjoying craft beer grows, they are still hugely underrepresented in the industry and are often ignored as consumers. Women have historically been the main brewers in most communities, but along the way something changed. As the New York Daily News reported, “the Industrial Revolution made beer a big business and men started dipping their hands in it. Ever since, beer has been a boys’ club.”

Regardless of the history, a lot of my friends are female craft beer aficionados, and everything from the popularity of women-focused beer events to DC’s Homebrew Outreach & Participation Sisterhood (HOPS) shows that women are both a large part of the craft beer community and undoubtedly an important component in its economy. A few weeks ago I sat down to chat with Amy Bowman, owner of The Black Squirrel, in an (admittedly virtually impossible) attempt to “get to the bottom” of how gender plays out in the DC beer scene. While I didn’t quite get to the bottom of everything, I definitely learned some interesting things along the way.

The Black Squirrel has been an Adams Morgan mainstay since 2007. When Bowman purchased the first floor at 2427 18th St. NW that year, the neighborhood was a “Sea of Miller Lite,” and what would soon become The Black Squirrel was one of only a small handful of craft-focused bars in the District. Fast forward to 2015, and the Squirrel has expanded to occupy around 4,000 square feet, boast an extensive food menu (popular for, among other items, their duck fat burgers) and host a nearly constant schedule of events. I hold a degree in gender studies and am obsessed with craft beer, so when I met Amy at a DC Metro Girls Pint Out event a few weeks ago and learned that she was the only female bar owner in the District, I wanted to know more.

Amy and her bar are similarly multi-dimensional. Her boisterous demeanor, laid back attitude, and seemingly limitless combination of confidence and humility make it no surprise that The Black Squirrel has a similar feel. I frequent this spot in Adams Morgan myself and am a fan of their focus on hosting events that, for example, pit Hopslam against Nugget Nectar, feature Colorado beer, or showcase Women in Beer, an event held annually during DC Beer Week.

I had several expectations about what Amy would say during our interview. I anticipated that she would tell me about certain experiences that made her feel excluded from the “beer boys’ club,” to explain why she feels women should play a larger role in the craft beer industry, and maybe to regale me with a few feminist tales of sticking it to “The Man.” All that would have been fine, but what was both refreshing and surprising for me about chatting with Amy was that she doesn’t feel excluded from the craft beer community.

Craft beer in DC as a whole has changed a lot since 2007. While the craft beer industry is not nearing a 50-50 split any time soon, its target population, in terms of gender, is quickly becoming more egalitarian. After The Black Squirrel first opened, Friday and Saturday nights saw the bar teeming with men, and you didn’t see a lot of women drinking craft beer generally. But as the bars catering to craft beer lovers have grown rapidly in number, so have the number of beer drinkers. And with that, female beer drinkers have come out in droves; they have come out looking for the depth and breadth of variety and flavor that craft beer offers in spades. (Fun Fact: It is widely thought that women have better palates, in part because they have more taste buds, which allows them to identify and appreciate subtle flavors better than men.)

Amy says a lot more of the patrons who visit her bar now are women. However, one problem she sees is that most beer marketing schemes have historically focused on reaching a masculine audience, and many brands are not doing a great job of coming out of that rut. As Julia Burke explains in this piece on craft beer names and labels in Wisconsin: “women's bodies have been used to sell beer to men since the dawn of advertising.” Using these common sexist tropes in advertising, labeling, and naming (like this, this, this, this, and this) risks alienating a good portion of their fan base. Beer is a business. If your bar, brewery, or beer does not work toward an equal-opportunity platform, you will fall behind. Whether it’s sexist labeling, a patronizing bartender, or just poorly crafted offerings, you are creating an environment that is not appealing to the full swath of potential customers, and that’s bad for business.

Without a doubt many female brewers and bar owners have felt excluded from the craft beer industry. The numbers are clear, especially in DC. The majority of craft beer industry members are male, and so it would be understandable for women to feel unwelcome entering that industry. In Amy’s experience at least, she does not feel excluded from the community of owners and brewers in her industry even though nearly all of them are male. While Amy works with more men in beer than women, she seems completely at home in craft beer and unbothered by the out-of-balance numbers. This is hugely important, because to me it means gender might not be a barrier to being successful in the beer business. Of course there are a whole cadre of other barriers for beer-business-oriented women and men, but it would seem that if you can make it past those, there is room for both genders in the craft beer industry.

Amy attributes none of her successes, or her challenges, to being a woman. Throughout our conversation I kept trying to ask how she felt her experience was different as a female beer bar owner as compared to male beer bar owners, but she almost seemed hard-pressed to think of ways in which this might be so. It was reminiscent of the fact that she didn’t even realize craft beer was dominated by men until after she had gotten into it. She explains that she runs The Black Squirrel the way she does because of who she is as a person and what she wants done in her bar, not because she’s a woman. She wants patrons to come to The Black Squirrel because it’s good, not because they’re trying to support a woman-run business.

For more information about The Black Squirrel, check out their website.

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