In a situation familiar to many female founders, LeAnn Darland found herself the lone woman in a conference room with six angel investors, all white men between the ages of 45 and 60. She was there to secure funding for her start-up, Talea Beer Co., which she co-founded in 2018 with Tara Hankinson. Darland—who, like Hankinson, has an MBA—gave a tight, compelling pitch about why Talea was uniquely positioned to capture and expand the market of women who drink craft beer.
“I had just wrapped up the presentation, closing out by saying that women are becoming craft beer consumers faster than the industry itself is growing,” says LeAnn. “The investors asked me, ‘Why do you think women don’t drink beer?’” Nevermind that LeAnn had just answered that very question, explaining that there’s nothing inherently gendered about beer, that the majority of beer consumers are men simply because it’s been marketed to men for a century. Darland continues, “They then had a discussion in front of me—as if I weren’t there—and they decided it was because beer makes women feel bloated. At that point I knew the discussion wasn’t worth my time.”
The potential investors suggested that Darland market her product as “beer for women,” focusing on low-calorie, bloat-free brews that could co-opt the “girl tap”—currently reserved for hard cider or maybe Blue Moon—at every bar in America. Darland thanked them for their input. Over the course of their fundraising, she and Hankinson walked away from investor after investor who recommended they become “the Skinnygirl of beer” or emblazon “Founded by Women” on their cans, right next to a calorie count. It was a non-starter for them. “We’re not chick beer,” says Darland. “We’re two chicks who started a beer company.”
Hankinson and Darland may be savvy businesswomen who can spot a uterus-sized hole in the market, but they also know their beer. The two met while working at beer start-up Hopsy, and they both homebrew. As they were each independently getting into the scene, visiting tap rooms and cruising the selections at local craft stores, they started feeling like they had found their way to craft beer in spite of, rather than because of, how it was marketed. “I remember looking at the tap handles at a restaurant in the Hamptons,” says Hankinson, “and thinking, ‘None of these brands feel like they’re talking to me.’” Darland adds, “Why do I have to choose between Arrogant Bastard and Raging Bitch?”
While plenty of craft beers have names and labels ranging from the explicitly misogynistic to the merely juvenile, even the ones that don’t tend to be...sort of dudely. (Think race cars and comics and medieval weaponry.) Considering that the American craft beer industry is dominated by white men, it’s easy to speculate that a branding brainstorm might consist of Brad thinking that a stacked babe riding a dragon would be sick and guessing that his friends will think so, too. To Hankinson and Darland, it was simple: The only thing standing in the way of women embracing craft beer was marketing that excluded women.
We’re not chick beer. We’re two chicks who started a beer company.”
Darland and Hankinson were clear that while that Talea’s branding would feel inclusive, it would not pander to women. For their cans, they enlisted John Gilsenan of IWANT Design to come up with something that was gender-neutral, playful, and intriguing—with one rule only. “We did not want pink cans,” says Darland. Hankinson pours me a sample of their Tart Deco Cherryberry Sour IPA from a tallboy, rose-and-white striped like Raspberry Ripple. “OK,” Darland clarifies, ”that one is pink. But only because it has pink fruit in it.”
“Pink it and shrink it” is a marketing ploy that has been trotted out by everyone from BIC pens to Glock. Companies that have traditionally marketed their products to men suddenly realize that women make up over 50 percent of the population—and carry money around in their tiny, pink pocketbooks. But rather than engaging meaningfully with women (or people of color or queer people), perhaps by hiring a few of them, the company panders. This is how we end up with pink power tools, rainbow Doritos, McDonald’s ads written in jive. The insult to the injury is that women are often charged more for the privilege of purchasing a smaller, pinker version of a product that is otherwise identical to the original item.
But a beer company, no matter how appealing the branding, is only as good as the liquid in the cans. Darland and Hankinson enlisted Johnny Osborne of Sixpoint Brewery as their head brewer and set to work formulating recipes that would appeal to beer nerds and beer noobs alike. “We wanted to create beers that are easy to love,” says Hankinson, “beers that are low in bitterness with familiar flavors.” Darland name-checks Talea’s Brightside, a juicy, citrusy Hazy IPA brewed with Strata hops. “We were confident that craft beer fans would love it,” she says. “But we also felt that if we could convince someone who ‘hates IPAs’ to try it, that her preconceived notions would be shattered.”
Osborne targets accessible, crowd-pleasing flavor profiles. “I spend a lot of time thinking about flavors that resonate with people across the board,” he says. “We’ve released three sour IPAs, and one of the first things that clicked in my head is that they have the same biological markers as cola. Cola is really acidic and really sweet, and when those flavors are balanced it’s fundamentally delicious.”
Fundamentally delicious flavors—citrus, tropical fruit, berries—pop up again and again in Talea’s tasting notes. “Having a taste that is ‘acquired’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better,” Osborne argues. “Moving away from stigmatizing flavor profiles is a good thing.” While plenty of people do genuinely enjoy aggressive, challenging beverages—think Islay Scotch or Fernet or a 200+ IBU beer—others gravitate toward them as a way to perform sophistication: “Leave the strawberries and cream to the children! I prefer flavors that might be poison!” Thankfully, the current trends in craft beer embrace fruit and drinkability. While “crushable” is not a word that will likely ever appear on a Talea can, it is an apt descriptor of many of its brews.
Although Talea’s ultimate goal is to convert non-beer drinkers, its current fans are, ironically, men who drink beer. Darland and Hankinson’s Brooklyn tap room is slated to open later this year and they are working on expanding their distribution network, but at the moment, Talea is found mostly in craft beer stores. “Beer nerds are about 70 to 80 percent of our customers,” says Darland, “and of the breweries in New York City, we’re ranked number two on Untappd, behind Other Half. So I think it’s clear that we’re making phenomenal beer that can appeal to a wide audience. It’s up to us to keep pushing the bounds of who that audience is.”
Top photo by Cory Smith.