When Ria Neri opened Whiner Beer Company with her partner Brian Taylor in 2016 it was—like many craft breweries—a scrappy operation. Somewhere between sourcing a French foudre and outfitting an eco-friendly taproom, they blew through their branding budget, so they turned to Neri’s illustration skills for label art. On a whim, she came up with the cast of characters that adorn all of Whiner’s wild fermented beers: a grey cat with a cheeky grin, another dressed as a ninja, a mohawked black cat, a duck, and a mouse. But coming up with the label design for her burgeoning Chicago brewery was the easy part.
“There were bars that wouldn’t carry our beers because they were too cute,” Neri recalls. “There were bars that would say, ‘Oh, your tap handles are these weird little animals.’” At the time, the industry was filled with images of robots and vikings and dragons and robot vikings riding dragons (probably), and Whiner’s appearance was criticized for not being “strong” enough. “Those are challenges that we’ve met—I shouldn’t say we don’t care about it—but once you compromise yourself, you comprise your beer and the brand.” Neri pushed ahead, releasing Le Tub, a wild saison with a pale yellow label and the image of a mustachioed man in a bubble bath with a striped cat perched on the edge.
A preconception plagued Whiner’s early days—that beer should look a certain way, and that way is often tinged with masculinity. You could argue it’s one of the reasons why only 31.5 percent of beer drinkers are female, according to the Brewers Association. It’s not because women don’t like beer, it’s because women have been told for decades—through inarguably sexist advertising showing women as nothing more than the nubile purveyors of beer to male customers—that beer is the drink of manly men. Buy it for your husband, have it in the fridge for your boyfriend, or drink it to look like one of the boys, but always remember that beer is not for you.
But as women, our skill set extends beyond opening a bottle, I promise.
Times are slowly changing. That 31.5 percent of female beer drinkers is a 5 percent increase from three years ago. More women are not only drinking beer, but also getting involved on the production side. These two increases are not unrelated. After working for years in the beer industry—in the company of mostly bearded men—Grace Weitz founded the Beer With(out) Beards festival in 2018. The inaugural festival brought together two dozen women-owned breweries at the country's largest celebration of women in the beer industry. This year, the festival returns to Brooklyn on August 10 with even more breweries. Events like these provide opportunities for women to explore the world of beer in the company of other women.
Neri says her label art also could help eliminate the barrier for entry that some women see when it comes to drinking beer. “I’ve heard a lot of, ‘I bought that can just because I like how it looks.’ That was their entry to it,” Neri says. “From the beginning—now that I think back—I did feel a little weird putting out something like Le Tub or Miaou, because it didn’t look like anything else. There was a little bit of apprehension on my part, but we just went for it, because there was no other way we could do it, there was no other look that made sense to us. This made sense to us.”
Whiner’s gamble paid off. Its cartoon-covered cans can be found at restaurants, dive bars, and everything in between throughout Chicago. But much of the beer industry is still stuck in the old ways. A recent stoll down the beer aisle at my local Binny’s Beverage Depot revealed that Bean Flicker and Vanilla Bitch Slap are alive and well and sit in the company of collection of blonde ales each adorned with the image of a blonde woman.
“Here's the thing—you don't have to use sexist or racist imagery or statements to sell booze. You simply don't. It's a choice,” says Emma Janzen, digital content editor at Imbibe and author of Mezcal: The History, Craft and Cocktails of the World's Ultimate Artisanal Spirit. “Doing so is a woefully outdated perspective that's damaging to marginalized groups of people. It's not funny, it's not cute, and if you want to look at it from a business standpoint: Why would you ostracize or offend an entire segment of the population that might buy your beer? That alone is mind-blowing to me.”
Janzen points out that beer is not alone in this regard. “I've seen naked women used to sell mezcal more times than I'd like to admit and no one ever seems to bat an eye,” she says. “I was also just reading about an unsavory new tide of French natural wine producers putting explicit names on their wines that are just so horrible I don't even want to repeat them.” Janzen goes on to say, however, that the beer industry, has some of the most vocal customers when it comes to calling out bad marketing—the same way others are vocal about only supporting breweries that are classified as independent. “I know I've seen a growing crowd of beer folks who are putting their foot down and saying they won't support breweries who unfairly exploit women to sell beer, which is rad.”
But are breweries listening? Yes and no.
If my recent Binny’s trip is any indication, the beer industry is evolving, growing up in a way. There are fewer pinups and innuendos, and more clean lines and smart design. “When craft breweries were just starting to emerge it was almost essential to have a lack of formal or professional design and brand identity, because it was a way to further distinguish the ‘craft’ and independent mission from the big box beer producers,” Janzen says, pointing to an article she wrote for Food Republic in 2014. “At some point the smaller independent breweries realized that the old, fuddy-duddy look would only get them so far in the eyes of the consumer, as the market really started to flood and demographics of the people drinking ‘craft’ beer started to shift. So that move from unfussy and boring, sometimes even downright ugly branding that set the tone for craft in the first place has totally gone out of fashion in favor of more modern, bold designs.”
At the same time, like the bro at the end of the bar reminiscing about his high school glory days, others are more reluctant to let go of the past. That’s where the Brewers Association—a not-for-profit trade association responsible for establishing the definition of “craft brewery” and maintaining the integrity of that definition—can step in. In 2017, the Brewers Association updated its Advertising and Marketing Code to “address beer marketing with sexually explicit, lewd, or demeaning brand names, language, text, graphics, photos, video, or other images.” How does it address these issues? According to Julia Hertz, the craft beer program director at the Brewers Association, “The Brewers Association Marketing and Advertising Code complaint process is intended to encourage brewer peer review and engagement. The process invites a voting member who believes that specific advertising and marketing material is inconsistent with one or more guidelines of the Brewers Association Code to contact the brewer directly regarding their concern.”
In other words, the Brewers Association relies on its members to confront one another if they feel that a label or marketing materials is inappropriate. If that member does not receive a response or is dissatisfied with the offending brewer’s response, they may file a complaint with the Brewers Association, which will reach out to the offending brewery. If it also receives an “unsatisfactory” response, a panel will be convened to review the complaint.
When asked about the possible outcomes of this panel, Hertz directed me to the Brewers Association website, which is as hazy as a New England-style IPA about the consequences. When asked to what constitutes “derogatory or demeaning text or images,” Hertz said, “language has different interpretations to different people.”
For the most part, it remains up to breweries to police themselves when it comes to their visual identities, which is how most industries self-regulate when it comes to maintaining a certain code of conduct and shared ethics. But when was the last time you saw a lewd box of cereal? In 1964, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart describe his threshold for obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio by saying, “I know it when I see it.” But the year is not 1964 and we should know better.
For New Belgium Brewing, a visual identity that conveys a sense of community has been a priority since the beginning in 1988. “We know who we are at the core and we know when we feel uncomfortable looking at something,” says Kelsey Ireland, lead specialty designer for New Belgium. “Truly I think we’re a big ole family and have cooks in the kitchen who aren’t afraid to say, ‘No.’”
Ireland and her team, which is made up of several women, were responsible for the recent redesign of New Belgium’s specialty beers. This redesign introduces a cork and cage closure, textured white labels, and a minimalist aesthetic to beers such as the La Folie and Transatlantique Kriek. Elements of this redesign have made their way onto other New Belgium beers including the Sour Saison, which is sold in a six pack of bottles adorned with a gold flower. These designs are simple yet sophisticated. Equally at home at a backyard barbecue or on a restaurant tablet, they also pass the grandma test: You can share this beer with your grandma without having to pour it in a glass and hide the bottle in the bottom of the recycling bin.
When it came time for Tröegs Independent Brewing to resign its labels, the brewery turned to graphic designer Lindsey Tweed. Tweed was able to maintain the brewery’s DIY aesthetic through the use of hand-lettered typography and doodle-like imagery. The label for Nugget Nectar Ale still features a hand clutching a hop, but now the background is white, which makes Tröegs’ new black label pop. It’s easier on the eyes and, when lined up with the rest of Tröegs’ beers, more consistent on the shelf. “For Troegs it was about staying true to who they were, but honing that into a fresher, simplified look and feel that spoke to a new class of craft beer drinker,” Tweed says.
The new look resulted in a boost in beer sales, because if a care went into the outside, what does that say about the beer inside (and vice versa)? For New Belgium, smart design is not only an aesthetic choice, it’s also a business one. “To be forward-thinking and to survive, we have to think broad: What can beer be? Where is it going to go?” Ireland says. “We definitely have forward-thinking people in place to have those ideas and we definitely have structure to keep everything PC—to make sure that we’re not only being politically correct, but also aligning to our values.”
Maybe that’s what it all comes down to: values. At the end of the day, much of the beer industry was created by men who learned how to brew beer in the garage. So some of those values—hanging out with the boys, shooting the shit, looking at tits—were captured in the visual identity of beer. As Tweed puts it, “The fact that the majority of craft beer drinkers are white men is a result of the industry being driven by them. Breweries that diversify their decision makers will find themselves enjoying larger shares of previously untapped markets.”
Today, as more women own breweries, run breweries, and write about breweries, it’s time for a gut check. This doesn’t mean that beer can’t be fun or sensual and it certainly doesn’t mean that beer can’t be creative—if anything it needs more out-of-the-box thinking—what it means is that in order for beer to truly thrive, it needs to turn that 31.5 percent of female beer drinkers into 51 percent.