By Diane Catanzaro and Elizabeth Erschens
Even though Bessie Smith belted out the blues with “Gimme a pig foot and a bottle of beer!” beer used to be seen as a man’s drink. But back in the days before the industrial revolution, beer was brewed by women for household consumption as well as special events…like to celebrate a wedding. You’ve heard of the term “bridal party”? Well, this term came from the “bride’s ale” brewing event where the women of the village would brew for the nuptial celebration. Waaaay before that, in ancient Mesopotamia, the Goddess Ninkasi was praised for her brewing prowess in a hymn carved on clay tablets, “Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt in a jar…the waves rise, the waves fall….you are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort, brewing it with honey….you pour the filtered beer out of the collector vat, it is like the rush of the Tigris and the Euphrates…” Ninkasi, you are the original beer goddess! Women’s historical roots in beer culture are deep and powerful…where do you think the term femALE came from?
Today, women are discovering that beer is our birthright, and women are a fast-growing segment of the craft beer market. Many women have discovered the wide range of flavor profiles that beer has, and that beer, and love of beer, has nothing to do with gender. And there is an organization run for women, by women, to help women discover the joy of craft beer.
Barley’s Angels is an international organization dedicated to helping women learn about and appreciate craft beer. There are chapters in the U.S. and in locations across the world such as Australia, Brazil, and Germany, providing a forum for women to enjoy, learn about, and share craft beer. We are fortunate to have a Coastal Virginia chapter of Barley’s Angels, coordinated by Lesley Summers of Chesapeake. Thanks to Lesley’s leadership, the Coastal Virginia chapter recently celebrated its two-year anniversary at their sponsoring restaurant, YNot Pizza in Chesapeake. Summers said it took about a year of research and promotional work before she received the charter for the Coastal Virgina chapter. The first meeting had eight people attend. “The hardest part was finding a local restaurant to sponsor a group that was new to the area,” said Summers.
Fast forward two years and the Barley’s Angels Coastal Virginia chapter has grown to over 50 members and has partnered with local restaurants, breweries, brewpubs, and a homebrew store to enhance members’ knowledge and appreciation of craft beer. These days, local businesses have embraced Barley’s Angels. In this wonderful life, every time a woman orders her first craft beer, a Barley’s Angel gets her wings!
Bodacious beer drinking barley-loving hop-headed women swirling, sniffing and sipping saisons and stouts, bitters and bocks, tripels and Trappists at your bar, brewery, or restaurant. What’s not to love? This ain’t yo mama’s social club. There is no sherry, no gin and tonic, and no wine spritzer, which were to go-to refreshments of our moms’ cronies during our formative years. Liz laughs as she recalls her mother’s views of ladylike behavior when it came to drinking beer. “Women do not drink beer,” she would say. “It is just as tacky as walking down the street smoking a cigarette or chewing gum.” Well, mama, the times they are a’changin. The women of Barley’s Angels drink beer!
Not only do Barley’s Angels drink beer, they squelch stereotypes of women beer drinkers through experience and education. In lieu of sharing the latest Tupperware or Oprah book club novel (ahem, not that there’s anything wrong with that) at Barley’s Angels meetings we sample, critique, learn about, and share thoughts about anything craft beer. One meeting may focus on a particular style of beer (say, sours or Scotch ale) or brewery, another meeting could feature a home-brewing demonstration, a craft beer and Girl Scout cookie pairing, or rare beers collected from around the world.
Summers’ husband also coordinates a beer club for men. Summers said, “I was fine drinking with my husband’s club but knew sometimes they just wanted guy time.” About the same time, she realized there were other women out there who liked beer, even if they didn’t realize they did. Yet. “Once I got women to try different craft beers, they were surprised that they liked so many,” said Summers. This prompted her to start the local chapter so there would be a club where women could learn and appreciate craft beer without judgment.
Barley’s Angels adheres to the adage that there is a beer style out there for everyone. People have different tastes and the members openly share their opinions. The first thing you learn is there is no right or wrong way to enjoy craft beer. Unlike some beer-rating internet sites where it seems everyone just regurgitates the same review, the refreshing thing about this club is that the members are encouraged to voice their individual likes and dislikes regardless of anyone else’s opinion. We all have our individual preferences and that’s why there are so many different beer styles!
Barley’s Angels have become a part of the local beer community and members often volunteer at local events to show appreciation. This past year, the Coastal Virginia chapter has volunteered at events for O’Connor Brewing, Back Bay Brewing’s Grand Opening, and will help with Green Flash’s Treasure Chest event October 12 to raise money for breast cancer awareness. Summers said, “All of the local breweries have been amazing and I am very happy that we’ve found a way to give back to the local beer community with the “Angel Cru Volunteers.”
Some of the beers sampled at the Barley’s Angels two-year anniversary meeting included Wicked Weed Black Angel Cherry Sour, The Bruery Grey Monday, Double Mountain Devil’s Kriek, Cascade Barrelhouse Strawberry, Strangeways O.T.I.S. (Oh This Is Sour), Three Brothers Resolute, Alesmith Speedway Stout (Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee variant), Firestone Walker Sucaba, Alewerks Jubilee, and Westbrook Gose. Your mama never tasted these beers…unless your mama is very, very cool. If Liz’s mom had tasted some of these she might have become a card carrying Barley’s Angel! And so two Angels would have earned their wings that day! Cha-ching!
If you are interesting in attending a Barley’s Angels meeting, information can be found online at http://www.barleysangelsva.com/, or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/BarleysAngelsCoastalVirginia.
Elizabeth Erschens is owner of Homebrew USA, with locations at JANAF in Norfolk and in Hampton. Diane Catanzaro is President of the Hampton Roads Brewing & Tasting Society.