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Babes In Brewland

Posted on Saturday, July 03 at 19:02 by canadaka

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Canadian women, on the other hand, have never been active participants in beer culture -- the noogies, the hijinks -- despite the fact that 35 per cent say they drink beer regularly. Sure, they show up in the ads, but only to provide cleavage and the promise of lager-addled sex. Leading brands like Molson Canadian, Labatt Blue and Budweiser have never actively sought out the loyalties of women. What's more, they've made them the butt of randy in-jokes (Old Milwaukee's "Swedish Bikini Team" and Miller Lite's hot girl-on-girl mud wrestling) for decades. Just last month, Labatt USA came under fire in California and New Mexico for posting a billboard advertising Tecate, a Mexican brand it distributes, which paired a glistening beer bottle with the tag line, "Finally, a cold Latina." Women protested up and down the streets until the signs came down.

The North American beerscape is overwhelmingly male for the simple economic reason that women sip beer and guys "pound." In Canada, men consume 80 per cent of the total volume, which translates into profits of $9.6 billion per year. Besides, women don't tend to be brand-loyal when it comes to beer, according to journalist Stephen Beaumont, owner of the beerbistro in Toronto. They're more likely to sample an import or a craft beer, he says, than reckon with a standard good old boys' brew and the baggage that comes with it.

But while contemporary beer culture is justifiable in marketing terms, it's worth investigating how something as mundane as a beverage becomes so heavily gendered in the first place. After all, there's nothing inherently masculine about hops and barley. Why is it that beer -- as opposed to, say, wine or cola for that matter -- has come to represent liquid masculinity in Canada and abroad?

Surprisingly, this hasn't always been the case. American cultural anthropologist Alan D. Eames, dubbed the "Indiana Jones of Beer," has made it his life's work to reveal the true history of beer as -- brace yourself -- an ancient symbol of the feminine. From its very inception some 8,000 years ago, says Eames, every ancient society's beer-creation myth tells the same story: the drink was a gift from a female deity to the women of that community. In Egypt, Hathor was the "goddess of drunkenness and the inventress of beer." In Sumeria, the goddess Siries watched over the daily brewing rituals. "It was believed that men couldn't be trusted with it," says Eames.

For centuries leading up to the Industrial Revolution, beer was a critical dietary staple in North America and elsewhere -- a non-perishable liquid bread -- and the daily brewing of it was exclusively women's work. In virtually all agricultural societies, women were the brewsters (the feminine form of "brewer"). They made the beer, refined it, served it and, yes, drank it. In fact, our modern word "bride" comes from the Germanic root "bru," meaning "to brew." During childbirth, women consumed special, extra-strong "groaning beers" to help them cope with the pain.

Ironically, it was women who first used sexuality to sell beer. "Even in ancient times," says Eames, "women realized the way to make lots of money was to have good-looking women in front selling beer." The oldest beer ad in the world -- which dates back to the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ebla in roughly 4000 BCE -- was a large stone tablet depicting a headless woman with enormous, jutting breasts, holding goblets of beer in each hand. The tag line, of course, has nothing to do with the image: "Drink Ebla, the beer with the heart of a Lion."

Likewise, it was women who invented male tavern culture. During the Industrial Revolution, as families migrated to the cities and the production of beer was mechanized, beer drinking gradually moved out of the home and into urban saloons. Fearing that drinking in taverns would lead to prostitution, says Eames, the wives of regular patrons pressured saloon keepers to bar women from the premises. Thus men-only bars were born. In this environment, men got drunk, talked sports, argued politics and ribbed each other right up until the 1970s, when feminists had these establishments declared exclusionary. Women, by this time completely alienated from the creation and consumption of the ancient drink, had learned to drink cocktails and wine instead.

So it's not difficult to see why women don't have the emotional attachment to beer that men do. "In the past, only 'hard chicks' were beer-drinking women," says Beaumont. "You can't present a liquid as the ultimate guy drink and the badge of masculinity for over a century and then suddenly say, 'Oh, but it's OK for women to drink this, too.' " But beer companies have been asking themselves for years whether it's possible there's a huge, untapped market of beer drinkers among women and, if so, how you integrate this market into the culture without alienating your core consumer, the twentysomething male. "Everybody would like to tap into that female market because it's still seen as a major source of potential growth," says Michael Palmer, a Toronto-based beer analyst with Veritas Investment Research Corp., "but no one's figured out a way to do it effectively yet."

One of the big risks of marketing to women is the possibility of turning a popular brew into a "chick beer," one no self-respecting Canadian guys' guy would drink. (This began to happen to Coors Light a few years back when the company tried woman-friendly commercials, says Palmer. "It just never went anywhere. Then they went back to courting men with their T&A ads, which have worked really well over the last few years.")

Some brands, including many imports and micro-brews, which are extremely popular among women, have attempted to keep their advertising gender-neutral -- focusing on the product rather than the consumer. Others are experimenting, though trepidatiously, with incorporating women as active players into their light and low-carb beer ads in particular. "What we're attempting to show over time," says Les Hine, marketing director for Molson, "is men and women interacting as friends and equals -- just a bunch of people out there having a good time."

But don't expect to see an ad featuring a bunch of women sitting on a dock, listening to Sarah McLachlan and guzzling Bud anytime soon. "It wouldn't make sense," says Teresa Cascioli, president and CEO of Lakeport Brewing Co. (and the country's only top female beer executive), whose brand is among the four top domestic sellers in Ontario. "You have to ask, where are you best using marketing dollars? We're catering to the guy who likes to pound them back and, like it or not, he likes to see the babes and bikinis. That's the reality of the business we're in." Which pretty much means the only way for beer to become an equal-opportunity beverage -- like coffee, gin and most other drinks under the sun -- is men are going to have to learn to sip. Or women are going to have to start chugging.



Note: Lianne George| Macleans.ca

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