Good Beer Hunting

Not a Face in the Crowd — Wave of Beer Festivals Focus on Women, People of Color


Beer festivals have long been known for their ability to attract large crowds of drinkers, tiny cups being filled with one- or two-ounce pours in event halls, at grassy parks, or on closed-off city streets. Among different locations, these events could have varying themes, focus on different beers and, in general, try to create a unique experience to set themselves apart.

One thing usually stays the same, however. They were—and continue to be—heavily attended by white guys. But this summer may act as pivot.

Grace Weitz, a writer with the site Hop Culture, has spent recent months also acting as organizer for Beers With(out) Beards, an aptly-named, weeklong celebration of beer. In mid-August, hundreds of people will gather in Brooklyn for panel discussions, tap takeovers, and a festival all focused on-and-around women of the beer industry. Of 21 participating breweries, 20 will be sending a female owner, brewer, or other business leader to represent the company. (The remaining business had a brewer that had to drop out for personal reasons.)

"I think there's a need for more people to recognize that women are holding important positions in the industry," she says. "They're also making, for lack of a better term, kickass beer."

As luck would have it, Weitz is clearly not the only one who believes this. During the same August weekend as the culminating Beer With(out) Beards festival, Atlanta will host Dames and Dregs, another event focused on celebrating and empowering women in beer. In Pittsburgh, also on the same day, beer lovers will be attending Fresh Fest, the city's first "Black brew" festival meant to tout some of the country's best black brewers. This spring, Portland, Oregon hosted its annual SheBrew Beer Festival, the FemAle BrewFest returned to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Seattle held the Fierce Ladies Beer Fest.

The coincidence of these demographically-focused beer events all taking place on the same day, at the same time, is powerfully serendipitous when industry leaders acknowledge more needs to be done to welcome beer drinkers who aren’t white males. Big, generic beer festivals with long lines and short pours have slowly been losing steam in recent years as more curated and specialty events have caught attention of enthusiasts willing to shell out hard-earned money for an afternoon of sunshine and beer.

“For the most part, I’ve always lived in a predominantly white neighborhood, so being around people that don’t look like me, I’m pretty accustomed to it,” says Woodie Bonds, co-organizer of Kansas City’s Hip Hops Hooray Beer Fest. “As I got older, I realized there are a lot of people that are not accustomed to coming to an environment and being around people that don’t look like them. It can be very intimidating.”

Bonds helped create the festival, now in its second year, to bridge his love for craft beer and music, but also to provide a physical space in which strangers of different races and backgrounds might get together. Recognizing similarities in tastes—through beer or hip hop—is an easy way to build relationships, if not some level of understanding.

“I’ve met a lot of people that may have felt I was going to be a certain type of way, but when we sit down and talk and they get to know me, they realize I’m exactly the same as they are,” Bonds says.

By the Brewers Association’s own admission, this is the kind of thing that needs to be done. In recent demographic analysis of monthly craft beer drinkers, the trade organization found that while minority craft drinkers have grown in absolute terms, percentage growth had not increased much from 2015-2018. Three years ago, non-white drinkers comprised 13.7%, according to poll data and that number has increased to 14.5% this year.

“Lining that up with the total population/craft drinker data, that means that, from 2015-2018, 81% of new craft drinkers were white, and 19% came from minority groups,” BA chief economist Bart Watson wrote on the Brewers Association’s website. “Given that only 68.7% of the 21+ U.S. population is non-Hispanic white, that’s not progress.”

Watson noted that the number of minority craft drinkers is growing “only because the total population of craft drinkers is growing, not because craft drinkers are getting more diverse along racial lines.”

“I’ve been to so many craft beer festivals and I love the vibe,” says Bonds, whose festival will raise money for nonprofits studying the neurodevelopmental disorder, Rett syndrome, and another that provides food, clothing, and education opportunities to those in need. “It’s a perfect way to bring people together.”

The news is more positive for the overall male-to-female ratio of craft drinkers, perhaps boding well for the influence of beer festivals like Beers With(out) Beards.

In a January 2018 survey by DataQuencher, a marketing research firm focused on craft brewery analytics, 44% of female craft beer drinkers said they planned to attend a beer festival in the next year—a 10% higher response rate than males. Women also responded in higher numbers (82%) to agree with the statement that "beer festivals are a great place to discover new breweries." Males agreed at a 76% rate.

Through its own survey data, the Brewers Association found that, in the last three years, the number of female consumers drinking craft “several times a year” went from 29.1% to 31.5%. Tracking monthly craft drinkers who are female was about the same, sitting at 31.1%.

When breaking monthly drinkers down into particular geographic areas, results still give something of a mixed bag. Across 77 major metro markets, the survey between the Brewers Association and Nielsen found that 35 areas were above that monthly average of 31.1% monthly female craft drinkers, including outliers like Portland, Oregon (52.7%), Albuquerque/Santa Fe (49.6%) and Denver (38.7%). Forty-two locations were below the 31.1% threshold. New York City (29.5%), where Weitz’ festival will be held in August, was among them. Atlanta (17.3%) was particularly notable and could benefit from an event like Dames and Dregs as a way to attract more female craft drinkers.

Weitz says she sees the potential with her festival in the same way Bonds does. She wants to provide a space where conversations might circle issues of diversity and inclusion, but ultimately focus on the shared reason that brought everyone together: beer.

“Our feeling is there are women out there who want to get into craft beer, but don’t know how, or see it’s a male-dominated space and that turns them off,” Weitz says. “Having our festival spread out over a week creates all these points of entry for women who may not have felt comfortable before.”

—Bryan Roth