Brewery taprooms have long existed as a casual gathering space for the communities they exist in. There’s always been something special about drinking and hanging out in a taproom versus a bar. Brewery taprooms often have a sense of intimacy through enjoying a beer at the site of its production, possibly even drinking next to the brewer who made it. The authenticity of craft beer and the people within it is what drew me to it in the first place. These taprooms regularly became a space for me to explore styles, test my palette, and connect more with my community. From the very first time I began drinking at breweries, the energy was infectious and I knew I wanted to work in the industry.
Fresh out of college, I moved to Seattle. The transition proved to be a feat. The locals were friendly but I felt like no one wanted to be my friend. The restaurants were incredible but I didn’t have anyone to explore them with. The hiking trails are unmatched, but a lone hiker in her 20s felt like a true crime podcast waiting to happen. It wasn’t until I forced my foot in the beer industry door that I felt I found my people. This industry was full of passionate and knowledgeable folks; people who cared as much about hop blends as they did drinking Rainier at a dive after their shift. We were all there for the same reason: talk about, drink, and connect through beer.
For the most part, customers in the taproom of the first brewery I worked at were great. But every once in a while I’d get a sexist comment, asking what kind of beer “you girls” like. Or have a woman asking me which beer had the lowest amount of calories. Bachelorette parties would make comments about how beer had “too many carbs”. Or perhaps the most damaging, “How do you stay skinny when you drink beer everyday?”. It made me question myself, my knowledge, and how I presented myself as a woman working in beer.
I’ve never liked to label myself as a woman in beer, even though I am. I was annoyed that my gender was inherently linked to my professional work. I tend to shy away from groups focused solely on women in beer, mostly because they often exclude non-binary and non-femme presenting folks. I don’t want to participate in anything that feels exclusionary. Those groups are great for a lot of women, it just doesn’t feel like a fit for me. Lucky for me, I felt incredibly welcomed into the Seattle beer scene, which is something a lot of women cannot relate to in their communities.
There’s a decent amount of gatekeeping by the OG establishers of Seattle’s beer industry, but nothing that went beyond a façade easily broken by asking questions about Belgian Trappist ales. Male insecurity aside, the scene was treating me well and my coworkers made me feel like I did indeed belong there. It was the attitude of many customers that reignited my insecurities surrounding weight and appearance. That topic wasn’t ever something brought up by my peers in the industry, no matter the gender.
“How do you stay so skinny when you drink beer everyday?” It’s a question that seems complimentary on the surface. But for anyone who’s dealt with eating disorders, food insecurity, body dysmorphia, or any issues with body image, that question hits like a ton of bricks. For some, that comment is a confirmation that they are sticking to their fitness and diet goals. For me, it’s a painful reminder that deprogramming body standards established by the white patriarchy is going to be a lifelong journey.
It also begs the question of why a random customer is concerned with my body size in relation to the industry I work in. The obvious answer is that they are projecting their own body insecurities onto me. It’s a mirror held up to society, reflecting the constraints put on all people, that keeps the wheels of American Capitalism turning. If people are content with their bodies, there’s nothing for the multi-trillion dollar health and beauty industries to sell you.
Reporter Michael Hobbes puts it best. “Focusing on our own vanity distracts you from who is creating the standards of vanity”. People mean well for the most part. It is easier to stay ignorant to how little the media and “wellness” companies care about you as an individual. It’s hard to break out of the cycle we’re all conditioned to exist in, looking at the larger socio-economic problems in our society is exhausting and feels defeating. None of this is exclusive to beer. But it does ignite curiosity as to why so many customers are concerned with calories when you’re drinking a beverage that’s essentially liquid bread. Beer isn’t the beverage to be concerned with caloric intake and carbohydrate levels. I typically find that breweries are a space free of that conversation and yet, it’s a constant reminder of the fact that society expects me to watch my figure.
Something shocking happened the longer I worked in beer – those insecurities began to drift away. The more I delved into sensory work and the magic that is brewing beer, the less I cared about what effect it could possibly have on my body. I stopped caring about how many calories malted barley had and more about the specific cracker and bread dough aromas it produced in lagers. I fell in love with beer as a beverage but also everything else that is attached to it including the innate creativity required to brew and the community it fosters. I wasn’t looking at beer as a product but a journey. Because here’s the thing: beer is more than just a beverage; it’s intimacy, an exploration of memories, and a journey in perception. It’s an exercise in human experience, enjoying a beverage that humans have drunk since agricultural-based civilization began. It’s the drink of my ancestors, my culture, and my inherited genealogical memory.
This progress wasn’t just a modern exercise in self-growth. It was an understanding of what beer actually means to me. It can be a way to regulate my nervous system after a busy day at work. Or it can be a way for me to explore my senses and memories and how those are linked. It can be an escape from hyper-criticism of how my existence is perceived by others. My choice to enjoy beer without judgment is a way to prove my individual power against the structures that exist to keep me a cog in the machine.
This awareness also brought about a greater understanding of general body awareness and accessibility. I am a straight-sized woman. While I’ve been subjected to the general sexualization of my gender, I do not understand the way society has purposely excluded anyone of a bigger size. I do not understand the way plus-sized individuals have to navigate a world that was not built for them. Whether that means seating at a bar, access to healthcare, or the horrendous way the concept of obesity is sold to the American public. So if I, a straight-sized white woman, feel this much pressure from the beer industry, how does anyone of a larger size or different appearance feel? I’m so grateful I have been able to make real progress in my body image journey through drinking beer and working in the industry. But it’s also a good opportunity to see how we can use body privilege to help others.
Accessibility can be defined in a few different ways. There’s general physical ability and non-ability. This includes folks who use wheelchairs, canes, crutches, and any other mobility aid that need even-footing and ramps to access spaces. There’s people with medical conditions that can make it hard to communicate including speech impediments and deaf/hard of hearing individuals. There are people of different body sizes who small bar stools or unsupportive seating does not accommodate. Able-bodied and straight-sized people are of course aware that these folks exist. But these groups often go unnoticed if the brewery and taproom staff do not include individuals who are in these groups. It can be easy to focus on aesthetics of design over functionality. But if breweries can make public statements about gender, sexuality, and race amidst social justice movements, then they can put time and effort into making sure their space is truly inclusive and accessible for all.
Breweries and taprooms have functioned as a collective space for communities for as long as they have existed. They are hubs for brewers, servers, bartenders, and the public alike. It is the responsibility of the folks who run and manage those spaces to think about people who don’t look like or exist like them to enjoy the space as well. This means cultivating a culture that is focused on the beauty of beer and maintaining a space that allows everyone to enjoy the beer being made there. And like for me, enjoying beer in an inclusive environment has the potential to be a place to heal body image issues. Beer spaces need to exist as a place where folks can freely be themselves. Beer has been, and always will be for the people. Let’s make sure it stays that way.