Being a woman in the beer industry is hard; right now, few would disagree. But being a one-woman-show in the beer industry is a different kind of hard.
The beer industry is made up of a vast array of ancillary businesses that support, promote, and work for or with breweries and brewers, but, like brewing and brewery ownership, these businesses are currently highly male-dominated. While the Brewers Association states that, as of 2021, US brewery owners are 93.5% white, 75.6% male, they do not hold similar statistics for other beer industry businesses.
However, it would be reasonable to assume a parity. Nevertheless, women who love beer are taking the plunge on both sides of the Atlantic and embarking on the complex, challenging, but also enriching journey of opening their own beer industry businesses and non-profits, from bars and bottle shops to beer tours, beer marketing services and diversity-forward creative spaces.
I have had the privilege of knowing and working with several women who have taken on the colossal challenge of starting their own solo beer business. And, I realized that very little had been said about the particular obstacles that women (and indeed anyone who doesn’t identify as cis male) face when launching their own business in an industry that is still both numerically and ideologically dominated by cis white men.
With this in mind, I formulated a panel discussion bringing together five hugely talented and ridiculously hard-working women who have each started their own beer industry business to discuss these challenges and also share what motivates and inspires them, as well as practical tips and advice for other female-identifying and non-binary individuals thinking of starting their own beer businesses.
Here, I will offer a short recap of the panel discussion From Dream To Reality: Women Entrepreneurs Who Have Launched Their Own Beer Industry Businesses at CraftBeerCon 2022 and consider, with input from the panelists, what further steps can be taken by both the beer industry and female and non-binary business owners and aspiring business owners to make the industry more welcoming and navigable for them.
The perfect forum for this discussion was the 2022 CraftBeerCon, the brainchild of solo woman beer industry business founder Jen Price. Price has been making waves in the local and national beer scene for some time as an author, advocate, Cicerone certified beer server, co-founder of Craft Women Connect, and creator of Crafted For Action, a platform addressing the systemic racism, sexism, and gender inequalities in the beer industry.
As Crafted For Action’s signature event, CraftBeerCon, now in its second year, is a hybrid virtual and in-person event combining panel discussions, talks, learning opportunities, meet-ups, and tastings, all to work towards making the industry more diverse, equitable, and accessible.
With its advocacy for women business owners in beer and its educational and community-building elements, this panel was a precise fit with the goals of the CraftBeerCon. Price was keen to schedule the panel as part of the conference and bring this critical conversation involving women from both sides of the Atlantic to her audience. “Once I read the session proposal, I knew that I would select it as a panel for CraftBeerCon 2022. It fit perfectly with the conference’s goals, which is to not only elevate new voices but also give actionable insights to the viewer,” says Price.
The panel was made up of Elle Thomas, owner of in-person and virtual beer tour company AirBrewNB, Linda Birch, owner of craft beer bar and bottle shop Brewery Market, Pip Young, founder of The Coven, a project to support and promote female-identifying and non-binary individuals in the beer industry, Julie Rhodes, owner of Not Your Hobby Marketing, and Lindsay Malu Kido, founder and editor of Beer Is For Everyone, an online platform and writer collective advocating for diversity in the beer industry.
Bringing together a group of women working in very different aspects of the beer industry across two continents, the questions I compiled for the panel discussion aimed to allow the speakers to find common ground in their experiences, discuss shared positives and negatives, and, in line with CraftBeerCon’s educational aims, giving viewers an insight into practical tools, such as raising funding, writing a business plan, work-life balance and mental health awareness.
Having written about diversity in craft beer for several years now, I was in a strong position to find suitable candidates to take part in the panel and knowledgeable enough about their businesses and professional journeys to correctly anticipate an immediate synergy in the group, one that carried the discussion above and beyond the usual conference panel tempo to something much more akin to a group of girlfriends discussing their work week over a few beers.
The energy and synergy were high, the laughter pealing, and the warmth and camaraderie strong enough to affect the audience, whose affirming positive feedback added to the buoyant atmosphere. The creation of a space where women business owners were not there to be tokenized or to justify their existence, but instead of being on the periphery of the discussion were instead front and center was a new and rewarding experience across the panel, and the overarching goal of hosting a discussion by women business owners for women business owners.
The entire panel discussion is available to watch online on the Crafted For Action YouTube channel, but there are a few key takeaways to highlight. The panelists discussed their ‘lightbulb moments’ – finding gaps in the market that allowed them to lean into their particular passion professionally and the perseverance, determination, and exceptional time management it took to transfer those ideas into physical businesses.
For Elle Thomas, the need to change the conversation and prove that it’s not shocking or unusual for a woman to be knowledgeable about beer was a significant motivator. All the panelists spoke positively about the desire to be their own boss. Julie Rhodes highlighted her intention to create a career path that fitted around her family life, as did Pip Young, who also highlighted women’s historic roles as brewers and alewives, and the elements of alchemy and witchcraft binding us to beer.
Linda Birch emphasized the desire to create a local space to integrate craft beer with her community on her own terms. At the same time, Lindsay Malu Kido spoke about a direct desire to bring greater diversity into the industry proactively.
There was also an honest and direct discussion about the logistical challenges of starting a beer industry business as a solo woman – the personal sacrifices of both time and money and the strain this can cause on mental health. “It’s not all rainbows and unicorns,” said Julie Rhodes, underlying the vast ups and downs that come from having your own beer industry business.
Pip Young compared the experience to a Ferris wheel – “It looks great, but you feel a bit sick when you’re on it!” – to strong concurrence from the other panelists. Elle Thomas emphasized the worry and stress that comes with providing for your own livelihood and that of your employees. All agreed that looking after their mental health was challenging but essential.
The juggling act of managing your business as a ‘side hustle’ alongside another job and the difficulties and opportunities of parenting as a solo woman business owner were discussed in detail. Linda Birch and Lindsay Malu Kido talked through the creative ways they raised money to start their businesses, including Linda AirBnBing her flat and Lindsay playing professional poker.
With women having less access to traditional sources of finance and solo business owners lacking partners to lean on, these stories provided practical and educational information for viewers, as did the following part of the discussion, which covered the critical subject of beneficial business ownership. The panelists agreed that the internet is an invaluable resource, so the conversation went beyond Google to highlight the value of mentorship, skill-sharing, library membership, and practical field research.
The thorny subject of failure, both perceived and financial, brought consensus on both the need for thorough planning and strong self-belief. Rhodes’ assertion that she could not fail because she needed to provide for her family was very deeply felt, and Kido’s optimistic assertion that if she failed, she would get back up again, no matter what, also resonated powerfully with the journey each of these women has taken.
Young reminded the panel and viewers, “Somebody somewhere has done it, mucked up and learned – so you don’t have to,” and most importantly, “Be kind to yourself and don’t panic if you fail, because not trying is the true failure.”
In conclusion, the panel discussed the importance & value of women-led businesses and reached several complementary conclusions. Birch emphasized the importance of making small changes within a local community and the momentum that this can build. At the same time, Kido highlighted the need for representation and how it directly impacts accessibility within the industry.
Thomas raised the need for spaces where women can safely thrive in the industry and work to a timetable that meets their life needs, which Rhodes also mentioned. The idea that a diverse industry is a healthier industry, creating a better working environment from which everyone benefits, was the amalgamation of these ideas.
Young asserts the need for diversity as the foundation for sustainability – through thought, culture, and representation, and the essential need for the beer industry to evolve and diversify to keep itself fresh and relevant to ensure its survival and success. The discussion concluded on this positive and upbeat note, with a strong sense that this was the beginning of a conversation with the potential to grow.
Why was the panel important?
Speaking with the panelists after the event, all agreed that this was a meaningful discussion that they felt had benefitted them to be a part of but was also significant to industry development. The way that the panel alleviated the loneliness of being a solo woman business owner was a key point that came up.
“It’s great to know there are women out there like myself, so I do not feel alone,” said Linda Birch. Conference organizer Jen Price also found a sense of community when viewing the panel. “Being a solopreneur is a lonely game. It’s a lot of work and weight to carry a business alone, and the vulnerability and honest experiences shared during the discussion really resonated with me,” she said.
Sharing similar transatlantic experiences was also another significant point. For Lindsay Malu Kido, this was unsurprising. “Both the US and UK have foundations in a patriarchal system,” she said, “Therefore, systemically, there is a long, historical underpinning of barriers for women and non-binary individuals within hegemonically male-dominated fields. The challenges that we face are similar because of that shared commonality.”
Understanding patriarchy as an international force was consistent in the panelists’ feedback. It again highlighted the importance of the kind of collaboration and information-sharing the panel involved. “I think the impact of a patriarchal mindset across the globe has affected women’s role in various industries, including libations where our role has shifted primarily into marketing and selling beer versus the historical role women held brewing beer. I am grateful for spaces like Crafted for Action that bring us together to engage in important transformative conversations,” said Elle Thomas.
Linda Birch commented on the dominance of misogyny in corporate life and the need for the international beer industry to prioritize pushing back against that template.
Having a space to share and celebrate their successes and the hope that this inspired also mattered dramatically to the panelists. “My main takeaway from the panel was hope,” said Lindsay Malu Kido, “It was such a blessing to speak and hear other women in the industry who are pursuing their dreams and breaking the ceiling at the same time. It is such a joy to be able to do passionate work, and I was fully rejuvenated after being a part of the panel.”
“It’s good to know there are a network of women and others out there who are driving to make changes in our little beer industry,” said Linda Birch, and Pip Young added, “It was hopeful to witness and joyful to be part of.” Jen Price felt the same. “It’s great to be reminded that you’re not alone and that there are other people – women – who can identify with your challenges as well as your successes,” she said, “Seeing other women in roles in the beer industry is extremely uplifting and reassuring especially when you’re starting a new business.” Elle Thomas was equally positive.
“My main takeaway was focused on celebrating the multiple women in this space that have been inspired to create a space for women to thrive in the craft beer industry. It is rare for me to see so many women in one space all working for the same goals but pursuing it from different angles,” she said.
In terms of bringing that sense of uplift and reassurance forward, I thought of forming a guild or membership organization precisely for solo female and non-binary beer business owners.
While the Pink Boots Society is now open to all female-identifying and non-binary members of the fermented beverage industry, and its scope as an NFP does include education and professional development opportunities, the kind of organization I suggested would be specifically for women business owners and managers and those aspiring to these roles, and offer a more pro-active hands-on leadership-focused charter, aiming to carry on the conversation started on this panel.
The content of the forum highlighted the unique challenges women and non-binary individuals face in starting their own beer business, particularly on their own, and the need for direct mentorship, information-sharing, peer-to-peer support, legal and practical resources, as well as social and networking opportunities. The panelists resounded in favor of such a body, with firm caveats that it would offer a firm pro-diversity focus.
In the UK, Rachel Auty, head of marketing at Brew York and founder of Harrogate Beer Week and Women on Tap festival, has just launched a Women In Beer Leadership group on Facebook. The group is for anyone who identifies as a woman or as non-binary and is working in – or aspiring to – leadership roles in the beer industry, including self-employed and freelance workers, and has the expressed aim of offering networking and advice opportunities for career progression.
Auty launched the group to address the lack of diverse leadership in the beer industry, which she perceives as a fundamental barrier to change across the industry. “We still see a majority of breweries with white male founders, and – even if they make a pledge to recruit more women in the business – there’s still this ‘glass ceiling’ imposed on beer by the fact that it’s still men at the top,” says Auty, “My personal view is if we can get more women in those top roles, working alongside founders on exec boards and making decisions to influence strategy, the impact of this will positively cascade through the business, developing thriving workplace cultures and diversifying workforces.”
This feeds into the messaging from the CraftBeerCon panel and the panelists’ follow-up. Pip Young founded the Coven out of a desire to support and promote minority groups in beer. “There is a direct link between women being seen in roles and other women being inspired to go for the same roles or create their own path,” she says. Lindsay Malu Kido’s feedback echoes this. “I believe giving people the platform is critical to the amplification and diversification of our beer community,” she said, “We need spaces where these discussions can happen and to further embrace how far we’ve come. There is so much to navigate, and it would be great to be able to connect with others who have been or are going through the same things.”
Auty suggests taking the concept of her Facebook group forward as a forum and potentially a membership organization. With women and non-binary individuals continuing to push forward as industry leaders and wanting to help others climb the ladder, panels, forums, and a potential membership organization to help achieve these goals could be well within sight.