Beer Birthday: Melissa Cole

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Today is the 39th birthday of Melissa Cole, UK beer writer extraordinaire. I’d met Melissa first online and then in person at the Rake in London a few years ago. She’s also been coming over to our side of the pond to judge at both GABF and the World Beer Cup. She’s a great advocate for beer generally, but especially for women, and is great fun to hang out and drink with. She also writes online at Taking the Beard Out of Beer! which is subtitled “A Girl’s Guide To Beer.” Her first book, Let Me Tell You About Beer, was published not too long ago. Join me in wishing Melissa a very happy birthday.

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At the Great British Beer Festival three years ago, with Roger Protz.

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Melissa with Greg Koch, from Stone Brewing, at GABF in 2009.

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The Lost Abbey’s Tomme Arthur with a blushing Melissa at the World Beer Cup dinner in Chicago a few years ago.

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A couple of years ago at the Rake in London, Melissa and Matt Brynildson, from Firestone Walker.

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With friends at University sometime between 1993-97 (photo purloined from Facebook).

The Unintended Consequences Of Prohibitionist Propaganda

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So I know this is one of those thorny issues that tends to fire people up and argue from an emotional point of view. That being said, the issue of a woman drinking when pregnant is a tough one, especially because the science is not exactly as settled as people believe. My understanding is that it’s not clear how drinking effects an unborn fetus, though a significant amount of drinking has been shown to have potentially disastrous consequences. Generally speaking, a modest amount of drinking probably won’t do any lasting damage, especially in the very early stages of pregnancy. But since when and how much are fairly unknown with any precision, doctors, and the medical community as a whole, have tended to recommend that a woman abstain from drinking during pregnancy. And that seems almost reasonable, except for the fact that prohibitionist and anti-alcohol groups have taken that advice as sacrosanct without really examining the science behind it and have done their best to shame women who might have an occasional drink and make them feel as guilty as humanly possible.

For example, WebMd says. “For decades, researchers have known that heavy drinking during pregnancy can cause birth defects. But the potential effects of small amounts of alcohol on a developing baby are not well understood. Because there are so many unknowns, the CDC, the U.S. Surgeon General, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Academy of Pediatrics advise pregnant women not to drink alcohol at all.” But again, that’s just because they don’t really know, not because it’s proven that any amount of alcohol is harmful. If you do a quick search, you’ll find that a lot of websites claim that pregnant women should never drink because, as most of them put it, “[t]here is no known safe amount of alcohol that you can consume if you are pregnant.” But that’s misleading. It’s not so much that no amount is safe so much as the amount that is safe is not known with precision, and for every person. I know that sounds like I’m splitting hairs, but I think it’s an important distinction. There are safe levels of drinking alcohol that would have no effect on a woman’s pregnancy, and for any given woman that amount would differ, but so far we don’t know how to calculate that amount, so instead doctors recommend abstaining. But that’s very different from hounding women who might have the occasional drink or acting as if they’re actively or willfully harming their unborn fetus.

It’s quite easy to find this scaremongering in all sorts of places. Not surprisingly, Alcohol Justice, who is a leading propagandist, regularly tweets “Save Babies From Birth Defects: Don’t Drink While Pregnant,” with a link to International Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Awareness Day Aims To Help Save Babies From Birth Defects: Don’t Drink While You’re Pregnant. Which would be reasonable, except for the fact that the Medical Daily piece is littered with exactly the sort of absolutist misinformation I’m talking about.

There’s a common misconception that it’s safe to drink during certain points in the pregnancy, or that one glass of wine or beer is harmless. It has been almost 30 years since the medical community recognized mothers who drank alcohol while pregnant could result in a wide range of physical and mental disabilities, but still, one in 13 pregnant women reports drinking in the past 30 days and one in six reports binge drinking. Fetal alcohol syndrome can be devastating, which is why a day [September 9] has been dedicated to spreading the awareness and clearing up the truth for mothers to understand that anything they eat and drink affects the baby.

The NIH’s Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism branch has supported years of research to reveal the dangers and understand when developmental problems within the womb begin. Babies who are born with fetal alcohol syndrome have been born small and premature, develop problems eating, sleeping, seeing, hearing, learning, paying attention in school, controlling their behavior, and may even need medical care through their life. The severity of drinking alcohol while pregnant cannot be underplayed because of the profound confirmed health effects that could follow a child throughout their life.

Every pregnancy is different and unique to the mother’s health, genetic composition, and the baby. According to the NIH, drinking alcohol the first or second month of pregnancy can hurt the baby with irreversible health consequences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention backs up the NIH by saying there is no safe level of alcohol to use during pregnancy. If drinking continues throughout the pregnancy, babies are likely to develop fetal alcohol syndrome with characteristic facial features such as a wide set of eyes, smooth ride on the upper lip, and a thin upper lip border. But that’s only the surface, because within the brain lies the possibility of intellectual disabilities, speech and language delays, and poor social skills.

Unfortunately, the “truth” as they put it is not exactly the whole truth, nor is it the same advice given universally by the medical community, despite the fact that both the NIH and the CDC take the absolutist point of view just to be safe. That these government agencies here, and in other places, take this position without actually explaining why, or even how they arrived at it and the uncertainty about it, seems to me a condescending way to treat people. I know, or hope, they mean well, and the goal is to bring healthy babies into the world. Everyone agrees that frequent drinking or drinking large quantities of alcohol while pregnant is a terrible idea, but not giving women all of the facts is yet another example of the medical community talking down to people and treating them with condescension. And it’s taking its toll on some women in unexpected ways, as I’ll explain later.

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More recent studies are beginning to show that in fact the occasional drink is not only harmless, but in some cases beneficial. For example, a 2013 study at Harvard found “no connection between drinking alcohol early in pregnancy and birth problems” and at the University College London, they found “Light drinking in pregnancy not bad for children.” Others found A Drink A Day While Pregnant Is OK and Moms Who Drink Wine While Pregnant Have Better Behaved Kids. Yet another recent New study shows no harm from moderate drinking in pregnancy. Likewise, Moderate drinking during pregnancy may not harm baby’s neurodevelopment and the Parenting Squad says that Yes, You Can Drink While Pregnant.

In Is It OK to Drink While Pregnant? Why Scientists Really Don’t Know, the author details why it is that the science is so difficult to pin down, and as such many doctors advise abstaining altogether. One of the problems with this contrary advice is that some people who are convinced that any alcohol represents a danger to an unborn fetus and they make life difficult for anyone who’s received different advice, or who has looked at the issue and come to a different conclusion. Despite it being unsettled, some states have, or are considering, passing laws to punish women who have the temerity to have a drink while pregnant. Both of my wife’s baby doctors advised her the occasional drink was not a problem, and even told her that if it helped her relax was a positive. She tended to have a drink only every so often, rarely even, and I certainly enjoyed the months of having a designated driver. But many other women report having been publicly shamed, ridiculed and punished for drinking while pregnant in public. At least one person reports being accosted for simply buying alcohol (it was for a party and she had no intention of drinking it) and I suspect that’s not an isolated incident. The clerk at the liquor store acted like it was against the law for her to simply purchase it.

Many have written about their experiences with alcohol during pregnancy and are worth reading. See, for example, Take Back Your Pregnancy, by an economist writing for the Wall Street Journal. And for Slate, Emily Oster explains herself in “I Wrote That It’s OK to Drink While Pregnant. Everyone Freaked Out. Here’s Why I’m Right.” In addition, Dr. Peggy Drexler, a research psychologist and gender scholar, examined the history and psychology of shaming such women in A Loaded Question: On Drinking While Pregnant. Not surprisingly, it’s only been since 1981 that the U.S. Surgeon General’s took the official position pregnant women should completely abstain from drinking alcohol. And for a while, drinking among pregnant women declined, but since 2002 has been on the rise again, though it’s the “‘every now and then’ glass of wine or two” rather than binge drinking and the biggest demographic to see this increase is “college-educated women between 35 and 44.” Her answer to why “as a whole we continue to judge women who opt to have that occasional glass of wine,” is that “[w]e’re so fully entrenched in the age of over-parenting — having opinions, and voicing them, about how other people raise their kids — that, it seems, we can’t help but start in before the baby is actually born.”

Similarly, in a lengthy piece for Boston Magazine, Pregnant Pause?, author Alyssa Giacobbe details this explanation.

“As soon as you’re pregnant, or have a baby, it’s like all bets are off,” says Kara Baskin, a 33-year-old mother of a two-year-old boy. “People can say whatever they want, touch whatever they want, make whatever comments they want.” A few years back, she was at a Starbucks when the barista asked her, “Are you supposed to be having any caffeine when you’re pregnant?” She wasn’t pregnant — it was just the shirt — but of course that didn’t matter. She ran out crying.

Of course, it wasn’t always that way. My mother drank, and most likely smoked, while she was pregnant with me. If you’re close to my age, or older, your Mom probably did, too. Entire generations did, and while it would be hard to argue that children today aren’t better off thanks to their mothers watching what they consumed or what they did while pregnant, our species made it pretty far before 1981 just by being sensible.

But back to Dr. Drexler, who concluded with these words of wisdom.

This is not a call to drink while pregnant, or to be careless in any way. We know much more now than our own mothers did, and that’s an advantage. But years of experience studying gender and working with families have shown me, time and again, that mothers get a bad rap. This can create needless fear, anxiety, and self-doubt. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the tendency to assign blame, constantly monitor, and voice our every opinion about the choices other mothers make. After all, isn’t the prospect of having a baby daunting enough?

Indeed, I think we can all agree that over-indulging during pregnancy is not a good idea. But making hard and fast rules, giving people a hard time about it, or even punishing them socially, or legally, is going too far. Which brings me back to my statement earlier that this is “taking its toll on some women in unexpected ways.” An article last week in London’s Telegraph, Pre-pregnancy test binge-drinking: 5 myths busted, detailed the darker side of humiliating pregnant women with the abstinence only propaganda so commonly employed by prohibitionist groups.

Most women try and follow the existing guidelines, or avoid alcohol altogether.

But what about those who don’t know they’re pregnant? What about the women who have spent the first few weeks of their pregnancy binge drinking, because they had no idea they were unexpectedly expecting?

Today, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) said that many women are so shocked to discover they’ve been binge drinking through the early stages of pregnancy, that they consider having an abortion.

The organisation reports an increase in women who are so worried about having unknowingly harmed their baby that they’re enquiring about ending what would otherwise have been a wanted pregnancy. BPAS is now trying to reassure pregnant women that this is not necessary.

That’s right, some women have been so traumatized by the scaremongering propaganda out there about binge drinking that they’re considering terminating their pregnancy, that is having an abortion rather than risk giving birth. The BPAS is now scrambling to reassure women that they don’t need to go to such extreme measures, and author Radhika Sanghani takes on five common myths which lead women to consider an abortion, and in the process contradicts much of the absolutist rhetoric and rationale for advising women to completely abstain from alcohol during pregnancy.

What struck me about this story is that it’s a real example of harm being perpetrated on women — not to mention their unborn children — through prohibitionist propaganda. I want to believe that the healthcare community has been giving the abstaining advice in an abundance of caution and with a greatest good sort of mentality to protect women and children. But I have no such illusions about the motives of prohibitionists, who have shown they’ll use any tactic to promote their agenda, and will exaggerate any claim that shows alcohol in a negative light. This is what can happen when propaganda goes unchecked. This suggests that there may be children who were terminated and not given a chance to live full lives thanks to exaggerated propaganda by prohibitionist groups and other anti-alcohol organizations. As my British colleague Pete Brown tweeted when this article first appeared; “Proud of yourselves, Alcohol Concern? These are the, hopefully, unintended consequences of prohibitionist propaganda.

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Next Session Tackles Women In Beer

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For our 81st Session, our host is Nichole Richard — better known to the beer world as “Nitch” — who writes online at Tasting Nitch. She’s originally from the West Coast and lived in Hawaii, as well, has lived in 15 countries on three different continents, and is currently an expat living in France, and trying her best to “create a craft beer movement among cheap wine drinkers.” Her topic for this session asks bloggers to weigh in on the gender issue — Women in Craft Beer Culture. Are they “scary beer feminists?” Or “a healthy growing demographic?”

Feel free to write about what you want as long as it is beer and woman related!

I would love to see some of our historian beer bloggers give a bit of in depth back ground information on history of women in beer culture. Praise Ninkasi and what not, but were there male brewers before the fall of Rome?

Who did most the brewing in early colonized North America?

How is it that most current African brewers are still housewives while modern brewing is male dominated?

Do a feature on a woman in the beer industry!

Have you inspired your significant other to become beer culture involved? Call it, high five your beer loving wife day.

Are there any men out there who think that women in beer is a bad thing? For religious reasons, women aren’t allowed to tour many Trappist breweries and there are still French chefs who believe that a women on her menstrual cycle cannot make whip cream. (Truth.)

Woman’s palate’s are changing the direction of beer! Are women to blame for the recent increase in fruit beers? …

Are there any women out there who are crusading a flag of femininity while milling malt. Tell us your story!

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So two days from now, on Friday, November 1, shake off that post-Halloween hangover and no matter which gender you are, weigh in on the female half of humanity and their role in craft beer culture.

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SABMiller Testing Beer Brewed For Women

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Depending on your perspective, there’s good and bad news for women who love beer. Yesterday, Marketwatch casually mentioned that “SAB Miller, the world’s second largest brewer, is testing a new line of lighter and sweeter beers. Executives are also planning new ad campaigns geared towards women.” Other CBS affiliates, such as WREG Memphis, picked up the story but added little, apart from saying the new line will be “brewed especially for the ladies.” That’s all the information there is, so far, not even the SABMiller website has any additional information or a press release, at least not yet.

But if you’re one of those of the female persuasion that can be reduced to the stereotype of only liking sweet flavors, and don’t mind being pandered to, this just may be the beer for you. But if you’re a real person, like pretty much every beer lover I know who also happens to be a woman, this is probably just going to piss you off. I honestly don’t understand why the big beer companies keep trying this. Has it ever worked, anywhere in the world? People who understand and can appreciate the complex flavors of a good beer, will like it, irrespective of their reproductive organs. So just make good beer, educate your customers about it, and beer lovers — male and female — will drink it. Why is that so hard?

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New Survey Shows Big Beer Brands Aren’t Reaching Women

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A new survey of women by Insights in Marketing found that while women control 80% of all purchasing decisions, the large beer companies are not doing a good job of reaching them. According to the results, only 6% of women thought ABI is doing a good job reaching them, while 5% liked Coors’ approach and a mere 2% had anything positive to say about Miller’s methods. The survey included 1300 women, and 200 men, across a wide demographic, and asked how they thought top national brands, in a variety of consumer goods, were doing in “effectively marketing their products and services.”

For all products, they found that 49%, or just less than half, thought they did a good job, suggesting that marketing and advertising in general, across the board, could be doing a better job reaching women, but that beer companies are doing a particularly bad job. All three brands surveyed — Bud, Miller & Coors — ranked in the bottom half for all women. Anybody surprised by that result?

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The survey also found some slight differences between generations. For example, Baby Boomers seem to like Miller and Coor’s just fine, but not Budweiser. Gen X thinks Coor’s and Bud are doing great, but Miller, not so much. Millenials didn’t respond well to any of the beer brands, with Miller coming out on top, at just below the middle for all brands (beer and non-beer).
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Beers The Ladies Love

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Today’s infographic was originally created for Valentine’s Day earlier this year, by Save on Brew. I picked today to feature it because it’s Women’s Equality Day. Entitled Beers The Ladies Love, it gives tips for beers to give to the lady or ladies in your life. I’m not sure about their list of “10 Top Rated Craft Beer,” and especially the three that are imports, but they’re pretty good beers, at least. And there’s not a fruit beer in the bunch. It’s certainly better than many other attempts at this sort of thing I’ve seen.

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Click here to see the infographic full size.

Happy International Women’s Day

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As you may be aware, today is International Women’s Day, and although I’m up to my eyeballs in work, I do want to pause and celebrate the many, many women in beer. Time was, beer was an all-boys club, and to a certain few it still is, but I couldn’t be happier to see an ever-increasing number of women attending beer events, writing about it and brewing it. There was a time when brewsters made almost all of the beer, but then men grabbed the reigns and kicked women to the curb. I, for one, think beer was all the poorer for that decision, but then it happened centuries before I had any say in the matter.

Because I don’t want to leave anybody out, I’m not going to even try to list all of the wonderful people I’ve met over the years I’ve been writing about beer who just happen to have been born female. To them, today and really on every day, I raise a toast to you.

Although I’m not naming names, here are a few others who have, and some organizations, too, that are also worth singling out. It’s not complete, of course, and I’m confident there are others I’m forgetting, but suffice it to say I mean to include everyone. To all of you, thanks for what you do, and making the world of beer a better place to work, to play and to enjoy life.

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The Pink Boots Society, founded by Teri Fahrendorf, “created to empower women beer professionals to advance their careers in the Beer Industry through Education.” Today there are nearly 900 members for all facets of the beer industry.

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Barley’s Angels, co-founded (I think) by Lisa Morrison in Portland, Oregon. “Barley’s Angels is a growing collection of individual chapters around the world that work with craft beer focused breweries, brewpubs, restaurants, alehouses and other public beer establishments to advance the female consumer craft beer enthusiast, resulting in increased patronage and revenue from women, while encouraging education and interest in beer among this often under-recognized demographic group.” There are currently 25 chapters in 18 states, plus 12 international chapters in five countries.

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Women Enjoying Beer, started by Ginger Johnson. “Women Enjoying Beer develops and serves the female beer enthusiast. We’re the only organization anywhere doing as much, from the consumer vantage point, to benefit the craft/beer industry.”

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Megan Fox For Brahma Beer

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Today I saw in the UK Sun that American actor Megan Fox is doing ads for Brahma, the Brazilian Budweiser, an especially accurate association since Brahma is part of Anheuser-Busch InBev. Why do we care? We don’t, but I’m game to look at a couple of ads with Megan Fox in them. Isn’t that why advertisers chose her? Of course, it’s still a tasteless, flavorless beer.

As Mais Gostosas do Carnival (The Hottest Carnival)

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Is it just me, or does that beer have his arm around Fox? Is the beer wearing sunglasses because he doesn’t want to be seen with Megan Fox?

Convidando Megan Fox Pra Uma Brahma (Inviting Megan Fox for a Brahma)

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And here she is going off to have a picnic. According to the Sun, she’s flying down to Rio to do a commercial and pose for some more ads.

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Although humorously enough, a few years ago the hipster appeared more partial to Pabst Blue Ribbon. This was taken by paparazzi in 2009. Ah, sex and beer. What’s not to love. It seems to me, the big brewers follow a variation of the old lawyer’s adage. “When the law is on your side, argue the law. When the facts are on your side, argue the facts. When neither the facts nor the law are on your side, make an ad hominem attack.” In the brewer’s world it’s more along these lines. “When the beer tastes good, promote the beer. When the brewery has personality, promote the brewer. When the beer has neither, promote a celebrity, a cartoon, or both.”

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Pandering To Women

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I may not be a woman, but I grew up around them quite a lot as a child, perhaps more than some others (my folks divorced when I was one and I spent most of my formative years among my mother, grandmothers, aunts, etc.) and am fully in touch with my feminine side. Plus, I love quite a few women — one a lot more than others — but count quite a few among my closest friends. So I cringe every time I read about the efforts of big companies to market beer directly to women, believing all it will take to increase market share is more attractive packaging or sweeter flavors. How many of these failed efforts have we endured in just the last decade?

A few days ago, yet another one surfaced, in a Fast Company interview with Carlsberg Group CEO Jorgen Buhl Rasmussen entitled Carlsberg Taps The Next Big Beer Market (Really): Women. This morning, I saw quite a few exasperated tweets and posts from women in the beer industry that I respect, and decided to read the interview. It’s a head-shaker, alright. Riddled with so much wrong, it’s hard to address it all, so I won’t. I’m sure someone will dissect it better than I can.

But, just a few points. First, Rasmussen claims that the “beer category has been suffering in terms of image,” but for just “the last 10 to 15 years.” Um, I can’t actually remember a time when beer wasn’t marketed almost exclusively to men. There are a few post-World War 2 ads that reach out to women — primarily because they were the ones doing the grocery shopping — but by the 1960s it was all men, all the time. And it’s been that way ever since, from the Swedish Bikini Team to Miller’s infamous mud wrestling. But he soldiers on.

Rasmussen and others still think product innovation and marketing brewed drinks toward women is possible. Increasingly, women know about different, palate-friendly beers like Abbey Ales, fruit lambics, ciders, ginger beers, and dark stouts — as well as about the more varied glassware they require and how to pair them with foods. Women want “a less bitter, non-bloating beer that does not give you a malty/hoppy aftertaste and breath,” says Carlsberg spokesman Ben Morton. “Flavor proliferation has become a key feature of beer innovation.”

So what’s the plan? “[H]e wants to come up with new types of drink recipes that can be made in Carlsberg-owned breweries but are lighter in alcohol, refreshing in taste, and perceived as healthy enough to take on wine, champagne, and other drinks vying for women’s dollars.” Rasmussen used to work for Duracell, Gillette Group, Mars, and Unilever, and seems to believe that beer is just the same as marketing razors and candy, but I don’t think that’s true.

Then there’s this bit of wisdom, by Carlsberg’s VP of Marketing, Kirsten Ægidius. “Many young people aren’t keen on the bitter aftertaste of beer.” Uh, huh. That’s why IPA has been the fastest growing category for years.

So I know they can’t help themselves, but I really wish the big beer companies would just stop this insane, asinine belief that reaching women is a matter of finding beer that’s female friendly and is marketed to them like Virginia Slims’ “you’ve come a long way, baby” pandering.

Not surprisingly, I have a lot of female friends who love beer every bit as much as I do. My wife is a beer lover, and probably drinks more beer at home than I do. I know countless female brewers, beer writers and female fans who love craft beer. This is the same craft beer, mind you, that I love, and that every other beer-loving male loves, too. There doesn’t need to be gender-specific beer. That’s a ridiculous notion, but one that keeps resurfacing, even though it fails every single time. I remember an “I Love Toy Trains” video that Porter used to watch when he was younger that showed how in the 1950s Lionel created a toy train set aimed at girls in which all the cars were pastel colors, pink, lavender, etc. It bombed, because the girls who wanted to play with toy trains wanted the same trains that the boys had. It’s hard to imagine why anybody would have thought otherwise.
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So while I hate to speak for women beer lovers, who are quite capable of fending for themselves, I’m just as eager for this nonsense to stop. So here’s a few tips I have for the big beer companies on how to reach women:

  1. Stop pandering to women, just treat them like people.
  2. Stop the obvious sexism in most of your advertising.
  3. Stop ignoring your own involvement in creating the perception that beer is not for women.
  4. Stop assuming women won’t drink anything bitter; coffee is bitter and you don’t see this issue in the coffee industry, do you?
  5. Stop creating packages that you think will appeal to women.
  6. Stop believing that marketing is the answer.