Academic and student collaborate over beer

A showcase of female brewers in 2015 sparked an interest in researching women and craft beer for Victoria University of Wellington senior lecturer Dr Kathleen Kuehn.

Dr Kuehn, from the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies, specialises in digital media, web cultures, branding, and consumer culture.

“I went along to the showcase out of surprise that women-owned breweries existed in New Zealand. I was a huge craft beer lover, but had never considered that women brewed beer. As a feminist and an academic who researches cultural labour, I felt a great deal of shame about my lack of knowledge. Why wouldn’t other women who also love beer be making beer?”

At the beer tasting and discussion of brewing methods and flavour profiles by Annika Naschitzki, Tiamana Brewery’s head brewer and owner, Dr Kuehn sat writing lists of potential research questions. She soon started researching answers, with the help of Media Studies and Law undergraduate student Sophie Parker.

“Sophie was my 2016 summer scholar. I found her research and analytical contributions so strong and helpful that we agreed to co-author the publication if she agreed to help me finish it after the scholarship ended. I’m very lucky she agreed to stay on board. She offered a lot of useful insights to the project.”

Dr Kuehn and Sophie believe that New Zealand’s cultural history and national identity is intertwined with beer drinking.

“Beer has played a central role in our nation’s settler history,” Dr Kuehn says. “Drinking beer was a ritual shared after long days of physical labour for male migrants–to the point where in 1878, the New Zealand Herald declared beer as ‘the national beverage of New Zealand’ and ‘the beverage of the working man’.

“To be a true, authentic New Zealander is to be a beer-drinking kiwi bloke. Lots of contemporary mainstream beer brands have drawn on this trope in their advertising to reinforce beer as a masculine beverage in New Zealand,” says Dr Kuehn.

“There’s no female equivalent to this trope that bears the same level of authority and entitlement,” says Sophie.

As more women enter the craft beer industry, Dr Kuehn and Sophie see new opportunities to reframe the cultural references.

“We are still surprised at how few women-owned craft breweries there are. Our research suggests that 15 of around 200 craft breweries in the country are women-owned which include a few co-ownerships with men.”

Dr Kuehn and Sophie conducted interviews and a textual analysis of brand strategies used by women-owned beer brands in New Zealand to research how gender identity factors into their marketing.

The main strategy that women brewers (or brewsters) use to tell their brand story is through a narrative of place-based authenticity, which is consistent with how other craft breweries market their brands. This distinguishes them from mainstream macro-brewers that are owned by a handful of multinational corporations and have very little connection to place.

“However, gender identity is largely invisible. While branding can potentially enhance the visibility of women as legitimate producers of beer, New Zealand brewsters maintain craft beer as a Pākeha middle-class masculine cultural form,” says Dr Kuehn.

Sophie sheds some light on why female brewers steer away from making gender a selling point.  “They don’t want to be perceived as being ‘girly beer’ which, of course, suggests that being feminine is somehow implicitly negative and not as culturally legitimate as being masculine. This is true in a lot of cultural and social contexts, craft beer is another.

“Given the importance of authenticity, which includes incorporating your identity into your product, I was surprised by how none of the brewsters were transparent about their gender and used that as their point of difference in their brand strategy. It seems odd to shy away from promoting a feminist beer given the increasing numbers of female craft beer drinkers and the industry being depicted as inclusive,” says Sophie.

Despite women-owned breweries trying to promote a gender-neutral authenticity, Dr Kuehn and Sophie argue that authenticity is actually gendered.

In the wider context of New Zealand’s cultural history, engagement with beer is an engagement with masculinity. So when women use gender-neutral labelling to market their beers as ‘authentically New Zealand’ this actually reinforces a male-coded notion of authenticity—there is engagement with gender even when gender is not explicitly visible or stated,” says Dr Kuehn.

Their research found that even though it is a male-dominated industry, women brewers in New Zealand don’t generally find the industry as sexist as women in Australia and the United States report. They experience the New Zealand craft beer as a very inclusive place.

Dr Kuehn continues to research women in craft beer and she is still processing and collecting fieldwork.

Sophie is spending this summer on a different project, working for charity organisation Mothers Project which connects volunteer female lawyers with incarcerated mothers and helps them to maintain connections with their children. In 2019 Sophie will embark on her fifth and final year of undergraduate study.

Read the full ‘One of the blokes: Brewsters, branding and gender (in)visibility in New Zealand’s craft beer industry’ article on the Sage Journals website.