A favourite question of journalists interviewing beer people is, "If you were a beer, what would you be?"
Seven years ago, before I was a beer person myself, I asked a Wellington brewer named Stu McKinlay this question. Although he hadn't yet become the craft beer poster boy he is today, he knew how to deliver a good soundbite. "I'd be an Orval," he said, referring to a moderately challenging Trappist ale - exactly the kind of beer a brewer would claim to resemble, "Complex, unusual, and worth getting to know."
At that point I had never heard of Orval, much less got to know it. My experience with beer had been limited to cans of Tui at high school parties (occasionally shaken up and
punctured - a technique called "shotgunning", which allowed you to consume the whole thing in 30 seconds flat), jugs of Speights at university and a little Belgian number called Stella Artois when I was feeling posh.
The most adventurous thing I had ever ordered was Guinness. "A meal in a glass," I liked to call it, because this was something I'd heard my dad say once. I'd also heard you could survive off it for ages - maybe a year, maybe forever - because it was so full of iron, vitamins and Irish luck.
When I interviewed Stu I was 23, back living at Mum's house after a break-up and trying to get a portfolio together for my journalism school application. I had been asking everyone I knew for potential story ideas and almost all of them had been useless. "You should write a story about how movie popcorn is a f***ing rip-off," one friend offered via Facebook. Another suggested I cover her niece's Christmas ballet recital. ("She's the next Anna Pavlova - in that she's literally playing a pavlova, lol.")
When an ex-colleague suggested I interview her cousin about his new brewing venture, I figured I might at least get a beer out of it.
Stu and I met one afternoon at The Malthouse on Courtenay Place - at that point Wellington's only speciality beer bar. Hashigo Zake would open later that year and several more would quickly follow, but the "craft beer capital" slogan was still just a twinkle in the city council's eye.
As soon as Stu and I sat down at one of the Malthouse's high wooden tables, it became painfully apparent that I wasn't a real journalist. For starters, I didn't have any questions prepared, nor, for that matter, a pen and paper. All I'd bought with me was my mum's digital recorder, which still had patient notes from her endocrinology clinic saved to it.
"Which paper did you say you were from again?" Stu asked, when I hit the wrong button and someone's thyroid test results started playing. "The Wellingtonian,", I told him, which was only mostly a lie. In truth I'd never set foot in their office, but the editor had agreed to print my piece if he liked it.
Stu ordered us a large bottle of a Belgian strong ale called McChouffe, which was rich and sweet and quite obviously the finest beer I'd ever tasted. I sipped it enthusiastically - probably too enthusiastically - while he told me about the new brewing company he was about to launch with his friend Sam. It would be called Yeastie Boys and their first beer was Pot Kettle Black. He described it as a cross between a porter and an IPA, with a taste like liquid orange chocolate cake.
"So hang on. Hang on a minute," I said incredulously (I would have spit out my beer for effect if it wasn't so expensive), "You're telling me there's beer out there that tastes like Jaffas, and all this time I've been drinking beer that tastes like beer?"
I felt at once cheated and exhilarated and a bit drunk. There was a whole world of exotic ales and lagers out there, yet I had been led to believe that spraying a can of Tui into my mouth sideways was the biggest beer-related thrill-ride on offer.
"What else can beer do?" I asked.
As far as interviews go, it was a flop. I got home afterwards and realised I hadn't turned on the recorder, so I had nothing but my McChouffe-softened memory to rely on. None of that mattered though. Over the course of our two-hour conversation, Stu had blown my mind with descriptions of beers that were smoky, salty and even sour. He'd told me about the growing number of craft brewers in New Zealand who were taking on DB and Lion, and about a new festival called Beervana, where I could experience the revolution for myself. I had left feeling elated, tipsy, and determined to be a part of it all.
Two years later I got around to it. The year in between, I spent getting a post-graduate diploma in journalism, during which I was too poor and too busy to meet my most basic
nutritional needs, let alone indulge in $10 IPAs.
But in 2011, once I'd landed a real job and was in a better position to take up drinking as a hobby, I started a blog. It was called Beer for a Year, and for it I drank and wrote about a different beer every day for a year. Beer for a Year was and forever will be my Everest.
I may have blagged my way into writing a book on beer since, but nothing will ever reach the giddy heights of that malt-fuelled, hops-soaked year of beer blogging.
Last month I spoke at the Nelson Readers and Writers Festival. A journalist in the front row asked me the question I'd put to Stu McKinlay all those years ago. If I was a beer, what would I be? My mind went blank, and I cursed myself for not pre-preparing an answer. "Maybe an 8 Wired Cucumber Hippy," I said eventually. "Because I'm cool. You know... Like a cucumber."
Somebody at the back of the room coughed. Sensing the audience wasn't buying it, I reached into my jacket and pulled out a pocket knife and a can of Tui.
"Watch this," I said.
Is there such a thing as a woman's beer?
While working as a bartender, there was a question I'd often get asked that made me uncomfortable. Surprisingly it wasn't, "What's a famous blogger like you doing clearing glasses?", although of course I asked myself that daily. No, the question was: "Can you recommend a girls' beer?"
Every time it caused me to flinch a little. Nothing perceptible to the customer of course, just a slight clenching of the buttocks and a flicker of exasperation that got smothered with a toothy smile.
Here's the truth: I couldn't recommend girls' beers any more than I could recommend flattering cargo shorts or fun ways to exercise, because these things don't really exist. I mean, I can see why it's useful to assign a sex to some products - underwear, for example, although by all means shop in whichever section you prefer. But beer? It's a beverage. You wouldn't ask a waiter to recommend a wine to match your genitalia, so why, when it comes to beer, should it be any different?
One assumption I often hear about gender and beer is that women don't like the bitter taste of hops, and therefore prefer sweeter or more mellow-tasting beer styles. If that's the case then I'm the exception, and so are my mother and sister, along with most of my girlfriends and all the women I know in the beer community.
Anecdotal evidence aside, though, what does science have to say? Well, studies suggest there are some links between our nether regions and taste preferences, but nothing as clear-cut or broad as "women can't handle hops". Research by Rutgers University in 2002 found that women of reproductive age (that's me for a diminishing number of years, as Mum likes to remind me) are better at picking up on certain odours than men and women of other age groups. Another study, at Yale University in 2003, found women are more likely than men (35 per cent vs 15 per cent) to be "supertasters", people born with relatively more taste buds than the average person. If you're one of those people who gets teased for ordering mild butter chicken and thinking hoppy beer tastes like bile, the good news is you probably just have a superior tongue.
But do either of these studies show we can tell what kind of beers a person will like based on gender? Absolutely not. From the minute we are born, numerous things can influence our tastes and preferences. Add to that the fact gender and assigned sex are not one and the same thing, and you realise just how useless (and kind of offensive) it is to make assumptions.
What about the fact that way more men than women drink beer? And they do: women make up only a fifth of the beer market in the United States, and although there aren't reliable recent figures, it's likely to be an even smaller percentage in New Zealand. Not that you need statistics. The imbalance is so obvious I still get people saying to me, always very well-meaning of course, 'It's so cool that you know about beer and you're a chick.'
The reason women drink less beer, I reckon, has nothing to do with the way beer tastes and everything to do with advertising - the last 40-odd years of it specifically. Based on my extensive research (a full afternoon searching "old beer ads" on the internet), it seems beer advertising in the 1950s and 60s was friendlier towards women, probably because they were the ones doing all the shopping. American brands like Schlitz and Budweiser typically showed thin, glamorous couples drinking beer together at home, often while carrying out such wholesome activities as carving pumpkins, interior decorating, and entertaining guests with dodgy looking plates of Jell-O salad.
By the 70s, however, there was a shift. Beer ads no longer showed men in their boring old houses with their boring old wives, but alone or with other men doing fun, macho stuff. Stuff like playing poker, hanging out in dark bars, and just generally being rugged outdoors. These ads featured the kind of man who could grow a moustache at the drop of a hat, lasso a wild bear from 20 paces, and would rather die than order a glass of chardonnay.
As for us ladies, we were relegated to one of two rather sad roles. I will call these the "obstacle" and the "prize". The obstacle is the dreary wife or clingy girlfriend who tries to get in the way and spoil all the man-fun (search Carlton's "The Nagging Wife" on YouTube for a perfect example). The prize is the busty, scantily clad babe who will presumably sleep with anyone who drinks the beer. In print ads, I've noticed, this woman is often the same size as the bottle she's standing next to, presumably to confuse the male viewer into thinking she and the beer are one and the same.
After decades of ads like this, we've got the message loud and clear: beer is a drink not just for boys but for men. Rough, manly men who like their beers cold, their pursuits dangerous, and their women the shape and size of Barbie dolls. It's no wonder the products advertised haven't been hugely successful with women, but then big beer companies never seemed to want our lame lady-money anyway. Why bother, when they have always done so well with men? At least, that seems to have been the attitude until quite recently, which brings me back to this idea of beers for girls.
They do exist. Or at least they did a few years back, and this is where they are probably best left and forgotten. These beers - prompted, no doubt, by a worldwide decline in overall beer consumption - were the result of clumsy attempts by breweries to win back women after forty years of neglect. British beer writer Melissa Cole describes the move as "the business equivalent of someone breaking up with you horribly at school, only to beg you to come back in your mid-30s".
Instead of trying to market their existing ranges to women, many companies created a brand new breed of "feminine" beers. Prettily packaged and light in alcohol, calories and taste, these targeted brews all had the same basic premise: that in order for a beer to appeal to women it needed to not resemble beer in the slightest.
I can only speak for myself here, but if beer companies want to attract more females - and they should, because we make up half the potential market - they need to remove gender from the equation altogether. Maybe take a leaf out of wine's book and talk about the product itself - who made it, what it tastes like, the terroir and stuff - rather than focusing on the type of person who should be drinking it.
Within the craft beer sector, that's what happens most of the time. Craft brewers love nothing more than talking about their own creations (have you ever met one in a bar?), and even if they wanted to they probably couldn't afford to pay models - even miniature ones - to pose in bikinis. Their marketing tends to be limited to social media, and focuses on subjects like yeast strains, hop varieties and what type of French oak the beer was aged in. This may be boring to some people, but at least it's boring in a gender-neutral way.
One question remains unanswered. If there's no such thing as girls' beer, what was it the people who asked for it wanted? And, for the record, it was just as often men ordering "something girlie for the missus" as it was women ordering for themselves. Did they want beer that was pink? Strawberry cheesecake-flavoured? Served from a glass shaped like Channing Tatum's chiselled torso? No. (Well, there might have been a few takers for that last one.) When I asked, I found most of them did not really know what they meant by "girls' beer". They just thought it was a thing we would have, like low-alcohol or gluten-free.
You'll be pleased to know I did not sequester these customers with long rants about the problematic history of gendered beer advertising. Nor did I say, "Well I'm a girl and I like this one" and slam down a chilli-infused double IPA in front of them. I'm proud to say I handled these requests with the grace, wit and charm of someone who clearly was born to work in hospitality: I told them we'd run out.
Edited extract from How to Have a Beer by Alice Galletly (Awa Press, $26), available now.