For as long as there has been beer, there have been women brewing beer. As far back as ancient Mesopotamia, this task routinely fell to the fairer sex—the Sumerians even had a goddess of beer, Ninkasi—and over time became a tradition that stayed through the Egyptians, Vikings and the Dark Ages, primarily for the reason that it was a domestic method of preparing grains to be consumed by families. Shakespeare went so far as to say of women brewers: “She brews good ale, and thereof comes the proverb, Blessing of your heart, you brew good ale.”
But something changed in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, when a religious fervour gripped the continent during a period known as the Reformation. During this time, male beer brewers saw an opportunity to reduce their competition and set about accusing female brewers—who were often found wearing pointed hats and using cauldrons to brew beer in cauldrons—of witchcraft. As the rumours took root, it became increasingly dangerous for women to be caught brewing beer upon fear of persecution and death, and gradually the profession became dominated by men.
The gender makeup of those involved in beer brewing has hardly changed in the past 300 years, and although the craft beer movement of the past two decades has upturned much in the world of conventional beer, the gender gap has unfortunately held.
In Hong Kong, where the craft beer community is just over a decade old, female representation is better than in the West—Young Master is known within the industry for achieving gender parity across the company—although women still battle against the prevailing image of skimpily-dressed “beer girls”, or having just a fraction of the knowledge and expertise as their male counterparts. However, this is all set to change as more women taking on more visible roles in the craft beer industry such as brewing, educating and beer judging; as well as the efforts of fellowships like the Hong Kong Pink Boots Society, which promotes female representation in the brewing industry.
To get a glimpse into the female experience of the Hong Kong craft beer community, we spoke to Joey Chung, co-founder of the Good Beer Project; Moonzen Brewery co-founder Michele Wong Raphael; and Belle Leung, a certified beer judge and a co-founder of Heroes Beer Co. and homebrew store HK Brewcraft. From common misconceptions to the role that mass marketing has played in shaping expectations, find out what these three beer enthusiasts have to say about turning over a new leaf in the history of women in beer.
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How did you begin your journey into the world of beer?
Michele Wong Raphael: My journey into brewing beer began as a passion project between my husband and I. I loved the creative aspect of brewing—utilising different ingredients and combining it with technical know-how. It was a hobby that fomented into something much bigger when I realised that there was a story and a concept bursting to be told throughout beers that celebrated other values that I cared about: Chinese culture, craftsmanship and community.
Joey Chung: The first time I encountered home brewing was more than 10 years ago in Montreal, Canada. It was not uncommon even back then for most people to have a spare fridge for brewing at home. Little did I know or expect I would be in the beer industry just two years later. For me, brewing beer is partly technical, but also partly creative. Having been in the industry for almost 10 years now, I’ve tried many different beers, and feel I can contribute on the creative side of beers, such as flavour profiles, innovation in beer concepts, marketing, and so on. Brewing beer really needs patience and technique. My contribution is more on the creative side, the profile, which hops or malts to use, or the concept of the beer.
Belle Leung: When I was younger, I never really liked beer so I didn’t believe it could taste good. Generally I like to drink alcohol and I’m a huge wine person—that’s because I think wine can be very diverse and great for pairing, which I couldn’t see in beer. One Christmas my friend gave me a bottle of a beer he brewed, and when I drank it, it totally changed my mind. I thought, if someone could change my mind then I could do something similar to other people. When we came up with the idea of opening a homebrew store, we saw the market gap as no one had ever done that in Hong Kong. So we decided to create our own demand by offering workshops to teach people this craft.