On a warm, Saturday afternoon in late August, the Maine Beer Tour bus is full, and more than half the seats are filled by women. According to co-owner Nichole Stevens, women account for about 75 percent of their ticket sales, and are definitely playing a huge part in the growth of the craft beer movement in Maine.
“Some of them may be buying (tickets) for husbands, too,” says Stevens. “But lots of women are interested in trying different styles of beer and learning about the process.”
Maine’s craft beer movement, which is part of the broader “Buy Local” movement, seems to be attracting more women these days for a number of reasons. Chief among them is the fact that more and more restaurants are offering a wider variety of local beers. Women who venture beyond the old standby light beers are finding there’s a whole new world of flavors to enjoy – bearing only faint resemblance to the beer they might have imbibed at college keg parties.
“Macro-brewery beers (like Budweiser and Miller) all have the same flavor,” says Amanda Doughty of South Portland, who drives a Maine Beer Tour bus and also blogs and creates podcasts about craft beer. “So if that’s all you know, you might think you hate beer.”
“There are so many styles today,” agrees Stevens. “There’s bound to be something you like.”
By definition, a microbrewery is one that produces fewer than 15,000 barrels of beer annually – about 475,000 gallons. Before the 1980s, most beer in the U.S. was mass-produced by a handful of large, mass-market corporations, and the trend was away from international styles to light lagers (tasted great, less filling). But a revolution, fueled by home brewers, changed the landscape to the point that there are now more than 3,000 microbreweries in the U.S. More than a dozen of them are in the Greater Portland area.
The sizes of microbreweries in Maine vary widely, and the beers they brew are ever changing. What they all seem to have in common is a desire to experiment and create something unique. Rising Tide Brewery, for example, which is co-owned by Nathan and Heather Sanborn, has a regular lineup of beers, but also a “seven-barrel series” of unusual concoctions only available for a limited time on draft. One of the most recent is called Gose, which is a sour German wheat ale made with lactobacillus, coriander and local seawater. Both Stevens and Doughty say it’s “delicious.”
While aficionados welcome the growing lists of craft beers – and variations on traditional themes – the many choices can be daunting to a craft beer newbie. How do you know whether you’ll enjoy a moderately bitter, pungent APA, a tart saison or Farmhouse ale, a smooth but heavier stout or porter, or a mostly malt-flavored amber ale? Doughty and Stevens say many women seem to gravitate to blond ales and wheat beers, such as Allagash White. Others try fruitier beers such as Sea Dog Blueberry and Shipyard Pumpkin Ale as their “gateway beers.” But soon, many decide to expand their horizons – and their palates. That’s when the learning and experimenting begins.
“The first craft beer I ever tried was Allagash White,” says Stevens, whose business marked its third anniversary in early September. “Now, my favorites are really hoppy IPAs and stouts.”
Doughty, who is also a member of a loosely organized Facebook group called Maine Beer Mavens, is a former teacher and has educated herself on the brewing process and how to create different styles of beers. Her podcasts, which began last spring and can be found at Greatbeeradventure.com, feature a series of interviews with local brewers. Naturally, they talk about the process of making beer, but also how and why they got into brewing.
“I love the creativity behind it,” says Doughty. “People assume you’re getting wasted all the time, but it’s really less about drinking and more about learning what’s out there.”
Doughty (who says she couldn’t stand the smell of beer when she was pregnant) considers herself a matchmaker of sorts when it comes to helping women find the beer style that’s right for them.
“As humans we have diverse palates,” she says.
The foods and beverages a person likes can provide clues to the kinds of beers she will enjoy.
“There’s a reason why you like Margaritas,” she says, as an example. “In that case, you’ll probably enjoy sour, tart beers.”
The time of year also comes into play when choosing from a beer list, Doughty says. It isn’t (just) a marketing ploy when darker beers start showing up on beer menus after Labor Day.
“Right now, I like light, crisp IPAs,” she says. “In the fall, you want a spicier, tasty flavor. In the winter, you want something warm and cozy (like a creamy stout).”
Doughty advises women to search online for the styles of beer that might match the flavors they enjoy. Then take that information to a store with a wide selection of beers, such as the Beer Cellar on Commercial Street in Portland, and ask for a match.
“Chances are,” she says, “you’ll be able to find those things in a beer.”
If the waiting lists at Maine Beer Tours are any indication, taking a brewery tour can also help.
“We provide clipboards and pencils so that you can take tasting notes,” says Stevens. “We could have filled three afternoon tours today.”