Building Feminist Community through Beer: A Q&A with Society of Beer Drinking Ladies Founder Erica Campbell
(SOBDL) knows how to party in a big way.
What started as a chance to network with others in the food and beverage industry – and enjoy a few new brews – quickly transformed into regular “bevies” attended by thousands of women.
We spoke to the SOBDL founder Erica Campbell about her experience working in beer, and what she loves most about hosting women’s-only festivals for her fellow beer-lovers.
How did you get started in the food and beverage industry?
I got into the industry from a Craigslist ad actually, it was one of those funny, happy accidents.
I was just out of teachers college and looking for jobs, and I had a bunch of part time teaching-ish jobs, like tutoring. It was fun, but I felt like I needed another little job just to tide me over. I saw a job working for a brewery at a festival for the weekend. I’d never served a day in my life, but I thought ‘I like beer’, so I just gave it a shot.
I worked the festival and realized quickly that it was really fun. I worked for that brewery for a year, and then I took a job at Black Oak Brewery full-time.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced while working in beer? Did any of them stem from being a woman in a male-dominated industry?
I’ve had a pretty good go of it, I’ve kept my head down and worked really hard. I think that’s key to success in any industry, but especially in the craft beer industry because it’s so small and entrepreneurial. You just have to really grind for many years to prove yourself, and as a woman you have to do that even more.
For the most part it is pretty supportive, but there are some breweries that really get what we’re doing over others. I think everybody generally respects the Society of Beer Drinking Ladies – what we’ve created and what we’re growing – but there’s definitely some breweries that are much more feminist- leaning, that are fully onboard financially, and that participate in all of our events. They’re usually the ones who have really inclusive values built into their company.
What inspired you to start the SOBDL?
At the time I worked with all men, which isn’t abnormal in the craft beer industry. I really liked all the guys I was working with and there were no issues, but I was meeting a lot of women peppered throughout the Toronto beer scene, and I thought that it would be nice to maybe link up once every couple months at somebody’s house, and bring a bunch of bottles to share, so we could network and chat.
I approached four ladies that I knew from different parts of my world and asked them if they were interested in working on this side-project with me, and they all thought it sounded neat. So we put tickets on sale and we called it the Society of Beer Drinking Ladies right off the bat. Bevy 0001.
We didn’t have a venue because we thought it was going to be at one of our apartments. But then we sold 40 or 50 tickets in a day or two and we were like ‘oh, ok’. In hindsight we probably should have capped ticket sales, but then again maybe not, because obviously we were able to see very quickly that a lot of women in the city love beer and were interested in this concept.
We got a venue and a permit and insurance, and always had these big events from the get-go. I had pictured it more as a small society gathering, but I love what it has blossomed into.
What’s different about the atmosphere at a women’s-only beer festival, like the ones held by the SOBDL?
I think just having all those people that identify as women in a room is pretty cool. They’ve created a really safe, welcoming, friendly space. Sometimes beer festivals can get a little bit machismo, or kind of bro-y, and I think the SOBDL allows women a place to be themselves. There’s no dress code, you can wear sweatpants. It’s really just about women creating community with other women, and using beer as their launching point. It’s not even really a beer event, it’s become more of a feminist community, that allows people to hang out, get out of their houses, meet people, and connect. It’s a big party.
It’s been a big year for women at work across various industries. Have you noticed a culture change in the beer industry since #MeToo began?
One thing I’ve noticed is more inclusive, progressive beer labeling. Making sure beer labelling is not objectifying women, and the names of the beers are gender-neutral. It’s come up as a problem in the last couple of years, and there have been some beer bloggers that have done whistle-blowing to say ‘hey guys, this isn’t kosher, you need to think about what this beer is called so it doesn’t alienate customers.’
I also think the SOBDL has directly and indirectly employed a lot of women in the craft beer industry, which I’m proud of. A lot of our volunteers (or “volunbeers”) put on their resume that they pour beer every month at our events, and that holds weight. It’s cool to be able to help launch people’s careers.
In the last eight years I’ve also seen more women become employed in the Ontario craft beer industry, although it’s mostly in sales and marketing. That’s great, but the next step is to figure out how to close the gap on women brewers, which is a constant struggle like it is in any STEM field.
I’d say brewing falls under STEM because there’s a lot of math, and there’s a lot of science. A lot of people with engineering backgrounds are brewers, so it directly links up to the issues that women in math, science, and technology fields are facing.
What are you most proud of in terms of your work with the SOBDL? What’s your favourite part about the events?
I love the energy.
We just did our 40th bevy, we’re about to launch in our third city, and it’s still a challenge. It’s still so much work, and then day-of it’s this crazy, organic, moving beast that you can’t stop. There’s nothing you can really do at that point if you haven’t done it already. So you just have to sit back and let it happen.
We also never set out explicitly to have a queer, LGBTQ+ event, but it’s so cool that it’s become a safe space for queer people. It’s so beautiful to see Trans folks and lesbian women and older women come out, because this is a safe space to drink and have fun. It hasn’t turned into a basic white girl event. There’s a lot of diversity, and that’s just what makes it so special.
We’ve obviously made some choices to make sure that doesn’t happen – but I am proud to see when I look around the room, or when I’m standing, giving a speech in the middle of the night, that it’s a really funky looking crowd. These are people that I kind of want to be friends with, you know? I want to get to know these women.
What advice would you give to a woman who’s interested in pursuing a career in the food and beverage industry?
Obviously come out to the SOBDL events, because that’s a hub where you can geek out about beer, and there are a lot women brewers and sales reps that come out too.
And be sure to work hard to find your people. Find the people that get you and that respect you, and find the brewery that is progressive, that treats women properly and fairly, and that has inclusive practices built into their company.
The SOBDL is a proud supporter of the Canadian Women’s Foundation. A portion of event ticket sales go directly to the Foundation. The SOBDL hosts events regular events in Toronto, and recently launched events in both Ottawa and Hamilton. You can learn more about the society.