By: Emily Gibson
Hopfields, a gastropub on Guadalupe Street, is busy on Thursday evenings. The bar is dimly lit and decorated with a balance of rustic and industrial-style decor. Sitting at a corner table across from Caroline Wallace and Sarah Wood, surrounded by families, college students and young professionals drinking and eating, I am becoming increasingly concerned that I won’t be able to hear them. They share the same worry. “I’ll be right back,” Wallace says as she stands and approaches the woman behind the bar, who she greeted by name when she walked in.
A few minutes later, we are walking past a few “Reserved” signs to a secluded booth in Hopfields’ French-style back room.
Wallace and Wood love beer. As two of seven founders of the Bitch Beer blog and co-authors of the upcoming novel “Trappist Beer Travels,” which follows their international journey to Trappist breweries, they also devote a significant portion of their time to the scene. They discovered their love of beer in their early twenties, after they started pushing themselves to try different types – the ones that cost more than $6.99 for a six pack. “I found Keystone and thought I had, like, found the light,” Wood says of her college years. “That quickly changed after I graduated and started realizing that you can’t order Keystone at a coffee shop and be okay, like that’s not a cool thing to do. You have to keep your street cred high.”
After studying abroad in New Zealand and falling in love with their beer, Wallace returned to Austin to attend St. Edwards University. While there, her core group of friends frequented Opal Divines, a bar with Texas-brewed pint specials on Wednesday nights. This pushed her to look beyond Blue Moon and explore Live Oak Hefeweizen, (512) Wit and other local draughts.
After getting increasingly involved in beer, founding a blog and exploring different breweries and ideas, Wallace, Wood and their eventual "Trappist Beer Travels" co-author Jessica Deahl were inspired to take a month-long trip to further explore the scene.
Emailing Monks: writing “Trappist Beer Travels”
Monks brew to live, they don’t live to brew.
In 2014, Wallace, Wood and Deahl's beer enthusiasm reached a new high: their trip through Europe to visit the 11 authentic Trappist breweries. The book about their trip, “Trappist Beer Travels: Inside the Breweries of the Monasteries" is being released on May 28 and follows the trio through Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria and Boston as they visit the breweries and detail their experience in each.
In some ways, they have Richard Linklater to thank for their trip. After missing a showing of Linklater’s “Boyhood” at the Slaughter Lane location of the Alamo Drafthouse, they ducked into the theater’s bar 400 Rabbits to talk over a beer. “We were like, ‘wouldn’t it be so nice to go to Europe?’” Wood says. “‘What would do if we were in Europe? It would be really cool to talk to all the Trappist monasteries because nobody talks to them.’ There’s this sort of shroud around them, like they are really mysterious, but their beers are really popular. And of course we were all thinking it was silly and these were dreams.”
But they later secured a publisher in Schiffer Publishing and were preparing how, logistically, to make this trip happen. Most of the breweries don’t offer a public tour, so worst case, the trio planned to do whatever the public was allowed to do and write the book about that experience. They ended up getting connected with The International Trappist Association, which helped connect them directly to the monks for interviews and tours. Around eight months after securing their publishing deal, they were headed overseas.
Trappists are a sect of cloistered contemplative monasticism. According to Wallace, they are “essentially catholic monks who live in monasteries.” They follow the Rule of St. Benedict, which prioritizes prayer and work, which means they work to sustain their monasteries and pay for expansions and repairs. Trades like brewing help them sustain their homes. “It’s the Trappist beers that have garnered acclaim around the world for their quality and for being the first seminal export beers that came to the United States in particular, and were a segue into getting a lot of people into craft beer,” Wallace says. “Before Chimay and Rochefort were available on American shelves, a lot of people were only drinking the three light lagers. Seeing this crazy, more expensive beer in a fancy glass, Chimay was what exposed people to new flavors and ideas.”
To be considered authentic, a Trappist brewery must be located within the walls of the monastery and the brewing has to occur directly by monks or under monk’s supervision. They are also non-profits, which means they can not make any money beyond what they need to sustain their lives. “It’s kind of a unique business model – they’re not in it for the fame or the glory,” Wallace says.
During their trip, each brewery brought them a new experience. Chimay, the most widely available and arguably the most popular of the Trappist beers, also has the biggest brewery. Since the breweries are not allowed to make any profits beyond the money needed to sustain them, the money often goes back into their communities or local charities. In Hainaut, Belgium, where the city of Chimay and the brewery are located, one of the brewery’s causes is an airfield. During their tour of Chimay, the trio was taken up in a plane to see the full brewery and the countryside. They also spent the night at Rochefort, the oldest of the breweries, and were able to see a religious service in the morning. “That was a good experience that brought us a little closer to what life in the abbey is like,” Wallace says.
The trip ended back in America, just outside of Boston, at Spencer Brewery, the first American Trappist brewery, which opened in 2013. They got to talk to the American monks about the process of combining Trappist ideals with American ones. Where most Trappist breweries produce one or two beers and stay loyal to their recipes, the American brewery is producing an IPA, a stout, and other newer concepts. “To go to this American Trappist brewery and hear them say that Americans love trying new things and that it’s all about experimentation in craft beer right now was a really cool thing,” Wallace says.
“Trappist Beer Travels” is a travelogue-style book that follows the trip to each brewery. Despite the beer’s popularity, there hasn’t been much coverage of Trappist breweries in America, which Wallace, Wood and Deahl hoped to capitalize on. “American writers have written about Trappist beer but they’ve never captured all 11 and never in the travelogue format,” Wood says. “We knew we were unique to the space.”
“Bitch Beer:” Women in the Beer Scene
Three women being unique in a space, especially a space involved in the beer industry, is a somewhat radical concept, seeing as five years ago Wallace and Wood didn’t feel there was really a space for women in beer at all.
In 2012, Wood and Wallace, along with a few of their friends, founded Bitch Beer, a blog meant to “[reclaim] the term “bitch beer,” which is often used to describe low-calorie, low-alcohol content beverages that are marketed to serve as the female counterpart for beer, a stereotypical “male” drink," according to the blog’s website. “I think that was a huge part of why we started Bitch Beer, was not finding a lot of space for women in craft beer at the time,” Wallace says. “We were seeing a lot of objectifying advertising, generally not a lot of women drinking craft beer, much less working in it, and part of that was because Austin’s beer scene was just starting to burgeon.”
Five years later, the beer community is slowly becoming more welcoming for women. Women’s beer meetup groups exist in Austin and beyond. The Pink Boots Society is a national organization for women who work in brewing and beer founded in 2007, and the Brewer’s Association is taking steps to combat sexist branding in craft beers. “The groups that exist today absolutely help [exclusion] because they make it a warm and welcoming space where it can be intimidating and, honestly, a little annoying if you know what you’re talking about what you’re gonna order and some dude asks you, ‘do you know the difference between a lager and an ale?’” Wood says.
The irony regarding women’s exclusion from the beer scene: women were the original brewers. In ancient times, women fermented beverages to complement the food the men hunted. In medieval Europe, women fermented beer for their families to drink throughout the day. This continued through the 1800s, when female brewers were called “brewsters,” and also made beer for their households. Brewsters were ousted from their dominant brewing role during the Industrial Revolution, when beer became a business and therefore men seized the means of production. “Once brewing became a source of income and people weren’t doing it just for their households or for their personal enjoyment, there was a flip in the gender of the brewer,” says Tiah Edmunson-Morton, the head archivist and founder of the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archives, which is the first archive dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of Northwest brewing.
Once brewing became a male-dominated scene, beer culture as a whole followed suit, largely due to the industry’s sexist advertising and branding. Regarding women’s reluctance to join the beer scene, Edmunson-Morton says, “I wouldn’t want to get into an industry with this horribly sexist advertising. That makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable and leads to a more collective devaluing and questioning of women in the industry.”
Beer advertisements that feature, as Wallace says, “hot young men or men and hot girls in bikinis serving beers and not drinking them,” turn women off of beer. Plus, there are craft beers with names like Panty Peeler, Leg Spreader and Naughty Girl, which contribute to a general feeling of discomfort among women wanting to drink craft brews. “Craft beer is fun, but there is also a kind of artisanal element to it,” Wood says. “I honestly don’t want to spend $7 on something named after an erection.”
To combat sexist beers, the Brewer’s Association, which represents the majority of American craft brewers, announced that any beers with sexist names or images on their labels would be allowed to win the trade organization’s sought-after medals in competitions, but won’t be allowed to use the org’s branding to promote their product afterward. The organization also will not announce the winning beer, if it is deemed sexist. “They’re a trade association, they’re not the First Amendment like they can’t take someone’s free speech away, but I think it’s a refreshing step to say ‘hey at least as far as our organization is concerned, we’re not gonna glorify this kind of stuff,” Wallace says.
As women become more involved and represented in beer culture, we need to be careful to avoid what Wallace calls “pinkification.” Pinkification is making a product more ‘girly’ in hopes of appealing to a female audience. “I think with any other consumer product, we’ve gone through this pink-washing of things,” Wallace says. “It’s the same kind of difference –a beer ad that shows men and women drinking together might occasionally feature two women drinking a beer together. A beer ad that passes the Bechdel Test. But at the same time, there doesn’t need to be this pinkification of it.”
And further, when macro breweries – Bud Light, Coors Light, Keystone, etc. – target women, they insist on brewing light, fruity beers that they think women will want. “I think a big part of it is style of beer,” Wood says. “What becomes a problem is when macro-breweries try to target women by making the lightest, fruitiest beers possible – you know, these kind of cliche things that are like, ‘women will like this because they can’t handle real beer.’”
But, all things considered, women in craft beer, specifically in Austin, seem to have a new opening to enjoy the scene. Wallace says, “As the beer community has expanded, more breweries have opened, more people have gotten into craft beer, more people have gotten educated about craft beer, and the women have followed.”