Twenty-eight British pubs close every week. The number may be an improvement on last year’s figure, which teetered nearer to 50, but still signals a sorry state of affairs for the traditional boozer. Conversely, sales of cask ales are on a steep rise and more than 1.3 million women now drink real ales, the number having doubled in a year between 2009 and 2010.
The switch from the beards-and-sandals image of traditional brews to lipstick and Louboutins could be the saviour the British brewing industry has craved. And now a new study has shown that drinking a pint of beer a day could help women in later life guard against osteoporosis. (Ale contains dietary silicon, which helps to build new bone, and alcohol contains ethanol, which helps to prevent bone loss.)
In the Middle Ages it was a woman – the ‘ale wife’ or brewster, as she was known – who made the beer. When brewing moved from the home to the ale house they were removed from the picture, and it stayed that way for centuries.
In the 1960s, the industry alienated women with its blokey, sexist TV marketing campaigns. Unfortunately, a feeble and patronising effort to lure them back in the Nineties inadvertently pushed them even further away, with specially designed ‘female’ beers – as if pink ale, a drinking straw and a girly name would bring women flooding to the pumps.
Clearly, serious consideration and a dose of myth-busting was required. Thankfully, Camra (the Campaign for Real Ale) took the job on. First out was the image of ale as an old man’s drink, unsophisticated and unstylish. Next was the notion that wine is aspirational while beer is not, and that beer-drinking equals beer-belly.
In came ale in tulip glasses, with half- and third-pints offered alongside the chunky pint pot, and androgynous labelling replacing the blondes and boobs. Ale was lined up alongside the chardonnay and claret and found to be a smooth operator.
TV presenter Marverine Cole, known as the Beer Beauty, runs a website for women ale drinkers, extolling the healthier virtues of real ale. She says: “Women are mindful of the serious implications that copious amounts of wine and spirits can have on their health. Beer is a surprising solution for a lot of women on this front.”
“At my Beer Beauty parties, when I show them that beer comes bottom of the table to wine and spirits in the calorie and alcohol stakes, it’s a no-brainer for them. And they are surprised and excited by the wealth of flavours, aromas and colours beer comes in.”
Now there’s the added benefit to the bones. Professor Jonathan Powell of Cambridge University, who led the study, said: “A pint of beer contains around 8mg of silicon, around a third of our daily recommended intake. Pre-menopausal women would benefit from drinking a half-pint a day as a means of absorbing silicon, and post-menopausal women would benefit from a pint of beer a day.”
What’s more, real ales are chiefly but not exclusively produced by smaller breweries. Drinking ales produced locally, or on a small scale, put money back into the local economy and support the community. So, much like a visit to a farmers’ market or an organic veg-box delivery, drinking ale is a way of reciprocating. This appeals to the nurturing and caring side of many women.
Today’s female ale drinkers are educated and affluent. They like good food and good service, are intrigued by matching foods to beers and are not afraid to go into pubs alone. (In fact, they are more likely to bring a stream of friends – and their purses – with them.)
Pubs and the brewing industry are finally working harder to attract and to retain the spending power of these women. They certainly need to, if they don’t want to be one of those 28 pubs calling their final “Time!” this week.