The story behind Harrogate's Women on Tap festival
PUBLISHED: 00:00 18 July 2018
Women and beer? They're a match made in heaven, according to a Harrogate 'beerista'
Rachel Auty’s eyes light up when she talks about beer. It’s 11am on a Monday morning and the only thing on the table in front of us is my notebook, but she visibly perks up at the mere mention of a pint.
‘I tend to go for strong, dark beers,’ she says. ‘Brew York’s Imperial Tonkoko is fantastic. But their new Empress version is even better. If I had to have only one beer for the rest of my life, it would their Empress.’
But that would be quite a cruel fate for a woman who relishes discovering new brews and sharing them far and wide via Harrogate’s Women on Tap festival, which she co-founded last year.
Rachel has enjoyed a pint since her student days, relishing the variety and complexity of a good beer and the camaraderie and bonhomie of a good pub.
‘Some people make assumptions about you as a woman if you drink pints, which is probably why so many women still choose to enjoy their beer at home,’ she says. ‘But it’s never felt odd to me. In fact, it feels perfectly natural.’
We’re chatting in the Circle Bar of Harrogate Theatre, where she’s head of communications, but we’re abstaining from her favourite tipple today, partly because it’s a working morning and the editor frowns on beer for breakfast (although gin for supper is perfectly fine) and partly because it’s the week after the latest Women on Tap festival and, frankly, Rachel is a bit tapped out.
‘It was absolutely amazing,’ she says. ‘The first festival was very small – just one venue – but we expanded to five this year and all of them were packed. All I can say is that if you don’t think women like beer, you obviously don’t know women.’
Women on Tap’s genius is its simplicity. It’s a festival designed to celebrate women and beer, featuring guest beers brewed by women and breweries with female leaders, and tasting sessions led by leading experts like writer, broadcaster and international beer judge Melissa Cole. It’s woman-centric, but not exclusively for women.
‘Our events are inclusive and open to all,’ says Rachel. ‘Men are very welcome. There really is no need to be nervous!’
So, where did the idea come from? Naturally, it began with a pint.
‘I was sitting in a beer garden enjoying myself when I thought “there must be other women like me who love a good beer”,’ she explains. ‘I’m a firm believer that if you want something that doesn’t exist, it’s up to you to create it.
‘The timing couldn’t have been better either. A new bar – the Little Ale House – had just opened round the corner and, when I put the idea to the owners, Richard and Danni (Park), they immediately saw the potential. We shared the same beer ethos.’
The Little Ale House, a lovely craft ale micro-pub in Cheltenham Crescent, hosted the inaugural Women on Tap festival and remains a key venue.
‘Harrogate is my home town and I knew it punched well above its weight when it came to brewing and bars,’ says Rachel. ‘But even I have been amazed by the positive response we’ve had from day one. On the very first night of the very first festival, the Little Ale House was packed – you couldn’t actually get to the bar for a pint!’
The Women on Tap team self-funded the first festival, but put out a modest crowdfunding plea for £500 for this year’s event. They smashed it in two days, reaching £1,000 in a week and ending up with £1,800, giving them enough money for the 2018 festival as well as a handful of pop-up events throughout the year.
‘Our aim is to encourage women to try an array of beers through guided tastings and bottle sharing events,’ says Rachel. ‘Another key thing for me is creating spaces where women feel comfortable coming in alone and ordering a pint. Some bars can still be quite daunting, but more and more are becoming welcoming, inclusive spaces.
‘And the thing is, it’s OK to be daunted if you walk into a bar with ten taps on the go. It’s OK not to know what to order. A good barman or woman should be able to guide you to the right beer for you.’
The brewing industry has enjoyed a decade of positive growth, thanks in no small part to home-brewers – women and men – stepping up a league with their own fully-fledged micro-breweries. The sheer number of different beers available today is, frankly, astonishing.
‘There really is something for everyone,’ says Rachel. ‘Even people who say they don’t like beer. Whether you fancy something sweet, sour, fruity or dark and strong, there’s a beer for you.’
The festival has added to the myriad beers on offer with its own brew – a chocolate, salted caramel stout called, rather marvellously, Suffragist – created in partnership with Leeds’ Nomadic Beers, established in January 2017 by Katie Marriott and Ross Nicholson.
‘Working with people like the Nomadic team, the Little Ale House and Melissa Cole has hugely increased my own knowledge and confidence,’ says Rachel. ‘When I launched the festival, people assumed I was a beer expert. I wasn’t, but I have learned a lot since. I’ve been to other festivals, been involved in brewing my first beer, spoken to lots of experts and have launched my own beer blog. I still wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I do know a thing or two.’
Women were actually the first brewers, making beer at home as part of their everyday domestic duties, and men only took over when it became a commercial enterprise (typical). It was, for a long time after, a male-dominated industry but, in recent years, the balance has began to shift slowly back towards its female founders.
‘It’s key for the future buoyancy of the industry that more women get involved in brewing,’ says Rachel. ‘Eventually, we’d love not to have to talk about women and beer, and just talk about beer.’