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Not Just a Token

Go on, underestimate me. That will be fun.

“I was asked if I knew anyone who could do it that wasn’t an old white man with a beard,” Steve said to me after asking if I would be interested in being one of the judges Reading Beer Festival. I told folks the story; it was funny. I’m the token! Steve was quick to tell me I wasn’t a token decision, and I knew he didn’t mean it that way. I know my beer. He knows that and he wasn’t going to put a name forward he didn’t know was capable. I was flattered that he thought of me.

Steve did have a point: the world of beer is dominated by men, and the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has a reputation for being an old white men’s club. Nobody expects a woman to know their beer; that I can tell them some things about the differences between certain styles and keep up in a discussion on hops varieties often surprises people, particularly older white men. It surprises me, at times. I’ve only been in the pub trade for eleven months and these conversations were not things I could participate in this time last year. Nine months into this gig and I’ve got people asking me to be a judge at a festival. I guess I’m doing alright.

“I don’t suppose you drink any of this,” a CAMRA representative said to me a couple of months ago. He was at the pub doing the judging for the local pub of the year. I admit I probably looked at him like he was crazy, “Oh yeah, I do.” We went on to chatter about the local brewers, what they were up to, how we felt they changed and where we would like to see them go from here. Things I’d learned from talking to folks at the pub - some of the brewers are in that number. The rep didn’t pause and just talked to me, but he was duly impressed. He even took a moment to tell me how well I did as he left, bless him.

"CONDESCENSION OFTEN FOLLOWS UNDERESTIMATION. IT’S A FACE SAVING TACTIC: THEY UNDERESTIMATE ME, ARE PROVEN UTTERLY INCORRECT, BUT THEN CONGRATULATE ME."

Condescension often follows underestimation. It’s a face saving tactic: they underestimate me, are proven utterly incorrect, but then congratulate me. Like losing a duel or some kind of sporting event. One might think of that as being graceful except it’s not a competition. I don’t need or want their praise, I want to talk about beer. I’ve discovered a hobby and I want to talk to other hobbyists about the activity of discovering new tastes. When I discover a beer and love it, I want to tell someone who understands the joy. That some choose to reduce it to a competitive exercise because they can’t quite allow themselves to respect me rankles; the pat on the head on the way out cheapens the experience.

I have to admit I do take a certain delight in talking circles around the men - they’re always men - that underestimate me. That sudden clearing of the eyes as they realise they got more than they bargained for, the recalibration before the conversation can continue. If they’re not too bright, they will smile stupidly before they realise it’s their turn to speak or just let me carry on with whatever regular knows what I’m talking about. More than once, a man (again, always men) was earwigging on a conversation with a regular that wandered between beer, Greek tragedy, and 80s goth music before finally blurting out that I seemed an exceptional woman. Awkward, and hilarious.

I’m not exceptional in my intelligence, but I am exceptional to some for knowing about beer. I’m not expected to know about beer. Never mind that my female boss will forget more about beer than I’ll ever know. The folks who know her are less phased because they know that I can’t work for her long without picking up a fair bit. The place I work is serious about its beer: you learn to talk about it or you find somewhere else to work.

"ODDLY, THE TABLES I ENDED UP SAT AT WERE BOTH FEMALE DOMINATED."

Arriving at the festival here in Reading, I quickly saw I wasn’t the token we were joking about. Though the place was overwhelmingly white - I didn’t help that demographic - but there were perhaps a fourth to a third women scattered across the tables. A minority, but a large one. Oddly, the tables I ended up sat at were both female dominated. I was unlucky with the tasting in that the beer was in places pretty awful, but I was sent on to judge the second round - a marked improvement. It was a laugh and I wasn’t put in the token position I expected. I’m not sure about the queer representation at the festival, so could be it works out I was in that regard. Not that anyone noticed I was queer, or were too gracious to say anything. Win, either way.

Even more surprising, the other head judge approached me after for my opinion on the marking method; it was new that year. I went into educator mode and evaluated it as an assessment strategy. He seemed quite pleased with what I said and walked away beaming. It was a good method, if lengthy. I said so, in so many words.

“Anyone who underestimates you has a name: ‘practise’,” Steve told me as I shared some of my impressions here, “Not much of a threat, just a not-worth-much target to use to improve your aim.” He is absolutely correct, which is probably why I take a certain pleasure in twisting the knife when someone does take me as some clueless chick. I think this is a universal female experience, being underestimated. We may as well make taking people to task part of that experience.

At the end of the day, I was asked to go along and be a judge at a well respected festival. I did that on my own merit and my opinion (along with about forty others) mattered. Steve knew that it was important within the circle of beer making and selling. I wasn’t just a token, however much we joked about it. Frankly, Steve knew better: he’d seen me pull enough people apart to know!

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