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Brew Babes: Fulton club taps female beer-lovers

A man walks into a bar -- except that it’s eight women, and it’s a wine shop.

And it’s not just another joke, although fun reigns at this ladies’ night out. Despite its moniker, i.m. Wine in Fulton also offers an extensive inventory of craft beer and thus is just the spot for monthly get-togethers of the Brew Babes, Maryland’s own chapter of Barley’s Angels.

The suds-loving mother organization -- two years old and already gone international -- was formed in Portland, Ore., as a ladies-only educational beer club, not just a gathering of chuggers. The notion of formal presentations, however brief, may at first sound a bit stuffy, but with names like the Sarasota SmartyPints and the London (Ontario) Ladies Drinking League among 51 chapters from Australia to Germany, you know that things won’t get too serious.

It was time Maryland had a group of its own, thought i.m. Wine general manager Lauren Smith last spring when she became only the second woman to qualify for the Beer Club at River Hill Sports Grille. After all, women were the first brewers (it’s where the term alewives originally came from -- not fish!), and many ancient mythologies associate the beverage with a gift from a goddess to her daughters to relieve the sufferings of humanity, wrote Barley’s Angels co-founder Lisa Morrison in a Beer Northwest magazine article quoting cultural anthropologist Alan D. Eames.

So while it may be a new group, having officially begun last June, the Brew Babes chapter of Barley’s Angels represents an ancient and honorable tradition.

The theme of a recent Brew Babes tasting was the distinctions between IPAs (English India Pale Ales, to the unenlightened) and American Double or Imperial IPAs.

The latter are more robust, yes, but many more distinctions appeared on evaluation sheets handed out by Smith -- aromas of bread or coffee (from the malt), resin or citrus (hops), others like chemicals or (gak) skunk! In addition to the sustainability of the beer’s head, there are choices familiar to wine connoisseurs: clarity, flavor, mouth-feel and finish. In fact, says Smith, as with wine, beer taste-testers should also see, swirl, smell, sip and savor. But when it comes to the last step, definitely do not spit!

The point is to experience with as many senses as possible, and everyone at the meeting has input describing the brews. It’s easy to agree on clarity and color, which ranges on a standard scale from straw to black (see beerology.ca), although not necessarily about other characteristics. Floral or fruity? Chemical or resin? Luckily, there are no wrong answers, Smith says with a laugh, and certainly no tests beyond individual taste buds.

Member Lauren Levy, of Clarksville, a suds maven who enjoys beer vacations with her husband, likes ales but not so much lagers (the difference -- basically yeast type -- was the subject of the group’s first get-together); for Debbie Barlow of Laurel it’s the opposite.

But test results could be surprising. What some thought would taste one way based on its appearance could register completely differently to the palate. What some expected not to like they did, and vice versa.

Oskar Blues Deviant Dales IPA was variously judged sweet, floral and/or fruity for aroma, but surprised sippers with its traditional hoppy IPA savor. 

It’s men who usually prefer the more bitter, hoppy IPAs, while women traditionally like darker, maltier beers, says Smith. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth a try, because, well, you could really be missing out.

The darkest of brews, 21st Amendment’s Back in Black IPA, had such a faint scent that Wendy Sauvageot, of North Laurel, advised a fellow club member to stick her nose way down into the glass, and a tangy, slightly astringent mouth feel that she helpfully described as “more a sensation than a taste.” Yet this late addition to the night’s menu was a general crowd favorite.

Someone thought the strong scent of Evil Twin Yang Imperial Taiji IPA could give her a headache all on its own, while to Barlow the aroma was “like cantaloupe when it’s just a little punky.” Janet Wirth of Elkridge liked the flavor right away, while others said it had to grow on them.

“Every time I taste it, it gets better!” Dayton resident (and Lauren’s mother) Karen Smith reported with delight.

That’s a message her daughter would like to spread.

To those women who tell her “beer is gross,” she asks if that was their college experience and explains that it was “the cheap stuff.” If they say “it tastes like dirty water,” she’ll pick out a nice wheat brew for starters. And now, perhaps invite them to the next Brew Babes get-together.

“It’s a nice way to spend an evening -- a safe environment compared to going to a pub,” says Barlow, “and a nice way to meet other women of various ages and backgrounds. There’s no pressure to perform. If guys were there it would turn into a competition.”

Following the evening of IPAs, hostess Smith planned the remainder of her year’s schedule based on seasonal choices like Oktoberfest German brews and pumpkin beer in the fall, and heavier drinks such as stout in winter.

Some ancient sage observed that beer is bread, Smith reminds us, and she should know. A Johnson & Wales University graduate pastry chef, she owns the eponymous Lauren Makes Cakes at which she has produced a custom wine-frosted cake but has not experimented using beer. Not yet ...

To learn more about Brew Babes and its meetings, held on the last Thursday of each month at a cost of $10 per meeting or $25 for the year, check Barley’s Angels at barleysangels.org. Contact Lauren Smith at imwine@imwine.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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