I first heard about Cerveja Benedita from a friend who, like myself, is passionate about beer. Intriguingly, she referred to the enterprise as “good beer produced by women.”
But in Brazil, images about women in beer culture are often related to sexualized advertisements and slogans, linked to a male discourse on the female figure, such as women in bikinis holding a sweating bottle of beer. Rarely are these discourses related to the women making the beer.
Challenging the male narrative of the Brazilian beer industry, Eneide Pontes Gama and Melissa Miranda Barbosa founded Cerveja Benedita, a craft beer made solely by women from the outskirts of São Paulo, who define themselves as feminists and anti-racists practicing sustainability, while fighting against misogyny and for LGBTQ+ communities.
The couple met in 2003 while working on an environmental remediation project. Gama and Barbosa have now been married for 17 years and dedicate their lives to environmental and social issues in their communities. Their production is zero waste; the grain rejects generated while brewing are destined for the cattle feed of a local farm, and they use recycled bottles from a local recycling cooperative. They are also part of such social movements as Agência Solano Trindade, a popular agency for the promotion of culture, using social innovation, popular culture, and nutritional systems.
While working in these communities, however, Gama and Barbosa missed a good beer at a fair price. Thus, after taking their first course in craft beer production, they decided to venture into home-brewing. Soon, their backyard transformed into a mini craft brewery.
Their aim is to give marginalized communities access to healthier and happier lives—and beer is part of this process. Their company, Cerveja Benedita, is a tribute to the Black and Indigenous women from the northeast of Brazil—one of the country’s most marginalized communities.
I open a bottle of Cerveja Benedita’s witbier with my friend, savoring the taste of the beverage, happy to support a feminist beer. We then open the lager; it’s slightly smoky, and the finish is refreshing. Falling into the natural conversation that comes from sharing a beer, we discuss how impressive Benedita’s enterprise is, in spite of the odds. Within Brazil’s beer industry, it is notably unusual to have women as owners and producers. Men comprise 87% of the field, according to a survey by SEBRAE (Brazilian Service to Support Micro and Small Enterprises).
We conclude by opening the Camelia—a lager small beer (with 3% alcohol content)—released in partnership with Cervejaria Zuraffa and Infusiva, a small company that produces blends for teas, medicinal and gastronomic purposes, and spices. This beer is my favorite of the bunch, with a refreshing guava flavor you feel on the first sip, followed by notes of black tea and rosemary. It is slightly bitter, but absolutely delightful.
Cerveja Benedita was founded in March 2017 in Taboão da Serra, a municipality of São Paulo, with 293,652 inhabitants living in only 20.39 square kilometers; it has the highest population density in Brazil. There are more than 14,000 inhabitants per square kilometer, and the communities living in this place, facing the impacts of social and economic inequities, are not familiarized with craft beers.
But Brazil is an emerging country in the craft beer world, with the market growing fast. Data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply (MAPA) from 2008 to 2018 says the number of craft breweries in Brazil jumped from 70 to almost 900. However, production and consumption are still predominantly limited to the middle class.
According to a report by the United Nations Development Program (2019), Brazil is the seventh most financially unequal country in the world. The wealthiest 10% in Brazil concentrates 41.9% of the country’s total income. In this scenario that forces the public to adopt its consumption based on price and not quality, the amount charged for a craft beer makes it an elitist product inaccessible to most of the population.
In fact, there is a movement of Brazilian craft breweries aiming to democratize craft beer consumption in the outskirts, seeking to adjust the brewer’s palate to that of the local public and create products with fair prices. Another reason craft beer is not popular is taste, which is unfamiliar to these communities who are used to consuming conventional beers like SKOL, Brahma, Antarctica or Itaipava.
Among Cerveja Benedita’s challenges to win over the public in the peripheries is to convince them that craft beer is simply a different way of consuming beer. Benedita embraced the mission of re-educating the local communities to “drink better and drink less” and open their taste to new flavors. “We don’t have access to quality of life. We don’t have access to having choices; it’s always the cheapest. We can’t choose between the best and the healthiest, the best for the palate,” explains Gama. “The population doesn’t have access to that, doesn’t know about it.”
Their first batch of American pale ale (APA) was made in November of 2017. Barbosa explains that after they made this first round, they were invited to attend an event in Ribeirão Preto, considered the land of beer in Brazil. The city has a tradition of craft beer production and consumption. Visitors can follow the beer route while seeing the city’s historical and natural attractions and craft brewery factories.
The majority of their first production was brought to this event, where it was first consumed—which is why Gama and Barbosa say it was baptized there.
They also distributed this first batch at Christmas and on New Year’s Eve. They then made another batch sold at Carnival. “We discovered we were what we call a ‘white fly’—an uncommon thing—which was this issue of women making beer,” explains Gama.
During the company’s early days, it faced many complications. Sometimes, the beer didn’t ferment. Sometimes they lost bottles due to hot weather, or the bottling was hampered by rain. With simple equipment and no proper refrigeration system, each new batch of beer was a challenge.
Cerveja Benedita managed to survive two years informally selling their products to the outskirts’ pubs, open markets, events, festivals and through social media. They joined a network of beer producers marginalized from the market, attended training about beer production, met other women producers, and organized collective purchases, aiming for a mutual effort to support independent breweries—especially those led by female brewers.
Currently, Benedita is a gypsy beer, the definition used for small breweries that outsource their production. Small breweries that don’t have their own equipment rent a space and the equipment of a registered brewery to make their beer. After they met the owner of the brewery Zuraffa at an immersive training about craft beer production, they started to produce their beer at their small brewery. This partnership helped Cerveja Benedita amplify their capacity from 400 liters to 1,400 liters. Most importantly, with their main barrier being the lack of equipment and an adequate environment, it helped them get certified by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply (MAPA).
“Until March last year, we lived off sales through partnerships with bars and events. We didn’t have access, and we didn’t sell to the final consumer,” says Barbosa about the limitations Cerveja Benedita had before their registration at MAPA, which allows them to commercialize their beer directly to the consumer.
But at the beginning of the pandemic, Gama and Barbosa considered giving everything up. The couple lost a close friend and like much of the world, were feeling extremely isolated. However, they started to see the light at the end of the tunnel with direct sales and invitations to attend live events speaking about their beer. The 1,000 social media followers they had grew to 4,000 only in 12 months. Barbosa explains 80% of Cerveja Benedita’s sales are the results of their exposure by speaking at these live events and giving interviews. “With all this exposure now, we have grown three times. This has generated visibility and possible future partnerships. It is very gratifying,” says Barbosa. “It is very cool.”
Among the challenges they encounter is to note the presence of a beer made by LGBTQ+ women from the periphery in a market that still disproportionately favors men. In 2019, the first census of Brazilian independent breweries, launched by SEBRAE and Abracerva (Brazilian Craft Beer Association), revealed that in this industry, 89% of professionals are men versus 11% of women. Some changes are happening in this sector, with more women producing beers or becoming beer sommeliers, entrepreneurs, influencers, or taking on various leadership positions in different areas in brewing. There are also networks like Confraria Maria Bonita Beer encouraging the participation of women in this industry by organizing events and training.
However, it is still an industry where people with low incomes, and often Black and Indigenous people, find it challenging to be part of. The costs involved in the production, the amounts charged for a craft beer, and the tax burden make craft beer a product produced and consumed among the more privileged groups. It’s simply cost prohibitive.
Gama explains that while digging into this industry, she and Barbosa realized other reasons why there are fewer women producing beers. “I’m going to be 50 this year. I don’t have the same strength and conditions to do things; it’s weighty work,” she says. “So we also understand why it is a male-dominated environment.”
With no time to play, Cerveja Benedita hopes when one of their bottles is opened, issues such as racism, feminism, machismo, anti-fascism, homophobia or xenophobia will take over the conversation circle. “Benedita talks about themes that are not natural in the brewing environment, which is male chauvinist,” says Barbosa.
“And that is how our purpose came about—to be a beer made by women because we want to bring this identity, the issue of being a woman making beer, in an environment that is not very friendly to them. However, it is a beer for everyone to taste. It’s for the world,” Gama adds. “The sky is the limit.”
Today, Cerveja Benedita works with a capacity of 400 liters per week, but does not sell all that. The idea is to reach about 10,000 liters per month, which still falls within the artisanal classification (as opposed to industrialized beer). They are selling about 100 bottles per week, and still have a low margin of sales. Their goal is to scale up.
Aside from one woman helping with delivery, Barbosa and Gama do all the work. They buy the bottles, buy the inputs, and braze the beer (the initial stage of cooking the grains for the production of the beverage. They are known as trailblazers for this process in the outskirts), bottle the beer, cap it manually, apply the label to the bottle, organize the financial management, the marketing, sales, logistics and packaging. Cerveja Benedita wants to provide opportunities to other women. They hope in the post-Covid era, they can expand their reach and establish partnerships to develop other projects, like a space where people can drink and discuss the causes they defend.
This year, Cerveja Benedita received an award at the National Brewery for Muses of Summer 2021. The association invited women working in the brewing sector to create a new seasonal beer while acknowledging women’s presence in this male niche. Gama, Barbosa and Carol Chieranda from TRILHA Cervejaria named their recipe Lélia, an homage to Lélia Gonzalez, an Afro-Brazilian intellectual, activist and trailblazer in both gender and Black studies.
“We have this vision—it is a place of speech that we have to occupy. We end up being a vehicle for spreading the word about these issues. Benedita beer carries this differential in its DNA,” says Barbosa. “There are many good breweries in São Paulo, and ours is competing in terms of quality. But our differential is the fact that it is a beer that has this whole genetic issue. It is not just a liquid. It comes to discuss, to open this channel for reflection.”