A recent Auburn University study found that 29% of brewery workers are women (Hurley). If you’ve been in our pub, you’ve certainly met first-hand some of the amazing women working in the modern beer industry. You may have also heard of the Pink Boots Society (a non-profit organization which supports women working in the brewing profession) – but did you know that the history of beer began with women, and females have played a significant role in the brewing scene ever since? In fact, “for most of recorded human history, women have been responsible for supplying the world’s beer” (Oliver 848).
When looking back to the ancient civilizations who first sipped our favorite beverage (Sumeria, Babylon, Egypt) we find that females were the ones responsible for brewing the first beers. Babylonian women made history by participating “in some of the world’s earliest commerce as they sold their beer with new forms of bookkeeping and writing” (Nurin). Additionally, in these ancient societies the deities of brewing were goddesses, not gods. A tablet discovered in Sumeria, dubbed the “Hymn to Ninkasi” (the goddess who watched over all brewing activities) is dated back to 1800 BC and describes the very first beer recipe. Egyptians worshipped the goddesses Tenenit (the goddess of beer) and Hathor (the inventress of brewing.) On the negative side, we can thank Cleopatra for being the first person to implement a tax on beer (Nurin). Other notable beer goddesses of the past include Mbaba Mwana Waresa, the Zulu goddess credited with the invention of beer, and Yasigi, the Dognon people of Mali’s goddess of beer, dancing, and masks.
As society developed, it is no surprise that beer stuck around (it’s just so gosh-darn delicious!) Over in Scandinavia during the Middle Ages, “real Norsemen (a.k.a. Vikings) allowed only women to brew the ‘aul’ that fueled their conquests” (Nurin). Additionally Nurin states, “Viking women drank ale, flagon for flagon, along with the men.”
In Europe during the Middle Ages, brewing was a part of women’s at-home chores, and at the time did not require a big up-front investment, providing “a decent source of income in times of need for both single and married women” (Oliver 849). Brewsters, which are what women who brewed beer were called, had some advertising methods that may bring certain iconography to mind – “to be noticed in crowded markets, they tended to wear tall, pointed hats. To indicate when a brew was ready, broomsticks would be placed in the doorways of alehouses. Images of frothing cauldrons full of ready product and six-sided stars to indicate the quality of the brew also abounded. Lastly, out of manifest necessity, cats would be kept in the brewhouses to protect the grains from mice” (Hendricks). Could our modern vision of witches have stemmed from medieval alewives? Though no one knows for certain, “the Church and anti-witch propaganda may have contributed to beer making becoming a boys’ club” (Nugent).
Post-Plague Europe saw the increased consumption of ale, and women did not have access to the money or political influence that was required for large scale commercial brewing. As Europe transitioned to larger breweries, “the late 14th century saw a surge in breweries ran by married couples, with the wives providing brewing know-how and the husbands providing the capital and political connections” (Oliver 849). Over time, men became the predominate brewers, but women still contributed to the revolution of beer. One nun, St. Hildegard of Bingen, “has the distinction of being the first person to publicly recommend the use of hops in brewing for their healing, bittering, and preserving properties long before anybody else” (Hendricks).
In 1700s Russia, Catherine the Great was the ruling empress. After signing a commercial treaty with Britain, she gained quite a fondness for a beer that was known as the London Stout. This beer was dark and high in gravity, and became a common export to Russia upon Catherine’s request. It is thanks to her that in modern times this beer is “widely known as Russian Imperial Stout” (Oliver 230).
After the British colonization of America, women were brewing beer at home, which was an important part of the colonial diet. In fact, “settlers of the colonies drank large quantities of beer as a nutritional break from a diet based largely of salted, smoked and dried meats” (Baugher). Women were so closely tied to beer at this time in America that there were beers called bride-ale and groaning beer: the first sold during weddings to honor the bride and the latter to be consumed “during and after labor by the midwives and mothers” (Baugher). In Philadelphia in 1734, “Mary Lisle become America’s unofficial first brewster when she took over her father’s brewhouse” (Schell.) Many historians also like to highlight First Lady Martha Jefferson’s contribution to beer history, for supervising most of the brewing done for President Jefferson – but it is important to note that the real individuals who deserve the credit for brewing are the Jefferson’s slaves. Similar to what happened in Europe, 18th century America witnessed that “women as brewers and even brewing as a household art was on the decline, giving way to the male-dominated world of the beer industry” (Schell).
The craft beer industry in the U.S. is currently booming. This was not a slow, steady growth – in the 1800s there were nearly 4,000 breweries, Post-Prohibition around 700 reemerged, and in the 1970s there were only 80-something breweries in the whole country. Fortunately, in the past three decades, craft brewing has made a comeback. This recent growth “has marked a clear resurgence of women playing crucial roles in the modern beer industry” (Oliver 849). Breaking back into the industry hasn’t been easy, with “the main obstacles that women continue to face in this industry include perceptions of taste, media influence, and preconceived notions about their skill and ability” (Baugher). What’s interesting is that women are actually recognized as having a “superior sense of taste and smell” and a “greater ability to remember and recount sensory experiences” – skills responsible for earning women “valued seats on educated beer sensory analysis panels around the world” (Oliver 849). Despite the obstacles, women are taking the modern beer industry by storm. To cap it off, I’d like to share just a few of the amazing women I admire in the modern craft beer world:
Kim Jordan, the co-founder of New Belgium Brewing; once served beers on a Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, delivered a newborn son the next Wednesday, and opened a new brewery the subsequent Monday. Gwen Conley, one of the world’s leading microbiologists, an expert in fermentation, and Director of Brewery Production and Quality Assurance at The Lost Abbey. J. Nikol Jackson Beckham, a professor of communication studies with a PhD and the first-ever Diversity Ambassador at the Brewers Association. Nicole Erny, the first female (and fourth person overall) to pass the Master Cicerone Exam. Sister Doris Engelhard, who brews her beer in the Mallersdorf Abbey and is the last nun working in Europe as a brewmaster. Teri Fahrendorf, brewmaster, road brewers, and founder of Pink Boots Society. She survived third degree burns and skin grafts to 11% of her body after a brewing accident involving 50 gallons of boiling water. Kate Power, Betsy Lay, and Jen Cuesta – founders of Lady Justice Brewing Company, who donate all their profits over costs to organizations that support the status and opportunities for women and girls. L.A. McCrae, founder of Black Star Line Brewery, the first and only black-owned, queer woman-owned brewery in North Carolina. María Antonieta Carrión, founder and master brewer at Cervecería Madrina and one of the few master brewers in Mexico.
-This is a modified version of a piece I wrote for the Stormcloud Brewing Co. mug club members.
-Additionally, while doing my research I realized that a lot of main stream articles I read on women in the history of beer were very much focused on European/American, white women. I know there is a lot more beer history that includes women of color from all over the world. I was not able to do as much research I would’ve like to by the time this piece was due – but I intend to. This current post will ultimately be part 1 of 2.
Baugher, Krystal. “Women and Beer: A 4,500-Year History Is Coming Full Circle.”
The Atlantic, Nov. 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/11/women-and-beer-a-4-500-year-history-is-coming-full-circle/281338/.
Chapman, Gray. “What We Talk About When We Talk About “Bitch Beer”.” Punch, Apr. 2018, punchdrink.com/articles/what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-bitch-beer/.
Hendricks, Scotty. “The dark history of women, witches, and beer.” Big Think, 9 Mar. 2018, bigthink.com/scotty-hendricks/the-dark-history-of-women-witches-and-beer.
Nugent, Addison. “For Centuries, Alewives Dominated the Brewing Industry.” Atlas Obscura, 17 Aug. 2018, http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/women-making-beer.
Nurin, Tara. “How Women Brewsters Saved the World.” Craft Beer & Brewing, Feb. 2015, beerandbrewing.com/how-women-brewsters-saved-the-world/.
Oliver, Garrett, editor. The Oxford Companion to Beer. Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 229-30, 848-849.
Schell, Allison. “Women and Beer: A Forgotten Pairing.” National Women’s History Museum, May 2017, http://www.womenshistory.org/articles/women-and-beer-forgotten-pairing.