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A (Very) Brief History of Women in Beer

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Cuneiform tablet depicting beer allocation, c. 3000 BC; British Museum, London. [Photograph: takomabibelot on Flickr]

Some of the earliest written evidence for beer production called upon a woman—well, strictly speaking, a goddess—to ensure that the magic of fermentation occurred. The Hymn to Ninkasi, as it became known, was pressed into a cuneiform tablet in Sumeria around 1800 BCE, and it offers useful hints as to how beer was actually made at the time (if not a more fully-formed idea of where Ninkasi fit into the Sumerian pantheon). Ninkasi is remembered by beer fans today though an award given by the American Homebrewers Association, and by a delightful brewery in Oregon that was named in her honor.

But where do mortal women fit in the history of beer?

Other tablets from Mesopotamia, ranging over a period of hundreds of years, suggest that most brewers were women, and that they undertook their occupation on both domestic and ritual scales. The Code of Hammurabi (c. 1700 BCE) indicates that tavern-keepers, who were likely producing the beer they sold, were women, and that they could be 'thrown in the river' if they cheated their customers—in short, their work was important enough to make laws about. Egyptian art also depicts women brewing, and perhaps this already-long history of women's involvement with beer-making is what led to What Happened Next: the rise of the Classical period, and a shift to a preference for wine over beer (at least, among the elites).

The Greeks viewed wine as a man's beverage, while beer was viewed as effeminate and thoroughly déclassé, and the Romans inherited this prejudice from them.

Of course, beer was still being produced, especially in Europe; we have some good archaeological evidence of European beer production and consumption from the Neolithic period onward—but less of an idea of who, exactly, was doing the brewing—an area that could do with considerably more research.

We're on firmer ground if we skip ahead to the medieval period; women were very clearly the primary makers of beer across much of Europe then. These women brewers appeared in literature of the era as well, not just in civic documents—Betoun the Brewster even pops up in Piers Plowman. It has been noted that there is no male equivalent for 'alewife', although the masculine 'brewer' seems to have long been available for the (initially) small number of men in the industry, while women could choose to be called 'brewsters.'

As brewing became more professionalized and less of a domestic duty, those brewsters began disappearing; by the 15th century, England and Germany had developed strong guilds for brewers—and while there were women among their numbers, the trend was a downward one.

By the eighteenth century, women brewers seemed to have largely disappeared from the professional ranks—but it's worth noting that they still appeared in popular song. 'Mother Watkin's Ale' first appeared as a broadside in the late sixteenth century and it enjoyed a long life (in fact, it's still recorded today). Women still appeared as tavern-keepers (many of whom brewed their own beer)—in colonial America, a not inconsiderable percentage of tavern-keepers were women, but commercial brewing came to be seen as an almost exclusively male pursuit.

While the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw women appear in ever-increasing numbers of beer advertisements, their role in these ads shifted dramatically. Early representations of women by commercial breweries tended to focus on beer's wholesome, family-oriented image; these women were typically mothers serving beer to husbands or brothers, often with a baby in tow. That obviously changed - but while modern beer advertising seemed to become increasingly sexist (at least from the large brewers), women were quietly making their way back into the industry.

Carol Stoudt began making craft beer in the late 1980s—and the Stoudt's brand continues to grow. In England, Sara Barton reclaimed the seemingly-almost-forgotten title of brewster when she founded her brewery in the late 1990s after years of brewing for companies like Courage. Another British brewster, Emma Gilleland, became the first female head brewer at Marston's when she took command in 2007. In Belgium, Hildegard van Ostaden creates a wide variety of unusual beers for Urthel, while Dominique Friart does the same for St. Feuillien. Back in America, the Pink Boots Society was founded by brewer Teri Fahrendorf to help other women in the industry network; it now includes more than 500 members around the world.

So what beer should we drink to toast to the brewsters? Luckily, there are now many options. New Belgium employs a number of women brewers&mdashand with CEO Kim Jordan at the helm, they are certainly one to consider if you're within their distribution area. Moylan's, Allagash, Abita, Live Oak and Victory all have brewsters among their ranks, and there are many more craft breweries with females owners, lab staff, marketing geniuses, saleswomen and everything in between.

It's well worth seeking out one of these brands to raise a glass to women brewers, past, present and future.

About the Author: Lisa Grimm is a craft beer geek with a background in archaeology, historic research and technology. She blogs about beer at WeirdBeerGirl.com.

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