The quote “He was a wise man who invented beer” is often attributed to the great and famous mind of Plato. Unfortunately, there are 2 problems with this quote. 1. He never said it and 2. It was actually a wise woman who invented beer. To be honest, number 2 is a bit of an over simplification but frankly, I’m looking to shed some light on women’s often overlooked role in the thousands of years of brewing history, so forgive some dramatic license.
Societal conventions (that are completely outdated and foolish) hold that beer is a “man’s drink” and brewing is “man’s work”. Well, at least the modern history of ridiculous and sexist beer campaigns and the hard work of million dollar marketing firms would have you believe that. But the actual story is quite different. Ancient writings let us know that women were the original home brewers and history books tell us that women were actually the first commercial brewers. Take that sexist beer campaigns! Terms such as “ale wives” and “brewsters” were common and inform us of the level of female involvement in the development of the brewing industry. Unfortunately, the dawn of Monastic brewing, religious pressure and the increased demand for commercial brewing muted the female involvement in brewing to the point women were not involved at all. Thanks guys. Then there was a whole lot of nothing for ladies and the next time we got involved with beer was the early part of the 20th century. But sadly this time, it was to the detriment of the brewers. The
Women’s temperance movement and prohibition in North America threatened the very survival of an industry that women helped create. To say that women’s role in brewing was slight in the years following the repeal of prohibition would be an understatement. Women were relegated to models in advertisements and had a very limited involvement in the brewing industry as a whole. It wasn’t until the birth of the craft beer movement in the US and yes in Canada too, that women started participating in the brewing industry again in a meaningful way, taking women’s role in brewing full circle and back to brewing that delicious beverage
we call beer.
Women and Brewing in Ancient Cultures
There is not one agreed-upon creation story for the discovery of beer. A popular myth holds that bread was left out in the elements by a woman and the natural yeast present in nature began the fermentation process and the end result was beer, because science! Is it 100% true? Who knows. But it is the generally and popularly accepted story. The larger piece of the impact of women on brewing, specifically in the ancient
world is numerous cultures attribution of the creation of beer to female religious deities. The Sumerians have the earliest recorded mention of beer and the goddess Ninkasi is said to have watched over all brewing activities. In the “Hymn to Ninkasi”, it is said:
“Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads, the cooked mash on large reed mats, coolness overcomes. You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort, brewing [it] with honey and wine”
That is just a short excerpt from the poem translated by Miguel Civil, but the entire lengthy poem is, in a manner of speaking a beer recipe. Not in the practical sense but in a manner of giving thanks to the goddess for its creation and for the ingredients it contains. Similarly in Ancient Egypt, the goddess Hathor was given
credit for the creation of beer and was called the “inventress of brewing” and the “mistress of intoxication”. During this time period in Egypt, women were the operators of small taverns that were so common that the Code of Hammurabi actually has 4 specific clauses that refer to women and beer. For example:
(108) If a tavern-keeper (feminine) does not accept corn according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.
While Sumerian and Egyptian female brewers are most well known, there are other countries that feature women prominently in their brewing history. The Finns credit the creation of ale to three women: Osmotor, Kapo and Kalevatar. The legend is that while they were getting ready for a wedding feast, they combined the saliva from a bear (where did the bear come from?) with wild honey and added it to “beer” and created ale.
Osmotor is called the “beer preparer” in The Kalevala, the Finnish epic poem:
Osmotar, the beer-preparer,
Brewer of the drink refreshing,
Takes the golden grains of barley,
Taking six of barley-kernels,
Taking seven tips of hop-fruit,
Filling seven cups with water,
On the fire she sets the caldron,
Boils the barley, hops, and water,
Lets them steep, and seethe, and bubble
Brewing thus the beer delicious
The shared characteristic in all three of these cultures is that because the process of brewing was similar to
the process of making bread and often occurred in the same place; the family kitchen. Given that making bread and feeding the family was a task that fell under women’s purview the brewing of beer was almost exclusively a role for women. It wasn’t until the middle ages that the notion of small batch brewing for family use began to shift into a more commercial proposition and subsequently women’s roles in brewing began to change with it.
Ale Wives and Brewsters in the Middle Ages
Brewing was a traditionally a household responsibility left to the wives and daughters in the middle ages, using the ale to feed their families. As women were not generally permitted to seek outside employment, the
ability to turn a profit from work already been done proved brewing to be a desirable trade for women especially given the relative stability and profitability when compared to other few and far between “female” trades of the time. In fact one figure of early 13th century England has the percentage of female brewers (brewsters) at 92%. A single or married woman (at times in tandem with their husbands) were able to brew and then sell the excess household beer. The villagers would know beer was available when an “ ale stake” was set out in front of the brewsters home or in the road. However, with monasteries taking up the practice of brewing and distributing beer around 1000AD, the task of brewing moved from something considered women’s work to a legitimate profession for men. Before the Black Plague in 1348, beer production took place mostly in the home. With the hugely increased demand for beer following the plague most female run brewing operations did not have the resources to keep up with the demand. Once men realized that profits could be made, guilds were created and political influence wielded. Women were summarily edged out of the brewing industry. Thanks fellas. In further insult to injury and in keeping with the mores of the time, the ale wife became a gross caricature for the ills of society, often being painted as a woman of ill repute or poor reputation. By the time the industrial revolution began in the late 1700’s women were for all intents and purposes done with the beer industry and would continue to be absent for the next 150 years or so.
The Women’s Temperance Movement
Women’s relationship with beer and brewing in North America has a much shorter history than the rest of the world, with little female involvement at all until the creation of the The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. In a marked contrast to women’s earlier role in brewing, these were women actively trying to shut down the breweries and bring the industry to a grinding halt. Many of the WCTU members were also suffragettes and in 1919 the US senate confirmed that the United States Brewers association actively gave money and assistance to anti-suffrage activities and causes as a way to help block the movement for prohibition. Despite the brewers efforts Prohibition came into effect in the US in 1920 and lasted until 1933. While bootlegging and illegal brewing still happened the number of brewers had fallen from 1400 to 756 in those 13 years. Those numbers continued to decrease and by 1984 there were 83 breweries operated by 44 brewers in the US.
The Second Coming of the Brewster
Other than as agitators and temperance advocates, women were largely uninvolved in the beer industry for the majority of the 20th century. Relegated to sexist beer ads, the “Swedish bikini team” and all manner of ridiculous marketing moves, it was made clear that women were not welcome in the conversation about beer. The big brewers tried to tempt female consumers into buying strange “feminine” beer-like creations that were flavourless or contained strange combinations of fruit and ultimately did nothing to increase their market share. The advent of craft breweries in the mid to late 80’s in North America opened up some space for women to finally get their foot back in the door. Women like New Belgium Brewing’s Kim Jordan (Founder) and Lauren Salazar (their wood cellar manager and master blender) and Barbara Groom from Lost Coast are highly visible in the US craft community. In Canada, women like Mirella Amato and Crystal Luxmore
are leaders in beer education and groups like Barley’s Angels, and the Society of Beer Drinking Ladies are geared to not only women interested in beer but also those who actually work in the brewing industry. Christine Coady at Folly Brewpub host events like an upcoming Brewday for “International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day”. I’m looking forward to that one! Craft brewers like Wellington host events
like “Queen of the Craft” to highlight the involvement of women in the industry, to further the education of interested women and to entice a new generation into developing a taste for beer.
The old Virginia Slims advertisement used to say “You’ve come a long way, baby” but I say we’ve come full circle and still have a ways to go.
~ an original work, by beer sommelier, Kirstie McKinlay.
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