Throughout history, the face of beer brewing has predominantly been portrayed as male. However, the narrative is far from complete without the women who, for centuries, were the primary creators and purveyors of this cherished beverage. As we explore the compelling history of women in beer, we will reveal the true she-brewers of the past and celebrate those who are shaping the beer industry today.
Ancient Beginnings Across the Continents
The story of women and beer dates back to 7000 BC, in what we now know as Iran. Archaeologists have unearthed beer-making equipment from this era and found evidence suggesting it was women who were mainly responsible for brewing. The ancients believed that the process of brewing was a gift from the goddesses, and as such, women - the givers of life - were most suited to this role.
In Sumeria (modern-day Southern Iraq), the goddess Ninkasi was worshipped as the deity of beer, and hymns to her were not only prayers but also recipes for brewing beer. The priestesses of Ninkasi held the monopoly on brewing and ran the taverns where Sumerians gathered to drink and socialize.
In the Americas, evidence suggests that beer-like beverages were produced as early as 7000 B.C. in the Andean region. In several indigenous cultures, the process of brewing was a woman’s task. Chicha, a traditional corn beer still enjoyed today, was historically crafted by women. They would prepare the brew by chewing the corn to break down the starches into fermentable sugars—a process known as malting—and then ferment it. This practice was not only a culinary process, but also held ceremonial and sacred value, further emphasizing the significance of women's roles in brewing.
In Africa, beer brewing has an extensive history as well, deeply rooted in social and spiritual traditions. The Egyptians were particularly skilled at brewing, and women played a leading role. Women would craft beer for their families, for religious offerings, and for commercial purposes. Beer was so central to the Egyptian culture that it was even used as currency. Pharaohs were often buried with miniature breweries to ensure they had access to beer in the afterlife.
In Europe, archaeological findings in the British Isles from the Bronze Age indicate that brewing was a household task primarily undertaken by women. Celtic and Germanic women brewed beer for family consumption, as well as for religious ceremonies. The Germanic tribe, the Lombards, worshiped a goddess of fermentation named Habonde, to whom they offered libations of beer.
In Asia, specifically in ancient China, women were also central to the brewing of beer. Jiahu, one of the oldest known beers dating back to 7000 BC, was likely brewed by women. Much like their counterparts worldwide, these women would have been responsible for gathering and preparing the ingredients, maintaining the fermentation process, and serving the final product.
Thus, across continents and cultures, the legacy of beer has a common thread - women. They were not only the primary brewers but also the custodians of tradition, passing down brewing techniques from generation to generation. Despite variations in ingredients and methods, the role of women as the chief brewer is a nearly universal phenomenon in the early history of beer.
The Alewives of the Middle Ages
Fast forward to medieval Europe, brewing beer was considered 'women's work' and was primarily done at home for family consumption. Women known as 'alewives' would brew extra beer and sell it at local markets, a practice that contributed to the local economy. Alewives were recognized by their ale-stakes or ale-wands – poles adorned with a wreath or cloth to signify the sale of beer.
Alewives had significant influence and economic power in their communities, but their success did not sit well with everyone. As the beer industry became more profitable, men sought to control it. The depiction of alewives began to change; they were accused of being witches and were frequently associated with symbols we now relate to witchcraft, like cats (used to control pests in the brewery) and brooms (ale-stakes).
Industrialization and the Decline of Women's Roles
The industrial revolution of the 18th century saw the beer industry move from homebrews to commercial breweries. This shift contributed to the marginalization of women in the industry. Brewing was no longer seen as a domestic duty but as a commercial enterprise – a sphere where men dominated. Women were relegated to supportive roles, and their influence in the industry gradually diminished.
As commercial brewing grew in the United States, women’s roles in beer were further diminished by the temperance movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Women were often the face of these campaigns, which sought to prohibit alcohol and were successful with the implementation of Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. This further distanced women from beer, both culturally and industrially.
The Modern Era and the Rise of Women in Craft Brewing
In the late 20th century, with the rise of craft brewing, women began to reclaim their roles in the beer industry. The craft beer movement sought to reconnect brewing with its roots and artisanal qualities, providing an opportunity for women to reenter the industry.
In 1986, Carol Stoudt became America's first female brewmaster since Prohibition, leading Stoudt's Brewing Company. She paved the way for a new generation of women in brewing.
Today, organizations like the Pink Boots Society, founded in 2007 by Teri Fahrendorf, are dedicated to supporting women in the beer industry. The organization offers education and networking opportunities to help women advance their careers in brewing.
Women are now beer entrepreneurs, brewmasters, and cicerones (beer sommeliers), helping to shape and drive the industry. Companies like New Belgium Brewing and Boston Beer Company have had women in top leadership roles, showcasing the growing influence of women in the sector.
The history of beer is intertwined with the history of women. From ancient brewmistresses and medieval alewives to modern craft beer innovators, women have been fundamental in the creation and development of beer. Though they were pushed aside during industrialization, women are now reclaiming their rightful place in the industry.
As we sip our stouts, lagers, and IPAs, let's raise a glass to the women who've crafted our beers throughout history and those who continue to brew up a storm today. The beer industry is experiencing a diverse and inclusive rebirth, and women are at the forefront, transforming the 'bar' for everyone. Cheers to that!