This year, for me, is all about reaching for my goals and aspirations; one of them being entering the beer industry. With that being said, I thought I’d take the time to write a little bit about the stigma of women in this so-called “man’s domain” of brewing and beer as a whole. As you can see the title says Part 1. This is because this topic is something I wish to expand upon in future posts, a kind of series if you will. So for this post, I’m giving you a little overview of the origin of brewing and the woman’s place in it.
It wasn’t always considered a man’s place to brew beer. In ancient times, evidence shows that on all inhabited continents it was actually the woman’s duty to brew the beer. Ale goes back about 7,000 years ago and was known in Neolithic Europe (a period of time from the first farming societies to the Bronze Age) as far back as 5,000 years ago. It was brewed on a domestic scale and was the woman’s job to bake the bread (which was used in the brewing process) and brew the beer. It wasn’t until a new ideology about women brewers came along followed by the Industrial Revolution era when beer was commercialized that brewing shifted from being made in the home by women to breweries filled with men.
Tradition claims that brewing beer is a by-product of gathering, others claim it was in the same realm as baking, therefore making it a woman’s responsibility. In ancient times, women worked as baker-brewers and were involved in the commercial distribution of beer. Tribal Germanic women, Northern English women, Finnish women, Danish women, etc. etc. were the primary brewers and distributors before monasteries and guilds took over in the Middle Ages. It’s even been proven that Norse Vikings only allowed women to brew their ale, and those Vikings loved their ale!
To further substantiate this ideology, there is a 3,900 year old Sumerian poem honoring Ninkasi, the patron goddess of brewing and alcohol. It is believed to be the oldest known recipe for brewing and was written to be passed down from generation to generation. It describes the art of producing beer from barley, via bread, and is the oldest known record of the correlation between the importance of brewing and the woman’s responsibility to provide her house with bread and beer. The fact that Ninkasi was a female deity, and prayers were called upon her in regards to brewing beer, typifies the reality that it was a woman’s right and responsibility. Egypt’s Tenenet was the goddess of beer and hieroglyphics show women both brewing and drinking beer. Raugutiene, a Baltic and Slavic goddess, was the protector of beer, and Finnish legend Kalevatar was a woman believed to be the inventor of beer by mixing bear saliva with honey. Sounds like that was a bit of a challenge!
Starting in the 16th century, men began to dominate brewing and a new ideology about women brewers was created. Alewives were depicted as witch-like, untrustworthy and corrupt, even repulsive. It also became custom to correlate brewing and selling to that of a widow’s position. We all know the proclamation of witchcraft was a right nasty era and with women brewers being thought of as witch-like, men were able to justify their control on a woman’s social place in society. Then came the industrialization of beer which put the remaining women still brewing in more rural areas pretty much out of business. Most wives in the countryside used the money made by selling their ale to supplement the household income. However, since ale was being produced in higher quantities and widely distributed, people could buy it cheaper; hence the demand for a housewife’s ale was rapidly declining. By the 18th century many women were now prohibited from producing alcohol and thus consigned to barmaids, secretaries of brewers or bottlers. There were, however, a few women who still managed to keep things going. Namely Martha Jefferson, known for her wheat beer and Mary Lisle, who was the first commercial brewster (traditional name for a woman brewer) of the Thirteen Colonies. She inherited her father’s brewery and ran it for 17 years! It wasn’t until about mid 20th century that women began working as chemists for breweries and then finally reentering the industry as craft brewers around the 1960’s and 70’s. While it’s still a male dominated industry, women are on the rise – influencing and developing brands, becoming brewmasters and being nationally recognized by brewers associations across the world!
So to all of you naysayers out there claiming that brewing isn’t a woman’s place, I believe I have proved you wrong.