Love Beer? Thank the Women Who Made It Possible

Brewing began with women seeking creative answers to the simple question of staying fed, and that lineage runs throughout the history of the craft.

Photo by Furman
Danii Oliver, Island to Island Brewery

Our relationship with drinking alcohol is as old as humanity itself. Early hominids started imbibing the stuff around 10 million years ago (though not on purpose) as they ate fallen fruit that had started to ferment. We learned how to brew our own drinks about 10,000 years ago, and we’ve been making and enjoying beer ever since.

Early alcoholic beverages were made with whatever was available, and flavors and alcohol content depended on the available ingredients. In China, for example, there’s evidence of a beverage brewed from rice, honey, and fruit from the 7th century B.C. In the Fertile Crescent, evidence of both baking and brewing appears around 9,000 to 10,000 years ago, and by 6,000 B.C., the Sumerians valued beer enough to use it as currency. In ancient Egypt, beer brewing was elevated to a high art, and beer was again such an important resource that it was used as currency for laborers.

However, accounts of this history often neglect to include some of its most pivotal players: female brewers, who have quietly guided the craft of beer-making since the beginning. By brewing in convents, inns, and their own homes, women made beer to nourish their families and communities with a safe and nutrient-rich drink.

© IWM (Q 28332)

Asking the Right Question

There’s a longstanding debate about whether beer or bread came first, but as food historian Rachel Laudan says, that debate focuses on the wrong questions. Instead, she says, we can yield far more interesting answers by asking more interesting questions: What problems did these foods solve? What technologies did we have to access them? In essence, rather than when it happened, why did we do it in the first place?



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