Love Beer? Thank the Women Who Made It Possible

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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?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Public Domain
Sumerian wage records featuring beer

The story of brewing is the story of nourishing and caring for loved ones and community. Women, it turns out, had a critical role in this equation: They quietly fed their families and communities with the products of their search for sources of nutrition, hydration, and income. By looking at their involvement, we come to far more compelling answers about the how and why of brewing than we would by simply considering it as a commercial enterprise.

In the ancient world, brewing was often a household task assigned to women. In ancient Greece and ancient Egypt, for example, winemaking was considered a man’s profession, but beer was brewed and consumed in the home, and thus was a woman’s task.

The British Library/Public Domain
A female brewmaster appears in the marginalia of the Smithfield Decretals.

The history of daily homebrewing, because it was long considered unremarkable, is barely recorded directly, instead showing up in other documentation (such as medieval English court records, in which women appeared as brewers more than in any other capacity). Little was written in England, for example, about brewing itself until the early 1600s, when large-scale, male-dominated breweries became more established. As editor Michael Best says, this shows that brewing “as women’s work … was the subject of little interest to male writers.”

Though taken for granted, the importance of beer in European households can’t be overstated. Writing in 1615, author Gervase Markham described beer as “the drink, by which the household is nourished and sustained.” Women often brewed beer for neighbors or to sell as well, beginning in the ancient world. Through the Middle Ages, homebrewing gave women a measure of financial independence. Brewing, considered “women’s work,” didn’t fall under the umbrella of restricted careers for women, and so alewives or “brewsters” (as female alehouse owners and brewers were sometimes called) could open alehouses to sell their products for profit. Even as commercial breweries overtook the broader market, homebrewing of beer and mead remained common enough into the 19th century that English newspapers mention the practice.

How did all of this shift?

© IWM (Q 28330)
In World War I, women took on the ancestral task of brewing beer once more.

Industrialization and Compartmentalization

In the Western world, the spread of Christianity facilitated the rise of brewing in monasteries, though women were still at the forefront of brewing, supplying huge amounts of beer to their communities from secular alehouses and religious convents.

Photo by Welbeck Abbey Brewery
Claire Monk, Welbeck Abbey Brewery.

After the Black Death in the mid-14th century, incomes rose and more people began making and consuming beer, leading to increased interest in brewing, additional regulations, and eventually to women being pushed from a space they’d long controlled. As Claire Monk, who runs the brewery at Welbeck Abbey, says, “Women were the first brewers, similar to the first bakers and cheesemakers. It wasn’t until brewing, as with other food production, was industrialized that it became a man’s job.” Male-dominated brewing guilds placed restrictions on what could be called “beer.” Meanwhile, female brewsters, who stood over bubbling (fermenting!) pots of near-magical liquid, kept cats to deter rodents from their grain, and often wore large hats and shouted their wares on street corners, were framed as thieves and deviants. The Western image of a witch still draws heavily on the image of a brewster. As Jeanette Hurt, author of Drink Like a Woman, says, “Nothing sinks your livelihood faster than being accused of witchcraft.”

Men’s commercial brewing operations moved brewing outside of the home, and thus outside of women’s ability to meaningfully participate, and during the Industrial Revolution, men’s role as brewers was cemented. Maureen Ogle notes in her book Ambitious Brew that we see a meteoric rise in American brewing in the late 19th century, when there were 4,131 commercial breweries in the U.S.

New Brews from Old Roots

Though women continued to brew at home, they had to fight their way back into making beer for others as a career. Today, many women are again at the forefront of brewing ingenuity, both in commercial breweries and beyond. Food historian Tasha Marks and her friends cooked up an experimental archaeology project to learn more about Egyptian brewing, using single-fired pottery to wick excess heat from the fermenting liquid. Emily Geiger, founder of Craft Cultures, captures wild yeasts from the environment around her and uses them in beers and as prepared cultures for other brewers. In Hot Springs, Arkansas, Rose Schweikhart brews in a refurbished bathhouse using water from the nearby hot springs. Carol Stoudt, the first female American brewmaster and “mother of craft beer,” is still at the helm of her brewery after almost four decades. And, like countless women brewing through the centuries, Danii Oliver of Island to Island Brewery juggles caring for her children with a successful career.

Photo by Stoudt Brewing
Carol Stoudt, Stoudt Brewing Company

And women are brewing up more than beer itself. Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, for example, does consulting, education, and more to make the field of craft beer, and research around craft beer, more inclusive of women and people of color. And the Pink Boots Society continues to spearhead initiatives focused on women in brewing, such as a 2018 event to celebrate International Women’s Day with female brewers that grew into an annual celebration.

Photo by Matty Byloos
Madeleine McCarthy, Migration Brewing

More and more women are seeking out careers in the beer industry, thanks in part to the advocacy of the Pink Boots Society and groups like it. And while many women still face unequal treatment in the brewing world, there’s a resounding sense of hope among those I spoke to. As Madeleine McCarthy, brewer at Portland’s Migration Brewing, says, “I hope that the question ‘How is it being a woman in the brewing industry?’ can fade into the background soon, and we can focus on including more people of color, LGBTQ, nonbinary, and genderfluid humans in the fermentation conversation.” Monk agrees: “Many pubs and festivals have showcased my beers over the years based on my gender, which I hope is in celebration of increasing diversity within a traditionally white, male-dominated industry, rather than remarking on the ‘wonder’ that girls can brew beer too.”

Ordinary Magic

For many women brewers, brewing up a good beer literally feels like making magic, hearkening back to those alewives stirring their bubbling pots. McCarthy says, “How can you make beer without thanking the alewives, brewsters, and goddesses who brought this magical concoction from the gods to us? … I absolutely love the theory that most witches were actually making beer. Brewing is magical.”

Photo by Kevin Michaluk

For Christine Stevens, a founding brewer at New Realm Brewing in Atlanta, “Brewing is a craft that appeals to … having created something that seems like magic. Especially once you understand the weird process that is fermentation.”

Sometimes, that magic is simply in the connection felt with the women who came before us. Monk brews alongside Welbeck Bakehouse and the School of Artisan Food, and feels “strong connections with the history of beer production, and place[s] emphasis on brewing the traditional way just as the first brewster would have done centuries ago.”

The future of women in brewing feels magical too. McCarthy is excited about where brewing has been and where it’s going, citing many women-led breweries in Tulsa, Oklahoma, such as American Solera and Heirloom Rustic Ales, as well as a greater recognition of women’s role in brewing, such as the new documentary Girl Beer.

Photo by Karen Seagrave Photography
Rose Schweikhart, Superior Bathhouse Brewery

For some, the minimization of women’s history makes it feel abstract. Jenna Blair, a quality technician for California-based Lagunitas Brewing Company, says, “The profession has been so male-dominated in this country for so long, [women’s role in brewing] feels very distant.”

Even so, every woman in brewing I spoke to is fiercely proud of her place in brewing history, and excited that women’s parts in it are coming more to the forefront. Women continue to face belittlement, obstacles, and even harassment as both makers and consumers of beer. But if anything, those obstacles make the brewers I spoke to even more determined to carve out a space for themselves. Each one emphatically told me they belong in brewing just as much as men do. And, of course, they’re right. Women have been there since the beginning.

Julia Skinner is a food historian and fermentation specialist with a particular interest in community building and outreach. She’s the founder of Root, an organization that provides food workshops to underserved communities in Atlanta, Georgia, and offers food history and historic recipes online.

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