Women In Brewing have a long history. For most of recorded human history, women have been responsible for supplying the world’s beer. From the brewing goddesses of the ancient near east and the disenfranchised brewsters of medieval England to the ladies fighting on both sides of the US Temperance movement and the women asserting themselves in every aspect of the modern brewing industry, the story of women’s role in brewing is as long and complex as human history itself.
In many ancient societies, beer was seen as a gift of joy, love, happiness, and spirituality sent from the heavens. In both ancient Sumerian and Egyptian societies the giving of the gift of fermentation to humanity was attributed to a goddess, and in both societies its earthly production was also entrusted to females. In Sumeria, the society with the earliest records of beer production, the goddess Ninkasi watched over all brewing activities. She was the only female deity associated with an actual profession. The tablet describing one of the first recipes of beer, dated back to 1800 bc, has been dubbed the “Hymn to Ninkasi.” The Hymn is less a practical text than it is a celebration of Ninkasi’s gift of the brewing process itself. In ancient Egypt, the goddess Hathor was called “the inventress of brewing” and “the mistress of intoxication.” Both Hathor the goddess and beer itself were associated with fertility, pleasure, joy, and music.
In both ancient Sumeria and ancient Egypt, the brewing process was similar to the process of making bread and even shared the same facilities. Baking and brewing, often done with the same dough, were considered daily chores that naturally fell to the women of the household. Most depictions of the brewing process from this time show women straining mash or grinding grain for baking and brewing. Some women also used their brewing skills to turn a small profit by operating taverns or drinking houses where beer was both brewed and sold by the glass. These taverns, much like later European ones, often doubled as brothels, with the brewster and the madame being one and the same. These woman-run taverns were so common that the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1700 bc) has four laws (clauses 108–11) pertaining to them, in which the language is exclusively directed toward female operators.
Similarly to brewing in ancient Sumeria and ancient Egypt, in Europe brewing was a task that fell primarily to the women of the household until the turn of the first millenium ad. However, around the year 1000 ad, various monasteries around mainland Europe took up the practice of brewing and distributing beer. This practice began to establish beer production as a more profitable and esteemed profession, soon to be practiced on a scale that would no longer be feasible for women to conduct casually from their homes.
The most recent and best documented transition of brewing from small-scale “women’s work” to a profitable industry run almost exclusively by men occurred in medieval England and was brought on by several factors. Before 1348 ad, beer production was mostly confined to the home, as was once the case throughout Europe, and the brew of choice was traditional, unhopped English ale. Brewing was often a part of a woman’s work at home, did not entail a huge up-front investment, and was a decent source of income in times of need for both single and married women. Brewing was therefore small scale and ale supplies were inconsistent.
After the plague ravaged England, consumption of ale greatly increased. This increasing demand favored suppliers who could finance and run larger operations that put out a steady supply of ale and disadvantaged the mostly female-run home businesses requiring little capital and producing inconsistent output. Single women generally did not have access to the kind of wealth or political clout that was required for large-scale commercial brewing operations, so the late 14th century saw a surge in breweries run by married couples, with the wives providing the brewing know-how and the husbands providing the capital and political connections. The establishment of brewers’ guilds and increased regulation of the brewing industry further increased the advantages of breweries with well-connected male figureheads. The participation of women in the guilds was limited and was nonexistent in government. Therefore, a brewery had a higher chance of success if led by a man able to effect the political and economic decisions crucial to a business.
The introduction of hopped ale to England further solidified women’s role away from the commercial brewery. The already male-dominated and well-established beer industry of mainland Europe had long given up sweet ales, gruits, and other unhopped beers in favor of beer brewed with the bitter and aromatic hop. Dutch and German immigrants imported their hoppy brews into England and eventually built breweries to supply the growing population of beer drinkers. Although hopped beer was slow to supplant unhopped ale as England’s beverage of choice, the larger English breweries soon recognized the advantages in terms of quality and shelf life of producing European-style hopped beers and ales. As hopped beer’s popularity grew, its production required new brewing technology and education to which the remaining brewsters had little to no access.
Another social force that shifted brewing from brewsters to the more regulated and male-dominated industry was that England began to see negative depictions of brewsters in art. These depictions originated from the age-old fear of being cheated by false measures and deceitful tavern owners, but developed into vicious descriptions of the physical appearance, moral composition, and unsanitary brewing practices of alewives and brewsters generally.
And so the world has seen women passing on the skills and knowledge of beer brewing down to their daughters for thousands of years. The brewing traditions of women continued in most beer-drinking societies until such money and prestige accompanied brewing that it became a profession only available to men. The recent growth of craft breweries throughout the United States, however, has marked a clear resurgence of women playing crucial roles in the modern beer industry. In addition to the myriad skills that women bring to breweries, they are recognized as having a superior sense of taste and smell as well as a greater ability to remember and recount sensory experiences. These skills have earned women valued seats on educated beer sensory analysis panels around the world. There are several organizations created to support women in the beer industry, from brewers to brewery owners, managers, salespeople, advocates, and educators. One such organization, the Pink Boots Society, currently registers over 500 members. Along with the resurgence of beer in all its variations, the role of women in brewing today continues to expand and evolve.