A Woman’s Place Is in the Brewhouse: A Forgotten History of Alewives, Brewsters, Witches, and CEOs
By Tara Nurin, Chicago Review Press, $19.99, 304 pages
Context is everything. The oft-repeated fact that beer today is dominated by white male culture is true, but it’s also a snapshot in time and place. It wasn’t always that way, and maybe that can be a source of hope and energy for those who want to push for a more balanced status quo.
There is so much more to the story of beer—or rather, there are many more stories, and women are at or near the center of most of them. Even today, when we’re supposed to know better, we overlook their influence. Tara Nurin’s book represents a badly needed revision of the way we see the beer world—particularly its past 45 years.
If that revision will be hard for some to accept, at least this book will be easy for them to read. Nurin has a clear-eyed view of our current moment, informed by personal experience and years covering the beer industry. She uses that perspective and an engaging writing style to shed light on our shared past.
Some of the history is ancient—we know about Ninkasi, for example, but surely there ought to be more beers named after Kubaba, a Sumerian queen and the first woman ruler in recorded history. (Naturally, she ran a brewpub.) Much of the history is more recent, such as the underappreciated role of Suzy Stern in cofounding and running American’s first modern microbrewery, New Albion (Sonoma, California), with Jack McAuliffe. Again and again, Nurin is adept at finding and introducing us to the woman behind the better-known man—or right next to him, or in front of him, or totally without him.
The book is more than just a series of interesting stories, however. Nurin weaves together a tapestry that reveals uncomfortable truths about ourselves and brewing today. Even now, these imbalances are encoded in the American family—as illustrated in the chapter about women homebrewers: “A lot of guys I know take it as a day off from the family, leaving their wives to mind the kids while they sit around for eight hours drinking beer and potentially boasting of their beer-making prowess,” Nurin writes. “When women did it, it was work. When men do it, it’s leisure.”
Another pioneer, Pink Boots founder and longtime brewer Teri Fahrendorf, contributes the foreword. Brewing, she writes, is “women’s work.” We can only admire how they’ve taken those old domestic dismissals and turned them around to become a source of professional pride. Discussions about how women are disproportionately missing from the world of brewing—about how there ought to be more in the brewhouse, and in the front office, and more of them homebrewing, too—are bound to continue. This book provides invaluable context for those conversations, even if it won’t make the necessary paradigm shift any easier to pull off. —JS
World Atlas of Beer, 3rd edition
By Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont, Octopus Books, $39.99, 272 pages
Usually when we talk about the “beer world,” we’re not really talking about the whole planet; we’re talking about whatever piece of the world we happen to know. Yet there’s value in taking a step back to understand how all the pieces fit together. Unless we understand what’s going on in the wider world, we don’t fully understand what’s happening in our piece of it, or how we’ve arrived at this place we’re in now. Our global interconnectedness is a lesson easily learned, then easily forgotten.
One of the things we like best about Webb and Beaumont’s World Atlas of Beer is that they’ve made a serious study of what’s going on elsewhere, putting each piece in context. They’re excellent at perspective, zooming out for the big picture, zooming in to particular cultures and beer scenes, then zooming back out again to tell you what it all means. No, they don’t go into great detail about the beer of any one country, so if you’re interested in one particular place—South Africa, for example—this book won’t satisfy you. It goes wide, but not shallow; informing the whole book is a long-simmering, finely tuned critique of the sort of commodity brewing that prioritizes profit over characterful beer. It’s a celebration of the craft of brewing and those who’ve committed themselves to honing that craft.
That’s if you bother to read the book cover to cover, which isn’t necessary or expected. Leave it on your coffee table or home bar top, flip through it while enjoying a glass of beer from near or far, and pick up a bit of brewing knowledge about a place you love or a place you’re not familiar with. Be careful though—once you start reading, it grows more and more difficult to put it down. —JB