Women and Brewing

24 03 2010

Ed. note- March is Women’s History Month and today (March 24th) is Ada Lovelace Day. Ada Lovelace was an English writer and mathematician. By many, she is considered the first computer programmer. On Ada Lovelace Day, bloggers are encouraged to write posts on women’s roles in the advancement of science.

It can be claimed that over 99% of humanity’s interaction with fermentation has been led by women. It seems difficult to believe in the modern West where beer and spirits have become a man’s space. But from the hunter gatherer’s day of fermenting honey to mead to even today where cheesemaking,  , and even in the case of many pre-industrialized cultures alcohol making has been led by women. If, for so long, yeast production was led by women, why is it that men have so successfully co-opted beer?

But first, a history of women and fermentation.

As mentioned above, women were most likely the first fermenters. In hunter/gatherer societies, mead was the first fermented beverage. Honey mixed with water and fermented with wild yeasts, it is the most basic of alcoholic beverages. Women would gather honey along with herbs, fruit and roots. And, as water gatherers and fire keepers, they were probably the ones to control the mead as well.

Fast forward several thousand years to the beginning of agriculture. It is a common theory among anthropologists and archeologists that agriculture was begun in order to increase fermentation yields. Records found in Mesopotamia (one of the first agricultural sites in the world) showed that farmers grew as much barley as wheat. If food was the main reason for farming, it would not make sense to grow so much barley. Barley is more difficult to grow than wheat. It is difficult to mill into flour due to its hard shell and is poor for making bread. On the other hand, wheat is not good for making beer because of its high protein levels and thin shell. To grow one and not the other would show agriculture was based for food instead of alcohol. But to grow both shows a selection of grains for multiple uses.

Beer was most likely discovered by accident. Malting grain (allowing it to sprout and then drying it) is the best way to preserve grains other than baking it. Women bakers at home most likely discovered some water in their malt storage and found the sweet, fermented liquid to be pleasing to the taste and constitution. For a vast history of subsistance lifestyle, women were in charge of cooking cheese, baking bread and brewing beer (the three forms of human led fermentation).

In the pre-industrialized world, much of the alcohol consumed in home was brewed at home. Each family had their own recipes, malted local grains, grew their own hops and re-used their own yeast. In Belgium, spontaneous fermentation led to the development of “farmhouse style ales” including Saison and Lambic. In England and the New World, a process of reusing yeast called “Kreuzening” was used. This was accomplished by taking the yeast filled foam off the top of the fermenting beer and putting it in the next batch.

In Ancient Sumeria all the way to the Industrial Revolution, women weren’t only the homebrewers, they were also the tavern owners. women, being the ones who knew how to brew, were responsible for the town’s beer supply. Owning taverns and brewing beer were seen as socially acceptable ways for widowed and orphaned women to support themselves. And in England during the middle ages women tavern owners were called “Alewives.’ Their breweries were recognized by the brooms hanging over their doors. These Alewives, with their brewed potions and brooms, may have been the early models for our witches myths. As Carolyn Merchant points out in “The Death of Nature” it was precisely these witch myths that men exploited in order to consolidate power and wealth during the rise of modern industrialism. Eventually, male brewers became so tired of competing with Alewives, they had laws passed to make it near impossible for women brewers to make money off their product. They even made certain vital ingredients illegal for women to own including more than one bushel of grains at a time.

In other areas, the responsibility of the town’s beer supply was to the clergy. Some monastic orders, including the Trappists and Paulanists, are recognized for their proud brewing tradition. But some nuns, particularly the Franciscans, were also accomplished brewers. To this day, many Franciscan nuns are still very accomplished brewers. In 1976, a 26 year old nun named Sister Doris took the Bavarian brewer’s examination and came in on top.

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen was a German Bendedictine nun and mystic who wrote many books about brewing and the brewing process. There is some debate on whether or not she is the first person to write about the use of hops. But she is definitely the first person to recognized the preservative nature of the plant.

St. Brigid, a patron saint of both Ireland and brewers is said to have turned her bathwater to beer so that the local lepers could drink potable water. And it is also said that when an easter celebration had run out of beer, she had turned water to beer.

In America, beer was slow to catch on. Barley was difficult to grow. By the time German and Czech immigrants began selling beer, most Americans were happy sticking to spirits and cider. Beer did not catch on until the mid- to late 19th century. At this point, beer and taverns had been designated as male spaces. American women generally did not brew beer at home. And thus, beer in the States had become a male dominated beverage.

In the twentieth century, women still bought beer for their family’s use. Beer at that point had been reduced to the sparkling macro brews we are used to today. The development of the beer can and the six pack was actually marketed toward women as an easy way to bring home the beer. And men, who’s beer tastes had been developed during WWII, were comfortable with the beer in a can.

As the American craft brew scene developed in the 1970’s and 1980’s women’s liberation and feminism brought women right back to were we began, in the brewery. Although a small proportion of modern brewers are women, it is growing. Stoudt’s Brewing in Pennsylvania is recognized as the first modern brewery with a woman brewmaster. Harlem Brewing Company in New York City is the first brewery in America to have a Black woman brewer.

In nearly every facet of brewing, there is a woman’s touch these days: women brewers, bar owners, distributors, sommeliers, and just drinkers. an organization called the Pink Boots Society works to support women in the beer world. As of last month, their directory contained over 320 members from around the world. Any woman who makes at least part of her income from beer is welcomed to join the Pink Boots Society.

Let us raise a glass in recognition of all the women who helped make beer what it is today!

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3 responses

24 03 2010
Audra

I want to make beer just to own those boots! We do a dinner club with someone who brews his own beer — we’re contemplating an experiment of our own this fall!

24 03 2010
Grace

Lovely post by a lovely person.

28 04 2010
Audrey

I’m a woman and I make my living from beer, in a disproportionately male industry. Thanks for posting this terrific article.

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