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A Women's History of Beer

Updated on May 11, 2015
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I hold a Masters in Public History and specialize in telling the hidden stories of women and objects from ancient times to today.

Malt does more than Milton can to justify God's ways to man. --A. E. Houseman

Beer. It is perhaps our longest-favored drink, having been consumed since the dawn of civilization. It has been credited with saving the world -- twice. Beer helped to originate math, commerce, modern medicine, and refrigeration, among many other things.

Throughout its long history, beer has been a socially charged drink, capable of bringing communities together as much as tearing them apart. Whether enjoyed in a medieval tavern or tossed aside in the long debates over temperance and prohibition, beer is center stage in human history. It has also been considered a man's contribution to the world.

But that is about to change. Beer, as the evidence now shows, is not the purview of men. Its existence is due largely to the work of women, making it one of women's greatest contributions to human history, and one of the first -- and now renewed -- spheres of influence through which women exercised their independence, talent, and skills.

Sumerian tablet created during the 45th year of the reign of Shulgi, the King of Ur, in 2050 BC.  The text translates as "Ur-Amma acknowledges receiving from his brewer, Alulu, 5 sila (about 4 1/2 liters) of the 'best' beer."
Sumerian tablet created during the 45th year of the reign of Shulgi, the King of Ur, in 2050 BC. The text translates as "Ur-Amma acknowledges receiving from his brewer, Alulu, 5 sila (about 4 1/2 liters) of the 'best' beer." | Source

Ancient Beer

The first fermented beverage in recorded history is from Jiahu, China. It emerged between 7000 and 5700 BCE. Known as khi, it was a mixture of fruit, honey, and rice fermented to form beer.

The next known beer is from ancient Sumeria. According to Sumerian mythology, Ninkasi was the goddess of beer. She gifted beer to humans to preserve peace and promote well-being among them. A hymn to her, dated to 1800 BCE, states,

"Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is [like] the onrush of the Tigris and Euphrates."

The oldest known beer receipt is also credited to her. Known as the Alulu beer receipt, it is dated to 2050 BCE -- a full 250 years before the hymns -- and shows the receipt of five silas of "the best beer" from the brewer Alulu.

We know that women were the beer brewers through mythology and artifacts. Priestesses of Ninkasi were in charge of brewing beer, and archeological evidence has shown that beer emerged as the fermented drink of choice for ancient civilizations. Since men did the majority of the hunting (and politicking, warring, etc.), women were left in charge of feeding the family and growing crops. As a byproduct of growing the first crops, women likely found that fermenting crops produced a flavored -- and favored -- drink. They gathered the ingredients needed, brewing it for home consumption and religious ceremonies. Making beer was one of the first household chores.

Beer continued to be favored in ancient Babylonian culture, which also saw the advent of the first barley-based beer. Babylonian women were notably more independent than many other ancient women. They could own businesses and property, and may have participated in early commerce as they sold excess beer produced in the home. Records from ancient Babylon also detail that women were tavern keepers and professional bakers and brewers (beer was tied to the baker's profession, considering it used the same ingredients). In the Code of Hammurabi, written about 1700 BCE, one law states that tavern-keepers were women and that they could be "thrown in the river" if they cheated their customers.

A funerary model of a bakery and brewery, dating the 11th dynasty, circa 2009-1998 B.C. Painted and gessoed wood, originally from Thebes.
A funerary model of a bakery and brewery, dating the 11th dynasty, circa 2009-1998 B.C. Painted and gessoed wood, originally from Thebes. | Source

Beer spread from ancient Babylon to Ancient Egypt. In Egyptian mythology, the goddess of beer is Tenenit, and the goddess Hathor/Sekhmet is said to have saved humanity from destruction after binging on beer. Egyptian hieroglyphs depict women and men brewing and drinking beer, such as the carved figures in the tomb of Meketre that show two women grinning flour. (Meeker was the Prime Minister to pharaoh Mentuhotep II, 2050-2000 BCE.)

These are also echoed in funerary statues, such as the one at the Metropolitan Museum. Perhaps most famously, Cleopatra implemented the first known tax on beer in order to pay for her wars with Rome, but it ultimately led to her downfall as it decreased her popularity with the Egyptians.

Other ancient mythologies also indicate that women were the primary brewers of beer. In Baltic and Slavic mythology, the goddess Raugutiene provides heavenly protection over beer. And in the Finnish saga of Kalewala, the creation of hops beer is credited to the female brewer Osmata, who discovers the use of hops while making beer for a wedding. It also cites beer as endowing drinkers with health, peace of mind, and happiness.

Another famous female brewer was St. Hildegard of Bingin, who lived during the 12th century.  She was the first person to publicly recommend hops as a healing, bettering, and preserving agent.
Another famous female brewer was St. Hildegard of Bingin, who lived during the 12th century. She was the first person to publicly recommend hops as a healing, bettering, and preserving agent. | Source

Towards the Middle Ages

During Greek and Roman times, beer fell out of public favor. The Greeks viewed beer as a man's beverage, and the Romans inherited this bias. They preferred wine, considering beer as a low-class drink. The Romans did brew beer, as evidenced by excavations at the tomb of a merchant in ancient Treveris (modern day Trier) and the military encampment of Castra Regina (modern day Regensburg) dated to 179 CE.

Beer re-emerged as the favored drink of early Medieval cultures. Viking women brewed "aul" -- from which we derive the term, "ale." Aul fueled viking conquests, but it was not solely restricted to drinking by men. Viking law dictated that all brewery equipment remained the sole property of women -- giving them exclusivity as brewers. Anthropologist Alan Eames has also noted that, "Viking women drank ale, flagon for flagon, along with the men."

Now we get to one culture frequently associated with beer, the Germanic tribes. They began brewing beer as early as 800 BCE, as evidenced by great quantities of beer jugs found in excavations and tombs. In German culture, the "Hausfrau" (meaning "housewife") was in charge of brewing beer in her home.

However, the practice was taken over by Christian monks, transforming brewing into a core part of monastic life by the early Medieval period. One great example of monastic brewing is the Kulmbacher Monschshof Kloster monastery, founded in 1349 CE. The monks of Kulmbacher brewed Schwartzbier. Though the monastery-brewery was later purchased and privatized, Schwartzbier survives as the Kulmbacher Brauerei's brew Kloster Monschshof Schwarzbier -- perhaps one of the oldest continually-brewed beers in the world.

Despite the monastic takeover, women continued as the primary brewers throughout the Middle Ages. Beer was brewed as a low-alcohol, nutrient-rich version that was considered more sanitary than water. (Why? Water was a source of drink...and a place to throw your human waste.) Women appear in medieval literature, such as Betoun the Brewster's appearance in Piers Plowman. Most European women of the period are known to have drank beer, such as Queen Elizabeth I, who consumed it for breakfast and throughout the day.

Some women brewed more than their families required, selling excess beer for a profit. Though European women did not have the legal status to run a business, they would sell beer out of their homes. Traditions dating back to Roman Britain included a woman hanging a broomstick with a garland of hops outside her door to indicate the availability of extra ale. Ultimately, this tradition would lead to the establishment of taverns in the late Middle Ages.

American Beer

Beer also existed in pre-European America. Excavations have revealed breweries in the Incan and Wari cultures of South America. Noble women in both cultures oversaw brewing operations and were responsible for brewing Chicha. In many Amazonian cultures even to this day, brewing was also considered a women's trade. You can read more about the excavations of Wari breweries here.

As Europeans established colonies in America, they brought beer brewing with them. In the British colonies, women were "family brewers" who brewed ales made from corn, pumpkins, artichokes, oats, wheat, honey, and molasses. They drank beer in large quantities and brewed specific ales for special occasions. "Bride-ale" was brewed and sold during weddings, with all of the proceeds going to the bride to help establish her new home. "Groaning" beer was consumed during and after labor by midwives and new mothers. Thus, beer remained centrally tied to women's domains and life cycle. Notably, Martha Jefferson enlisted slaves at Monticello to brew her regionally famous recipes for wheat beer.

The video below will explain part of the beer-making process in colonial America (though it leaves out that women were a major part of this process).

Woman holding glass of beer over her head, 1907.
Woman holding glass of beer over her head, 1907. | Source

Commercial Beer

Unfortunately, women brewers started disappearing in the fifteenth century and throughout the coming centuries.


First, the advent of hops in brewing resulted in longer-lasting beers. Unfortunately, hops were a higher-cost resource, which many women could not afford for home brewing. This was compounded by the advent of purity laws regarding brewing, such as the Reinheitsgrebot of sixteenth-century Germany. The extra cost of brewing hops-based ale meant that large-scale brewing could only be achieved by trade guilds, which were almost entirely formed and run by men. Women were allowed in some guides, but severe restrictions were often placed upon them. Martha Howell notes in her book, Women, Production, and Patriarchy in Late Medieval Societies, that of the forty-two guilds in Cologne during the fifteenth century, only one beer brewing guild was led by a woman. She also notes that women generally brewed "bitter beer" or herbed beer rather than the new hopped beer.

Second, in the fourteenth century, two major events changed European culture. The Black Death reached its peak in 1348, killing an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Europe. This dramatic loss of people resulted in a labor shortage as Europe recovered. Survivors could "name their price" for wages, resulting in many people having excess income for the first time. This excess income was spent on beer and other merry-making. Subsequently, more ale houses were established and beer changed from a nutritional refreshment enjoyed at home to a social outing after a hard day's work.

Additionally, the Hundred Years War between England and France raged from 1337 to 1453. Part of a soldier's rations during the war included eight pints of beer. Coupled with the rise of ale houses, the demand for beer soared. It was a demand that female brewers, brewing in the home, could hardly keep up with. It required large-scale production in businesses dedicated solely to brewing. In a world where women couldn't own property or take out bank loans, the result was that breweries -- and ale houses -- became owned and dominated by men.

Third, social norms were changing. Despite restrictions on property and business, women had remained the primary beer brewers because brewing was part of domestic life. The extra income earned from selling beer was considered a contribution to the family's main income, much like incomes from other domestic-based industries. But a major change occurred in the Early Modern period (1450 to 1750) that would transform the image of female brewers forever.

The era of witch hunts branded female brewers as workers of the devil. Remember that traditions dating to Roman Britain had women hang brooms outside their door to indicate the availability of extra ale? Female brewers were also associated with imagery of women tending frothing cauldrons, cats who would chase away mice trying to eat the ingredients, and tall pointed hats that helped to denote the presence of a brewer in the marketplace. These images were now associated with witchcraft. Displaying such imagery could mean the difference between life and death for a woman as witch hunts spread through Europe and America.

Beer was becoming the domain of men. Additional social norms helped this along, such as those evidenced in the ballad "Mother Watkin's Ale" (1590). In the ballad, young women are warned that drinking beer may lead them to engage in indecent behavior -- such as the young woman who drinks Mother Watkin's ale and later finds herself pregnant.

Though no specific laws kept women from beer, social norms in most of the Western world dictated that women could not drink beer publicly. An exception was the German bier gardens, which were family-friendly and eventually spread to the United States. Women also remained a part of beer culture, often acting as tavern-keepers or assisting in their husband's breweries, but they were no longer center stage brewers.

Despite the remaining fragments of women, beer culture was forever changed. It had become large-scale in production and consumption, run almost entirely by men. Most regional beers became extinct as small-scale breweries were bought up or put out of business. Advertising of beer also shifted, from the early representations of beer as a wholesome, family-oriented product to increasingly sexist images aimed solely at men.

This was compounded as beer entered the twentieth century. The temperance movements of the early 1900s advocated against all forms of alcohol, including beer. Beer was blamed for tearing apart families, leaving women and children penniless and forgotten as husbands squandered their incomes on beers after work. Such advocacy is seen in editorials such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union cartoon, and would ultimately help to bring about the era of Prohibition.

"Water Cure for the Brewery" The Hawaiian Gazette, May 23, 1902.
"Water Cure for the Brewery" The Hawaiian Gazette, May 23, 1902. | Source

Modern Beer...Craft

Beer culture would turn on its head again later in the twentieth century. Suffrage movements throughout the twentieth century would change gender norms and laws, allowing women to enter the breweries again. Though women still faced gender stereotypes, such as sexist advertising, they would begin to publicly enjoy beer again.

Additionally, the movement to recognize local, organic, and high-quality flavored beers -- "craft beers" -- would provide a unique opportunity for women to reclaim their place as beer's creators. Home brewing became popular by the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, providing an opportunity for women to create their own brews and open microbreweries.

There are many examples of women taking back their place as brewers throughout the world. In Ecuador, women continue to brew the chicha, which is made from the yuca plant. Men are entirely left out of the brewing process, and the drink is consumed daily by children and adults thanks to its low alcohol content. In South Africa, women brew beer from sorghum, a grain that turns the beer pink in color and gives it a sour flavor; but sorghum beer is popular as it is noted to be gluten-free.

Women have also entered the brewing industry on a larger scale. Deb Carey was the first woman to found and operate a brewery in modern America, opening the New Glares Brewing Company in Wisconsin in 1993. In Britain, the first female British Brewer of the Year was Sara Barton, who runs Brewsters in Grantham. Sara also founded Project Venus, an organization for professional women brewers in the United Kingdom and Eire.

Finally, there's Tabitha Karanja, who recently ended an 80-year monopoly on brewing in Kenya. The Kenyan beer industry was dominated by the brewery founded in 1922 by George and Charles Hurst. It was continued by the East African Breweries, which is under control of global company Diageo (which also produces Guinness and Smirnoff, among others). The products made by Diageo were largely unafforabled to many Kenyans, who preferred to brew unsafe, unclean liquor in their back yards.

Yet all that changed when Tabitha, a former librarian, decided she wanted to invent an affordable, good quality drink for her fellow Kenyans to enjoy. In 1997, she founded Keroche Breweries and started making fortified wine. Ten years later, after increasing taxes and competition made her product expensive, Tabitha started brewing beer. She launched Summit Lager in 2008, a brew which now accounts for over 5% of the beer sold in Kenya. She won the African Business Leaders' Award for East African Businesswoman of the Year in 2014. As she stated in an article by Global Citizen,

"Women have always believed that it is men who are supposed to do that ... so for me what we can do is challenge the women to think further and to believe that we can do even better than men."

For more incredible women brewers, check out the following video by Pint Sized, which celebrated International Women's Day 2015 by looking at women making beer across the world. Then, go out and enjoy a of the oldest female-produced products in human history.


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    • Besarien profile image


      2 years ago from South Florida

      As a woman and beer enthusiast, I thank you for a fascinating, well-written article on women in beer history. There is a lot of good information here that I didn't know. I can't believe I'm the first to comment. I hope more readers find this piece soon. It deserves attention.


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