Beer. It’s been around for at least 5,500 years, with the earliest hard evidence of barley beer dating back to 3400 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia, and despite its reputation as being a “manly” beverage, you may be surprised to learn that women were the original brewers of beer.
That’s what Professor Jeffrey Pilcher teaches in his History of Drink course at the University of Minnesota. “Women traditionally brewed beer,” he said. “It was a domestic thing and a homemaker’s job.” Women have been involved in the process since the beginning. In the Sumerian civilization, grain was thought to be harvested for beer, not bread. The beer at this time was not a very attractive beverage; rather, people drank it through a straw as not to ingest any of the grains.
According to Professor Pilcher, European women were expected to brew beer in the home and rotate the beer once a week in order to keep the beverage from going sour. He explained that it soured rather quickly since the wort was not boiled and hops were not used. This was no small task, as beer was safer to drink than water, and was enjoyed by the entire family—including the children. Multiple gallons of beer would be consumed in a single day in the average household.
According to the Pink Boots Society, an international organization which empowers women beer professionals to advance their careers in the beer industry through education, women in England would work together to get their brews to market. Additionally, although the role of yeast was not yet understood, the women would share their yeast with others. This behavior foreshadowed the current culture in craft beer communities across the US, where brewers tend to share ingredients and equipment with one another. In these English and European societies, it is estimated that one-third of female brewers sold their beer—indicating that brewing was not just limited to the household. “Brewsters,” as they were called, also ran taverns and were expected to be honest when it came to pouring their beer. The punishment for a dishonest pour was said to be flogging.
Here in the United States we share a similar brewing history. When pilgrims first set foot on American soil, they brought with them their favorite beverage and made it a point to start brewing right away. On the East Coast, beer was a very popular beverage and most of the colonies were chock-full of home breweries where “small beer,” which was lower in alcohol content, was abundantly made. Women would brew beer as a part of keeping up the home, much like they did in Europe.
Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, was known to be a homebrewer, but it was actually his wife, Martha, who did most of the brewing at Monticello. The brewing role would stick with women until commercial breweries started popping up all over the country. “Men took over the brewing process when it went commercial and there was money to be made,” said Professor Pilcher. This was a big change in our country, but when the craft beer boom in the late 20th century hit, women would re-establish themselves in the brewing community.
Today women are brewing all over the world. In Ecuador, women are brewing a type of beer called chicha, which is made from the yuca plant. The process of making this beverage begins with boiling the yuca roots. After the yuca is boiled, it is made into a paste using a wooden pestle. Finally, the women begin chewing the yuca into little balls until all the paste is the same texture, thus starting the fermentation process. The enzymes from the saliva break down the starches in the yuca into fermentable sugars. It’s important to note that in Ecuador, men are entirely left out of the brewing process, from harvesting the yuca to fermenting it.
Chicha is consumed daily by both children and adults along with every meal, thanks to its typically low alcohol content. This drink is considered sacred in Ecuador and is also a symbol of fertility to its people. On special occasions, such as weddings or larger celebrations, a stronger version of the drink will be will made. Peruvian women also make chicha, often using corn; in Peru the corn, like the yuca, is chewed to start the fermentation process.
In South Africa, women brew a beer made from sorghum, a grain that is typically found in tropical climates. It is brewed like typical beer, but it turns out pink in color and has a sour flavor. It’s worth noting that sorghum beers are currently gaining popularity because many varieties are considered to be gluten-free, a great option for those diagnosed with celiac disease.
Here in the US, the craft beer movement has brought women back to the forefront with many fine examples leading the way, such as Deb Carey, founder and president of New Glarus Brewing Company in Green County, Wisconsin. Not only was she one of only of handful of women to own and operate a brewery in the U.S. when the brewery was founded in 1993, she also currently designs the labels for all of their beers. She was recently invited to the White House to sit with the first lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union Address in February. Deb is well respected, not only in the beer community, but is a big name in small business across the country.
Julia Herz is well-known for her blog, Craft Beer Muses, and her position as Craft Beer Program Director with the Brewers Association. According to the Association website, she is a Certified Cicerone, a BJCP judge, and an award-winning homebrewer. Her palate for beer is unrivaled and her passion for spreading the word about craft beer is second to none. Julia is another fine example of how women have made a huge impact in the beer world.
On the local scene, brewer Rachel Grey can be seen hard at work at the Herkimer Brewpub on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis. In addition, she is a homebrewer and a committee member of Barley’s Angels—a Minnesota group that promotes female beer consumerism and education. Rachel is proof that women have a home in the brewhouses of today.
As you can see, women have had an important role in the making and appreciation of beer throughout history. From the ancient brewers of Sumer to the brewsters of England and Europe, then overseas to the homebrewing women of colonial America, the table would be set for the world to enjoy its most prized libation.
Let’s take this opportunity to say “Cheers!” to women throughout history for making brewing what it is today. For without them, we may not have known beer to be our favorite beverage!
PHOTO: Two women at Gluek’s Brewery carrying a case of beer purchased after the prohibition repeal, Minneapolis. From the Minnesota Historical Society Collections
Corrections: A previous version of this story stated that beer dated back to 800 BC, but in fact it has been made for at least 5,500 years. The story also cited Deb Carey as the first woman to own and operate a brewery in the U.S. There have been a number of women of since 1976 who have co-owned and brewed at breweries in the U.S., including Mellie Pullman, who was the co-owner and brewmaster of Wasatch Brewing in 1985.