Photo by Adam Wilson on Unsplash
By Liz Crowe
“She brews good ale, and thereof comes the proverb, Blessing of your heart, you brew good ale.”
— WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Welcome to Booze 101 for April. This month, I’m going to fill you in on something that you may find interesting — or not, but that’s the beauty of this column, right? Right. Okay, now that we’ve re-established the rules, let’s get on with it already.
Ahem. The correct term for a woman brewing beer is not “lady brewer” or “chick who brews,” it’s “brewster.”
Women who brewed beer in England from about the fifth century through the fifteenth were known as “alewives.” Alewives became the inspiration for the warty, mean-spirited, tall-hat-wearing, broom-riding mythological creatures we call “witches.”
No, I’m serious.
Let’s back up a second and reconsider all of this. It is believed that what we know as “beer” has been brewed since the dawn of man. Egyptians demanded kegs of it in their fancy tombs. Sumerians had a goddess of it. Beer was considered a health drink — and compared to what passed for “fresh water” back in the day, it wasn’t untrue. It was a currency for some cultures — including the aforementioned ancient Egyptians. The guys who built the pyramids were given beer as pay. Cleopatra was the first known ruler to impose a tax on it — maybe that was part of her downfall, maybe not.
For the ancient Celts and Gauls, beer was practically sacred. Archeologists have found evidence that they soaked barley in specially-dug ditches until it sprouted, then dried it out by lighting fires at the ends of the ditches to roast the grains, giving them a dark and smoky taste. If you know anything about beer brewing, you’re already going “um, yeah, that’s what we call ‘malting,’ duh.” They likely added spices like mugwort or henbane, which is supposed to make beer more intoxicating, being the party animals that they were. And life back then was kinda rough, so why not drink a lot of scorched grains that have been turned into alcohol by magic?
Meanwhile, back in Egypt, brewing beer became commercialized. A license was required to make it on any scale, which means that the women who’d been doing it pretty much every day of their lives, along with keeping the home fires burning, making bread, tending children, cleaning, and whatnot were not allowed to be a part of making any money at it. This was the first step toward shutting women out of a product they’d more or less invented and definitely perfected.
Still more archeological evidence exists to support the importance of the female in the history of this fermented drink. The Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi, a comprehensive code of law dating to around 1754 BCE, is full of rules about beer, which directly affected the women who ran most of the taverns, since every tavern owner is addressed as “she.” It is believed that women brewed and baked together, sending their grains on different journeys, destined to end up on a plate and in a glass. In ancient Babylonia, brewing equipment was often given as part of a girls’ dowry.
So, you’d think that women would naturally own this process as naturally as they seem to own making weekly menus for the family and making sure the laundry gets done. And you wouldn’t be wrong in that assumption.
In beer-loving locales like Ireland, Scotland, and what we now consider Germany, women still brewed beer daily for both family (yes, even the kids got some) consumption as well as a side hustle. Early Finnish women made a beer called sahti with hops, juniper twigs, barley, and rye all smoked in a sauna, as you’d expect. The Vikings wouldn’t let anyone BUT women brew beer, which is as it should be. The Slavic peoples had their own version of Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of beer, named Raugutiene. By the 1300s, most women in England made money for their households selling their homebrew.
So yeah. Women = beer. What’s the problem with that?
The problem became that they made money for themselves, and for that reason, many men considered that shady. One assumes even the husbands of these hard-working women did too, but the bottom line was, the revered beer-maker “alewife” began to take on a tinge of the negative. Some of these women turned their homes into pubs and/or boarding houses, which only made things worse.
So, picture this with me: a traditional alewife brewing outdoors, stirring a large, boiling cauldron and tossing in various herbs and whatnot to give the beer some flavor, making it stand out amongst all the other options so she could, you know, make some money for the household. She’d wear a tall, pointy hat when she took her product to the street market, which allowed people to recognize her in a crowd. When a batch of beer was ready, she hung some barley sticks over the door, kinda sorta broom-like. Oh, and she kept a lot of cats around to kill the mice that would eat all the grain she had on site.
Yes, so in case you didn’t know, being a “witch” at this time in history was, well, dangerous, to put it mildly. And I suppose since medieval dudes wished they could make some money making and selling beer, being an alewife became synonymous with being someone who was looking to poison you, and hence, she was a witch.
Our hard-working brewster forebears could not catch a break, at least in England. They were accused of all manner of evils — prostitution, lying, cheating, poisoning what they were selling. You name it. It was a dangerous line of work.
Let’s leave this depressing bit of beer history behind for now, and talk about Hildegard.
What you might not know about beer at this time was that it didn’t include a key ingredient in what we consider beer in the twenty-first century: hops. Gruit was the original base of beer. It was a mix of herbs and spices that varied depending on where you lived. Alewives used all sorts of things, both fresh and dried: marsh rosemary, yarrow, juniper, heather to get it started. Various ingredients were considered medicinal, and probably added some aroma and bitterness — and yeah, I can see that smelly stuff putting some people off, not to mention causing hallucinations or other negative effects depending on what was used.
In twelfth-century Germany, an abbess named Hildegard of Bingen is credited with discovering the medicinal property of a flower on a sticky vine that is a close cousin of marijuana. Humulus lupulus, a.k.a. “hops,” had preservative properties, but at the time, monks were prescribing them to pick up peoples’ spirits. But hey! The philosopher, composer, polymath abbess said, “Let’s toss some into this beer we’re brewing and see what happens.”
Voila. Modern beer is born, thanks Hilde! And in a bit of karmic justice, only the female plant produces the valuable flowers used in brewing.
Once hops became a standard ingredient in the sixteenth century as a preservative, beer could travel longer distances, hence making it more industrialized and commercial. So the men took over, created guilds that specifically stated that women could not join, and passed laws that excluded them. There was Real Money™ to be made, ergo, the brewsters could stick with the bread-baking to feed the brewers, thanks. No women need apply.
Today, thanks in part to the craft beer surge of the past ten years, more women are not only drinking beer again, they’re making it. But we have a long way to go. According to a report from Auburn University in 2014 (the most recent and frequently cited dataset that covers women in brewing), 29% of brewery workers were female and only 17% of breweries (349 at the time) had female CEOs. Of those breweries, only 3% (67) had a solo female CEO. The rest were co-CEOs with a male, such as a husband/wife team. Only 4% of breweries (76) had a female head brewer, and only 2% (38) had exclusively female brewers. And boy, I could write a whole ‘nother column on the lack of racial diversity in the business.
Yours truly had her own not-so-positive experience as a woman in this particular boy’s club. But that’s water under my bridge now, because I credit the industry with giving me a revived sense of purpose. I’ve made friends and connections that I’ll always treasure thanks to my time spent learning the barley, water, hops, and yeast biz. Considering the rich history we women have in the invention, maturation, and production of this particular beverage, I believe there will come a time soon when we ladies take back our rightful place — whether it be at the mash tun, the sales force, or (even better) the executive suite in one of the fastest growing industries in the world today.
Hoist your glass and enjoy — and remember, every time you dress up as a witch for Halloween, you’re actually celebrating some of our early entrepreneurial brewster ancestors. Cheers to the side hustle!