| Women and Brewing
by Toby Shanner
Beer was originally produced nearly exclusively by women, so say archeologists who study fermentation. With the
ancient division of labor putting men out on the hunt, it was up to the women to collect the ingredients and brew
the drinks. Evidence of brewing can be found as far back as the fifth millennium BCE in Iran and may have been
referenced by an alewife in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest work of literature known.
It is thought that women brewed beer nearly exclusively across Mesopotamia right up until the rise of the Roman
Empire when records show an increased number of male brewers in Egypt. Women continued to be the primary
producers of beer in northern Europe, with women having a near monopoly on the production of homebrew in
Viking Scandinavia. This tendency did decline, however, as feudalism began to restructure society during the
In the dark ages, brewsters, women who brewed beer, had some rather odd advertising methods. To be noticed in
crowded markets, they tended to wear tall, pointed hats. To indicate when a brew was ready, broomsticks would
be placed in the doorways of alehouses. Images of frothing cauldrons full of ready product and six-sided stars to
indicate the quality of the brew also abounded. Lastly, out of manifest necessity, cats would be kept in the
brewhouses to protect the grains from mice.
With the enactment of standards of quality for beer in the 1500s, the oldest food purity laws still on the books,
many women were forced out of the market due to increased production costs. In a few hundred years breweries
were monopolized by men. It would also be dangerous to be a woman with extensive knowledge of how herbs and
plants could mix well together to provide nourishment and healing to the drinker when the inquisitions were at their
height across Europe. As the production of beer would require these very skills, it wouldn’t be difficult to confuse
the local alewife with a witch without malice.
Some of the change in the ratio of men to women in brewing comes down to old-fashioned ideas on what women
ought to be doing with their time. In 1540 the city of Chester banned women between the ages of 14 and 40 from
being alewives in hopes of moving the trade towards women outside of childbearing age. While women in the
profession during that time in England were accused of cheating customers and having several "undesirable"
traits, records show women were no less trustworthy than men at the task.
The growth of monasteries which served as safe hotels and inns for weary travelers also aided in the shift from
women to men brewers. . The monks served beer rather than the local water which often was polluted. Much of
the beer profits went to help run the monastery just as it is in today’s European monastery breweries. The monks
became quite proficient at brewing and essentially initiated brewing as a profession.
The Black Plague in the 1400s was another turning point. With the attendant labor shortage wages increased and
the financial ability to buy ale, which was safer than water (and more tasty), sharply increased. Brewing moved
from the home to larger establishments. As it became commercialized it segued into the hands of men who had
the financial and legal resources to develop the growing industry. At the time, married female brewers had few
legal rights and unmarried women had little capital.
Brewing originally did not involve much education, apprenticeship training or land, as long as it was confined to
the home — but that changed.
The ale market changed from being dominated by single and married women into one that was commercial,
professional and male-governed. By the 16th century in England and Germany, guilds also centralized and
regulated brewing more heavily, which further contributed to the decline of women throughout the trade (although
there were some guild women).
By the 18th century, women brewers seem to have largely disappeared from the profession — though many still
served as tavern-keepers and often brewed the ales they served. While this may seem like a romantic notion, it
was very hard work and often done out of necessity — and frequently by widows who needed the income.
Women have long had a hand in brewing. With the poor quality of water before modern sanitation methods, these
women played a vital part in keeping humanity healthy and nourished. While the occupation has long since been
taken over by men in the west, it remained a woman’s job in parts of Latin America and Africa. As women begin to
re-enter the brewing industry with fewer fears of being burned as witches, they can step into the shoes of
countless brewsters before them. Beer lovers may rejoice at this news.
The recent growth of craft breweries throughout the United States, however, has marked a clear resurgence of
women playing crucial roles in the modern beer industry. In addition to the myriad skills that women bring to
breweries, they are recognized as having a superior sense of taste and smell as well as a greater ability to
remember and recount sensory experiences. These skills have earned women valued seats on educated beer
sensory analysis panels around the world. There are several organizations created to support women in the beer
industry, from brewers to brewery owners, managers, salespeople, advocates, and educators. One such
organization, the Pink Boots Society, currently registers over 500 members. Along with the resurgence of beer in
all its variations, the role of women in brewing today continues to expand and evolve.
(based on an article by Cat Wolinski)
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