Women’s Work

What image comes to mind when you hear the term brewmaster? Do you envision a bearded dude in lots of flannel, wearing rubber boots? In many cases, that’s just what brewers look like nationwide. But did you know that, in the beginning, the job of brewing beer wasn’t an almost exclusively male vocation? In fact, in the nearly 13,000-year history of beer, male brewers are a relatively recent phenomenon. For most of history, brewing has been the purview of women.

Early humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies. Sociologists believe that as cooking began to emerge, women who cooked had to get male protection to guard them and their materials and resources from theft or worse. Since men rarely did any gathering, women had to do both—gather and cook—or go hungry. Men rarely cooked; they just got food from women they protected. This left them time to engage in the riskier and more physically demanding task of hunting.

A common theory among sociological scholars is that the discovery of beer was the impetus that shifted humans from hunter-gatherers to a more agrarian society. In this new society, men worked the land, tending the crops while women cared for the children.

Beer became so intrinsically linked to women that the first known written recipe is in song form, ‘Hymn to Ninkasi,’ an ancient Sumerian goddess of beer. The poem points out the essential link between women­—Ninkasi was brewer to the gods—and their responsibility to supply bread and beer to the household.

According to Patty Hamrick, who holds a master’s degree in archaeological anthropology, the ancient Mesopotamian (modern-day Iran) Code of Hammurabi, one of the first sets of written laws, always referred to tavern owners as female. Tavern owners brewed their own beer and managed the business.

Around the fifth century, the term alewife emerged. Many enterprising women began increasing their beer output, selling the surplus. To advertise, they placed a broom over the door of their home or tavern. To keep vermin out of the grain supply, cats were domesticated.

Alewives also sold beer in public markets, often wearing pointed hats and using six-pointed stars to indicate their beer’s quality. Later, brooms, pointed hats, cats and six-pointed stars became associated with witches. That association led to fewer women brewers—knowing how to mix herbs and plants for healing caused Inquisition witch hunters to suspect the ladies of being supernatural.

So men became brewers out of necessity. In the 16th century, guilds began to form, further closing the door on women in the industry.

Today, there’s a refreshing turn-around going on in the brewing industry. More and more women are brewers and owners. High-profile craft beer companies New Belgium Brewing Company and Grimm Artisanal Ales are owned by women. Female brewers are popping across the nation. And a nonprofit organization, Pink Boots Society, has grown up around women in brewing.

It seems the tide is once again pulling women into the noble vocation of brewing beer.