A History of Women and Beer

Thanks to the Pink Boots Society, we’d like to share with you a history of women and beer.


Teri Fahrendorf, President

From civilization’s cradle comes the “Hymn to Ninkasi”, an ode to a minor Sumerian goddess whose name means “you who fill my mouth so full”. Written around 1800 BCE, the hymn praises this goddess brewer who “handles the dough … mixing in a pit, the bappir [unleavened barley wafers] with sweet aromatics [perhaps dates, or some local herb or flower] … waters the malt … soaks the malt in a jar … spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats, coolness overcomes … brews [the sweet wort] with honey and wine … [in] a filtering vat.” The resulting beverage, called kash, had the consistency of porridge and was sipped through straws of reed or precious metal. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of America’s first microbrewery – and to seek an answer to the dilemma of which came first, beer or bread – Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing recreated Ninkasi’s ancient beer based on a recipe extrapolated from the Hymn.

The Sumerians weren’t alone in conceiving fabulous women brewers. In pharaonic Egypt, the goddess Hathor was celebrated as “queen of drunkenness and dance, the inventress of beer”. The ancient Finns believed three women created ale for a wedding feast by serendipitously mixing a bear’s saliva with wild honey and blending it with beer. Cerevisia, the Romans’ brew, was named for Ceres, the harvest goddess.

Was it the seemingly magical fermentation process – for the very real magic of yeast was not yet known – that led the ancients to identify brewing with woman, the life-giver?

Brewsters, Ale Conners, and Beer Witches
In medieval England, ale was a dietary staple for adults and children alike; each man and woman consumed up to a gallon each day. In 1300, virtually all English ale-brewers were women, according to Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England, and about one-third of them also sold the ale they made, paying a tax on their profits. Jokes aside, brewing is arguably woman’s oldest profession.

Women infrequently served as aletasters, or ale conners, officials elected by English municipalities to enforce the assize of ale. The conners monitored measures, quality, and prices of ale, and were empowered to fine or otherwise punish offending tradespeople.

The medieval brewster worked in a surprisingly communal way with her sisters in trade, sometimes sharing her proven yeasts (yeast was harvested, though its role wasn’t understood) and, perhaps, joining with several women to form a consortium to get their products to market.

Ladies of quality, of course, had domestic servants who handled the actual brewing chores; but the noblewomen kept a close eye on the whole process. Elizabeth de Burgh, for example, whose 1333-34 ledger is described by Bennett, carefully recorded ingredients, production methods, costs, and yields for her household’s brews.

“Ale”, as brewed in medieval England, was a rather thick, sweetish concoction using both oats and barley. One crucial distinction between it and “beer” was ale’s lack of hops – the English being mistrustful, even well into the 16th century, of the great Dutch contribution to brewing (although we have a record of one English beermonger in the late 13th century who sold “Flemish ale” – i.e., hopped beer). The other difference from beer was that ale wort was not boiled prior to fermentation. Unhopped, unboiled ales had a short shelf life, traveled poorly, and suffered a high rate of spoilage.

Suspicions about spoilt ales fell squarely on the brewsters, whose homebrewed ales were allegedly contaminated with hens’ dung and other unmentionable substances (as illustrated in the satiric Tunning of Elynour Rummyng). The official ale conners, most of them men, could shut down shoddy operations, imposing fines, seizing equipment, and perhaps subjecting the brewster to the pillory or cucking (dunking) stool. Or the “beer witches” might have been hounded right out of town, bad beer being blamed on bewitched brewsters rather than on their bacteria-ridden pots and ladles.

After 1600 or so, ale – traditionally associated with the home-based brewsters – lost popularity to hopped beer, and English brewing became a commercial enterprise rather than a cottage industry, now run largely by powerful guilds of male brewers.

“Washt today; brewed”

In the New World, land was rough, industrial centers arising slowly. Brewing returned to the home, with women tending the kettle. Evidently, brewing was a pleasant domestic chore. In her 1785-1812 diary, Maine midwife Martha Ballard complains bitterly about laundering, but sounds quite contented on brewing day.
American brewsters used considerable ingenuity to retrofit recipes and procedures from the Old World, using more corn than oats and flavoring their brews with herbs like Balm of Gilead. Ale was drunk by all, and was thought to be especially healthful for women in labor (“groaning beer”) and for lactating mothers. Hops were believed to “bring down women’s courses”.
As in England, brewing in America became centralized, industrialized, controlled by men (though Mary Lisle, the first American brewster whose name is known to us, ran her late father’s Edinburgh Brewhouse in Philadelphia from 1734 to 1751).

The New Pioneers
Elise Miller John, who headed Miller Brewing from 1938 to 1946, was the first and – so far – only woman to run a major U.S. brewing company. Brewers, managers, and ad-men for the big breweries were, and still are, members of the old boys’ network.

But the craft-brewing movement has changed that. Women have become increasingly visible in the industry over the last decade, both mashing and managing. Among the brewsters and businesswomen who’ve brought great beer to our region are Luann Alcorn (Custom Brewcrafters, Rochester, NY), Jodi Andrews (Boston Beer Works, Boston, MA), Ellen Bounsall (McAuslan, Quebec, PQ), Darrah Bryans (Brew Moon, Cambridge, MA), Deb Carey (New Glarus Brewing, New Glarus, WI), Lauren Clark (Cambridge Brewing, Cambridge, MA), Jocelyn Hughes (Watch City, Salem, MA), Anetta Jewell (Great Lakes Brewing, Etobicoke, ON), Rhonda Kallman (Boston Beer, Boston, MA), Karen Plunkett (Walkerville Brewing, Windsor, ON), Mary Rubenstein (Middle Ages, Syracuse, NY), Carol Stoudt (Stoudt’s, Adamstown, PA), Laura Urtnowski (Les Brasseurs du Nord, Quebec, PQ), and Judy Wildman (Tremont Brewing, Boston, MA).

Have women made a difference in the industry? Absolutely. Teri Fahrendorf, brewer at Steelhead and Bulldog in Eugene, OR, was one of the groundbreakers. Initially, men were concerned about her ability to do the heavy physical work required in brewing. She showed them that the job could get done by working smarter, using brains not braun. Result: the male brewers she supervises work smarter, too, and sustain fewer back injuries. Fahrendorf says her managerial style is less confrontational than men’s, stressing mentoring rather than competition, and she gives her brewers rein to create their own recipes.

Women in the trade are particularly sensitive to presentation and image. An avid Monty Python fan in her homebrewing days, Mary Rubenstein, president of Middle Ages Brewing Co. Ltd. in Syracuse, came up with the medieval theme for her “simple, old fashioned” brewery, when she chanced upon the perfect 40th birthday card for husband Marc, featuring folks in medieval garb and inscribed “Welcome to the Middle Ages”. Mary and Marc are happy with the great visuals their theme has fostered over the years, and they’re pleased to find that it plays especially well with women. But when they finally bottle their superbly subtle, dry, well-hopped Apricot Ale this spring, don’t look for anything “feminine” about the label. Because whereas women are quite adventurous about trying something new, and are more inclined to “gender-bending” when it comes to buying products traditionally a man’s province, guys are just plain uptight about their beer’s image. And the Rubensteins don’t want to spoil their Apricot Ale’s track record of appealing strongly to both sexes.

“What do women want?”
Until the advent of craft brewing, American beer makers largely ignored women as a potential market segment, figuring they could never peddle the same product to both sexes. Instead of addressing women as consumers of beer, they exploited them as erotic images to sell their wares. Today’s craft brewers have made strides towards including this elusive 51% percent of the population. But even they appear somewhat befuddled about what makes us tick, and the market has seen some woefully lame attempts to capture our hearts.

So, for this article, I took a survey of women who love beer, hoping to answer Freud’s great question, as least where beer is concerned. The conclusion? Women who love beer are different from our male counterparts, but our love for beer is as fervent.

Our favorite beer styles range from lambics (many women’s very favorite style) to hard ciders to fruit beers and “specialties”; from brown ale to porter to stout and imperial stout; from Czech pilsner to doppelbock to the ales of West Flanders. Several respondents chose mead as their beverage of choice. Others love cask-conditioned ales. Only one woman named light lager as a favorite style. And, perhaps even more interestingly, only two listed IPA.

Many women crave tart or tangy ales, like Rodenbach and Oerbier. The sourness of cherry, apparently, makes that fruit the one women prefer among all fruit beers. But when I recently introduced New Glarus’s Cherry Ale to a group of 10 men, in a blind tasting of fruit beers during a BJCP training class, their faces puckered up like they’d eaten lemons, and not a one of them could find anything good to say about this exquisitely fresh, piquant winner of several gold medals.

What won’t women drink? A few turned up their noses at the same brews other women love: lambics, hard ciders, and fruit beers (especially “too sweet” blueberry beers and those very light-bodied, unattenuated fruit beers that some brewers apparently hope might resemble wine coolers) . Several said they despise stouts.

The big surprise was IPA – the absolute least favorite style of fully one-third of the women surveyed! In addition to anecdotal evidence, there is growing scientific proof that our palates more acutely registers bitter, astringent, and salty tastes than men’s – possibly accounting for some women’s abhorrence of aggressively hopped beers. (A theory among anthropologists is that females, as the primary cooks and taste-testers in the family unit, have for many generations been conditioned to reject bitter tastes as potential harbingers of spoilage.)

The great majority of beer-loving women drink less, and less often, than their male counterparts. When they do drink, it’s often in the context of dining, and many of us select our beers as we would wines, to complement the meal and the occasion. Dark or light; ale, lager, wheat, or mead; hoppy, tart, or malty; robust or mellow – more often than men, women will seek out that perfect accompaniment to flesh, fish, or fowl, or to celebrate a special event, in about the same way we painstakingly select just the right greeting card.

And we’re happy to pay good money for that perfect brew. Women are far less cost-conscious than men about the price of beer, so long as we feel we’ve found something to cherish.

We’re passionate and knowledgeable about our beloved beverage. We’re more likely than men to try new styles or brands of beer with an open mind, and we’re more vocal when we’re disappointed. So, craft brewers, restaurateurs, bar staff, please take note. Don’t assume we’ll order the blueberry.

Disclaimer: This article may have been written in December 1999, The PBS would like to get the name of the Author so we can give her credit for this article and list her byline. If you know the Author (or are the Author) please email us at teri@pinkbootssociety.org.

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