A Brief History of Women and Beer, From Sumerian Goddesses to the Pink Boots Society

An illustration of a woman serving beer
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Beer played a vital role in early civilization’s diet, religion and daily life, and it continues to be enjoyed around the world. None of that would have been possible without women brewers.

“Women absolutely have, in all societies, throughout world history, been primarily responsible for brewing beer,” says Theresa McCulla, curator of the American Brewing History Initiative at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Women in ancient brewing

The earliest known written record of beer, The Hymn to Ninkasi, is dated to ancient Mesopotamia in 1800 B.C., according to Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages by Dr. Patrick McGovern.

McGovern is also the scientific director of the biomolecular archaeology project and adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Ninkasi was the Sumerian goddess of brewing. The hymn not only praises her, but it provides a recipe to make beer from barley bread and discusses brewing techniques.

A heavily patriarchal society, brewing was the only profession in ancient Mesopotamia where citizens called on goddesses for protection and assistance. Sumerian women didn’t have many opportunities to earn a living, but they were responsible for brewing beer and allowed to open their own taverns.

Sumerian women didn’t have many opportunities to earn a living, but they were responsible for brewing beer and allowed to open their own taverns.

The Code of Hammurabi, a set of nearly 300 laws that governed ancient Mesopotamia, including Sumer, bestowed total jurisdiction over brewing and beer to women, indicated by the word “she” used to describe every tavern owner.

In ancient Egypt, brewing was seen as a domestic chore and performed primarily by women. Sculptures, carvings and other forms of art mostly depict women doing the brewing, according to A History of Beer and Brewing by Ian S. Hornsey.

Like ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egyptian goddesses were an important part of the brewing process. The goddess Hathor was believed to be the “inventress of brewing.” There was even a yearly festival that celebrated her “drunkenness.”

In parts of South America, chicha, or corn beer, played an important role in everyday life, according to McGovern in Uncorking the Past. In the Incan Empire (1400–1533 A.D.), beer was used as a form of payment, imbibed at feasts and played a large role in religious practices. And society’s elite women brewed it.

Medieval and Renaissance brewing

“Women once brewed and sold most of the ale drunk in England,” writes Judith M. Bennett in her book Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England.

In 14th-century England, beer was not only drunk during social occasions, but it was a vital part of people’s diets. “So many previous societies have relied upon [beer] for a very large source of their nutrients,” says Tara Nurin, a freelance journalist and the beer and spirits contributor for Forbes. She’s currently writing a book that chronicles the history of women brewers starting with pre-civilization through modern-day.

English women who made beer were even referred to as “brewsters.” A term for a female brewer that has since fallen out of the lexicon.

Like in ancient societies, brewing provided women in medieval England with job opportunities when they didn’t have many others. Women were also allowed to be ale tasters. They’d sample ales and determine whether they were being sold at a fair price.

In 13th-century Holland, women were so important to brewing that the government actually limited the amount men could make according to Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by Richard W. Unger.

There are also early 13th century records of women running taverns and breweries in Denmark and Germany.

“One of the first kinds of professions that women were able to do in the form of working outside the home, or a space adjacent to their home, where they would receive money for their labor would be running boarding houses, taverns and cook shops,” says McCulla.

In the 16th century, Anna Janssens owned and operated at least four breweries in Antwerp, Belgium.

“Though the scale and scope of her investments in brewing were unique,” writes Unger, “Anna Janssens was by no means the only woman to own and operate brewing enterprises in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

Modern brewing

However, once it became profitable, “women [would] come to be cut out of the picture of the profession of brewing beer,” McCulla says.

Today in the U.S., 22.6% of brewery owners are women. And they make up 7.5% of brewers, according to 2018 data from the Brewer’s Association, a trade group.

“[There are] three forces that have basically kicked women out of brewing and put men in, and those are religion, politics and economics,” says Nurin. In America, for instance, women had brewed beers largely in their home. Any excess was given away or sold. And for the most part, the beer needed to be consumed fresh.

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But as technological advancements entered brewing in the late 18th century and beer started to be made on a larger scale, women would not have had the capital to make any sort of investment.

“Women wouldn’t have had the money, the space or the time to be able to brew on any sort of constantly large basis,” she says.

Nurin also says that there was a large push toward science in America and Europe during the 19th century.

“The books, cookbooks and the how-to books of the time basically pooh-poohed the way that women brewed beer and [said] that they had no idea what they were doing because the women had used generational oral knowledge, whereas [brewing] was starting to turn into something that you needed to use science for,” she says.

Despite these hardships, progress is being made. Organizations like the Pink Boots Society, founded by longtime brewmaster Teri Fahrendorf, for example, help women in the brewing industry through education and networking opportunities. “We are seeing women involved in beer at levels that haven’t been seen since colonial times,” says Nurin.

Whether it was done at home or at a large-scale brewery, beer has been an important part of civilizations for thousands of years. Next time you crack open a cold one, remember it was the work of female brewers for thousands of years of that made it possible.

Published on December 22, 2020
Topics: Drinks History