Of Women and Beer

Feeling Punky, Brewster*?

We all know that the guys who make beer are called “brewers,” right? Yeah, but here’s a surprise: the feminine form of the word is “brewster.”

Brewster is a noun that has almost disappeared from our lexicon, which is a crying shame because women don’t get the attention, nay, adulation they rightfully deserve for their role in the history of beer, God’s favorite beverage. This is an important issue that deserves discussion during March which is, of course, Womens History Month.

Life essentials

During the introduction to the Discovery Channel’s 2011 documentary “How Beer Saved the World,” Gregg Smith tells the camera, “Beer has changed the course of human history. Not once, not twice, but over and over again.” He called beer “the greatest invention of all,” and according to the film producers, beer is credited with helping “to originate math, commerce, modern medicine, refrigeration, automation, and even the first system of non-pictorial writing.”

And much of this was due to women.

Ninkasi at work

Historians say that the role of women in making actual barley beer (as distinct from older rice-based fermentations) dates back roughly 4,500 years to Mesopotamia. According to surviving cuneiform tablets, the Sumerians had a goddess of beer named Ninkasi. They believed Ninkasi oversaw the brewing process and worked as head brewer to the gods, who’d gifted beer to humans to preserve peace and promote well-being. Sumerians also had a Queen Kubaba, third Dynasty of Kish don’cha know, said to have been a barkeeper before she ascended to the throne.

Yup, bar keeping in Sumer was a respectable profession for females. The fair Sumer sex not only made the beer but they also operated the taverns to sell the suds to Mesopotamia dudes sitting around all day wearing ball caps, watching spear fights and making juvenile jokes about “fertile crescents.”

The olde-tyme Egyptians also considered brewing to be the province of women and had their own goddesses of beer. The goddess Hathor was considered to have invented brewing and Hathor’s temple at Dendera was known as “the place of drunkenness”. You can imagine the hieroglyphic for that one. Rosetta stoned, baby!

Egyptian Photoshop. Goddess Hathor & a chilly one.

In Africa, Zulus combined fertility and beer drinking which makes sense – party on, Garth – and in Tanzania there was a time when girls had a monopoly on all beer brewing. The men were likely very obedient back then. In many traditional African cultures, beer is still made only by women and it is often their sole source of attaining economic autonomy.

Back around 1600 BC, the Maya civilizations were using cacao beans to produce beer, long before they were used to make the non-alcoholic cocoa. Throughout the Andean region and Mesoamerica, women were the chief producers of alcoholic beverages, a condition that continued even after the Spaniards did what Spaniards do best; namely invade, conquer, pillage, subjugate, eat tapas and complain about their taxes.

Native American societies in North America including the Apache, Maricopa, and Pima tribes brewed a Saguaro cactus beer, called tiswin for rituals. Apache women also produced a product made from corn, which was similar to Mexican beers, known as tulpi which was used in girls’ puberty rites. Beer and puberty – what could go wrong with that? Ask any parent. As the country song says, “Run along and have fun; I’ll just be sitting here all night cleaning my gun.”

In Europe, the Romans told stories about the wild and crazy drinking habits of the Germanic tribes. Wiki tells that “until monasteries took over the production of alcoholic beverages in the 11th century…brewing was the domain of tribal Germanic women.” In the 12th century, a nun named Hildegard von Bingen first wrote about adding hops as an ingredient to her beer recipe, for which every triple-IPA drinker should give thanks to this day.

Throughout the continent and in Britain, the lack of potable water encouraged housewives to make large quantities of beer-like beverages for daily family drinking, at least that was their excuse. The drink was an inexpensive way to consume and preserve grains and provided an important source of nutrients, full of carbohydrates and proteins. Some women (“alewives”) started cottage industries selling their products to the public and from that point forward, women aggregated control of all phases of the beer making business in England, at least until the emergence of the Guilds which essentially stripped women of their historical beer rights.

“You realize nobody is reading this, right?”

There was nasty aspect to the Guild takeovers. To gain control of the beer industry, a concerted and deliberate assault was made by the guys in the Guilds to paint beer making as a male-only endeavor. Part of this strategy was to depict visually, alewives as untrustworthy and corrupt grotesques intent on using their wiles and booze to seduce poor, helpless and otherwise virtuous menfolk into poor habits and behaviors. Sort of like a Hooters Gone Wild scene.

“Mother Louse,” an alewife.
No, I didn’t misspell her name.

An interesting side note: the traditional garb of the brewster back then included a broad brim hat with pointy top. Alewives wore these distinctive hats so that their customers could see them in the crowded marketplace. They transported their brew in cauldrons. They often displayed a broom which symbolized a domestic enterprise and a six-pointed star signifying beer’s major ingredients. Those who sold their beer out of storefronts had cats, not as demonic minions, but to keep mice away from the grain. In other words, much of the iconography that we still associate with witches originated from the vilification of brewsters, particularly during the 16th century Reformation.

Nerd cartoon

The “Brewhoppin” website has a good story worth checking out about witch iconography and alewives/brewsters.

In the early days of the American colonies, home brewing was the predominant way of making beer so of course it was part of a woman’s home management duties. The first commercial brewster in the original colonies was Mary Lisle, who inherited her father’s brewery in 1734 and operated it until 1751. Later, as industrialization emerged, commercial beer making evolved as a male-dominated industry and women were crowded out.

In recent years there has been renaissance of women in all aspects of the beer business all over the world. Women now reject being objectified in beer advertising – cough, Budweiser Swedish Bikini Team, cough – and are taking back their historical roles as brewsters, operators/owners of beverage emporiums and as industry moguls.

On the other hand, there are the Aussies.
Thanks, Fosters.

For example, brewster Teri Fahrendorf founded the “Pink Boots Society” as a way to empower women beer professionals. In 2008, they had only 22 members and today they have more than a thousand. The emergence of craft breweries worldwide has accelerated the movement. Equity in gender representation is still far away but the right steps are being taken, albeit slowly.

So, in this Womens History Month it is only fair and appropriate that beer lovers pause and reflect on the history of women in beer and celebrate women in beer.

Wait… “celebrate women in beer” …hmmm…that could have been phrased better. Anyway, thanks, ladies, keep up the good work. This sud’s for you.

Japanese Sapporo or Boston Sam Adams?
Max chooses “none.”

Oh, and for those wondering, Max hates the smell and taste of beer. So much so that when confronted with a brewski he’ll curl his lip and wrinkle his nose in what we have come to call his “beer face.”

*Editorial note: for young ‘uns and blog visitors from distant shores, “Punky Brewster” was an American sitcom television series about a young girl of that name being raised by a foster parent. As I recall it was pretty much a crap program. The show ran from September 1984, to March 1986, and again in syndication from October 1987, to May 1988. (per Wiki)

71 replies

  1. Yes, sexism is alive and well on this blog. Scroll, scroll, scroll…ah, little Max. You speak the truth little dog. Don’t forget to always get dad the warm beer. Good boy!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was super interesting! I had no idea that women had such a long and vital role in the history of beer and the making of it. I’m quite inspired now and thinking how I should perhaps celebrate this very afternoon. I’ll think of something. 😄🍻 Really great share, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t know about the link between witch imagery and traditional alewife dress. Those Guild guys did some low down stuff demonizing the beer ladies but it’s uncomfortably similar to our recent media/political carryings-on. Max says he’d be happy to join in your celebration but he’ll stick to a bowl of water. What a lightweight.

      Liked by 1 person

    • A beer stealing dog? Oh no, that is not acceptable behavior. I believe in dogs who bring the booze like St. Bernards, not pups that take the beer. In reading up for this story there were a number of surveys that indicate that men are by far more likely than women to enjoy the taste of beer. The trend is changing (partly due to the emergence of the craft beer trade)but rather slowly and that is one of the reasons why the big corporate beer makers have diversified into things like hard ciders, vodka-waters and the such. The notion that beer gives you a beer gut also seems to be a turn off for the ladies but I, for one, can’t understand why.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. If I drank beer I would be slugging one down right this minute just to wash this post outta my mouth! If this is a tribute to women, I missed that part! 🙄 I think you can better serve mankind Tom if you just quietly drank your beer, warm or cold, and then applied googly eyes to the empty cans and decorated your yard with them.

    Why, people for miles around would be sending their drones over your property just to be treated to your handiwork. You’ll be famous for about one minute. You might even rate a 1/2 column story right after the obits!

    Max, sweet baby, Murphy and I feel so bad that you have to witness your Dog Dads decline in his mental proficiency.
    Perhaps Prevagen would help with a healthy dose of Castor Oil to lubricate those old, unused brain cells.
    Ginger

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m getting the distinct feeling – call it my Spidey senses – that you didn’t like this story, Ginger. What part did you think was offensive? Was it the Fosters ad? Because I thought it was clear from the text preceding and following that the ad was an obvious example of the bad old days when women’s role in the beer biz was limited to “eye candy” ads. Oh well, #metoo me if you must but the intent of the post was not a slam on women and beer but praise of their historical role.

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    • So far the split between “like” and “despise that post more than inflamed hemmorhoids” is about 50/50 which surprises me mightily. Many years ago I had a Golden who adored beer and would drink straight from a bottle if it were held for her, not that it ever happened (cough). Not Max.

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    • No, that was an actual Foster’s beer ad, Martha. Here’s what really surprised me – that ad ran in 2005! I thought for sure that it was from maybe the 70s or early 80s latest. Fosters has a long and rich history of sexist ads. In fairness most date to when there were different sensibilities (or lack thereof) in advertising. I’m sure that nowadays even the Aussies cringe when they see that one.

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  4. Jinx on our Tanzania posts! As a female who has enjoyed beer for 30 years and who was responsible for her husband’s very first sip in his thirties, I can believe that women have always been involved in fermentation. Alewives is such a fun word but Louse is not. Oddly enough, the actress who played Punky Brewster was on Entertainment Tonight, which I saw just before reading this. Lots of coincidences. And now that my China virus is gone, I was able to go to a restaurant patio and enjoy two new IPAs on Sunday. It does a body good. Well, I guess malt is not good for a Maltese but it does a human body good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So, basically, the bad boys in the Beer Guild were right – female beer aficionados are responsible for luring innocent males using the nectar of the gods. Odd about the coincidences – I mean, how often does Tanzania or Punky Brewster come up in daily conversation? Glad to hear you are able to once quaff the good stuff!

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    • Strangely, she prefers beer to sake but isn’t a big beer drinker either. The only sake we keep in the house is cooking sake although I enjoy the beverage kind. Max is nervous around a can of Sapporo because their slogan, printed on the front, is “100% Malt!”

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  5. Add me to the unoffended female readers of this post. I found the history fascinating, one I was unaware of because, well, I don’t like beer. I could likely rival Max in my look of disdain if presented with beer as a beverage. Wine is my alcoholic drink of choice.

    My take on your take is that males in various cultures and times only decided beer making worth their attention and control when they realized it was profitable and provided women independence (the horror). No surprise there. The connection between brewsters and witch iconography is fascinating and adds a whole new element to that dark aspect of history and the subjugation of women.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for a very succinct summation of a key point of the whole story. Every time some Bubba plops down on his bar stool and calls for a draft he should be mindful that the beverage he enjoys owes its heritage to a lot of hard working women over thousands of years and across all cultures. There’s an interesting and dark angle on the role that religion played in this whole drama, too. The Reformation wasn’t kind.

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  6. Wow, I wasn’t aware of women’s role in the history of beer. Thank you for sharing this fascinating post! The part about the Reformation was especially interesting.

    When Geordie (Cairn terrier) was around beer, he would float across the room to it like hobos sniffing pies in old 1940s cartoons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So here we have an eyes-on example of a small dog liking beer. I can’t imagine why dogs would not like beer. At one time or another we have all been horrified and/or disgusted to see what a dog will eat. It’s hard to imagine them refusing to sip a beer while they happily munch a creature dead for 3 days on the side of the highway and that’s one of the nicer examples that come to mind.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Super post, thank you. I had no idea of the alewife/witch connection but agree that it is just another example of men muscling in when there is financial advantage to be had. Just look at the current phenomenon of transgender ‘women’ now proliferating in paid posts in real women’s organisations.

    My grandmother brewed beer for the household….it was a farm where the single men ‘lived in’ so board and lodging were supplied…includng beer. I can remember being allowed to taste it but it left no impression on me.

    When Leo was with the family in Belgium as a child the whole family drank a sweet dark low alcohol beer with meals…delivered to the door like milk.

    Tennants brewery in Scotland issued cans bearing their ‘Tennants Lager Lovelies’ for some years in the sixties and seventies….tight jerseys seemed to feature prominently as I recall….but Tynecastle may have a more accurate memory.

    Micro breweries have taken off here, but seemingly all run by men….I have yet to sample their offerings as it is difficult to swallow anything while warding off a heart attack at the prices…..

    Oh, for a pint of heavy…

    Liked by 3 people

    • Great anecdotes. You got me wondering when and why beer passed from being primarily a staple food into a beverage associated with entertainment. Probably ties into the availability of a diverse range of safe foods and a logistics network to distribute products throughout society. Personally I wouldn’t mind a brew with my breakfast – Leo’s experience is appealing – but the idea would horrify many. I, too, enjoy a beer that has the consistency of liquid bread as opposed to the current craze for duper duper IPAs and pale lagers. I just realized I do not know of a native Costa Rica beer – I’ll need to Google it. I’m sure there are good ones, My experience is that one can find a good brew almost anywhere in the world, often as a result of colonization by the German, British and French. The exception to the rule is probably the USA where travesties such as Natty Ice and Bud Lite Chelada exist. Oh, and we may not hear from Tynecastle on this topic: word on the street is that he once was a beer model for Tennants in one of their less successful ad campaigns. Could be rumor, but…

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes I worked at Tennents in those days.
        Four long years fiddling bits of paper and being chatted up by the women.
        Not by the management however, he felt differently.
        I would have commented last night but Inverness v Raith came on…

        Liked by 1 person

        • I guess that free samples were not part of the compensation program? I know that a number of breweries like Labatt’s in Canada used to include beer rations as an employee benefit. Nowadays I think the tax laws and liability concerns have eliminated free brews although I’m told one craft brewery here (Dogfish) allows employees to drink up the stock if there’s been an error in formulation or brewing of a batch.

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  8. There used to be a beer monopoly…it still produces its slop…Imperial, but has now extended its range of slops in the hope of competing with proper beer. The problem with it is that it is never the same from one bottle to another so occasionally you have hope, buy another one and fall i nto despair again.
    Currently I am buying from the end of lines shops…no surprise there…where currently really good beers with strange names all from the same firm in Spain are being sold at daft prices.
    I miss Belgian beers….you can get a couple here, but not the best and the prices are enough to put you on to orange juice.
    Tynecastle may resent the casting of aspersions on his fatal attraction….glasses may be upended….once emptied, of course.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ooh…Belgian beers. Now there’s a subject worthy of exploration. From Pils and Trappist beers to Flemish Red Ales and geuze, the Belgian beer folk proclaim they have 1,500 beers across 700 taste profiles. Being an inquisitive type I may have to try all just to verify their claims. Tough job but somebody has to do it. From what I hear about Imperial (I never tasted it) it sounds like you may want to stick with guaro.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. What a great post! Who wrote it for you?
    I’ll have you know that I worked for Tennents in the late 60’s.
    Recently a get together was organised with the girls who posed for the pictures.
    A little bit older but well kept.
    It was the fat ugly feminists who objected, not proper women.
    At that time large brewers began to curtail proper beer and mass produce rubbish. Through the 70’s and into the 80’s this upset most people and varios campaigns arose to get real beer. Since thn many smaller, large brewers returned to proper beer, and now there appear to be small breweries (run properly by men taking the weight of the girls) and producing a wide variety of beers. My brewery is now a large block of expensive flats.
    Serves them right!

    I once bought two bottles of Belgian beer. I drank rarely in those days.
    One was a thick brown 9% proof the other 16%. I remember the first…

    Sumer women did indeed brew beer, but Ur and Uruk were crowded cities, possibly 20,000 to 60,000 people crammed in. The control was dictatorial and the women possibly worked into the ground. Beer was part of the peasants wages so urgently produced.
    Poor women, forced to make beer while grumbling about how hard their life is, then grumbling that men have taken over. You canny win.

    Martin Luther, a German of course, loved beer, John Calvin, French, was more a wine man. I think the difference in attitude was reflected in their outlook.

    A pub in Edinburgh I frequented for a while had a regular who brought his dog. ‘Walkies?’
    A large ash tray, found everywhere in those days, was placed on the counter, filled with beer and the dog would jump up onto the stool and have his fill. He enjoyed it. I think he dragged the man out of the house! Max must learn to drink properly, he needs someone to lead by example…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Clearly Max was the author of this drivel. You speak of the indignityies inflicted on your local brew but I think they pale in comparison to nightmare that occurred here with the introduction and popularization of “light beer” and “low calorie” beer and “zero carb” beer and similar horrors. I am a proud American but up until quite recently I admit to cringing whenever the conversation turned to beer. We produce far more than our fair share of absolutely tasteless barley/malt beverages. I cannot imagine how Tennents could have been worse but…maybe? I am a fan of dark beers. Give me a stout – Imperial, Russian, Milk, Chocolate, whatever – or a Porter and I am a happy man. Guiness? Yes, of course! Given the climate, I imagine beer consumption in Ur and Uruk was significant. Kept the ladies bringing out the urns. I didn’t know it was part of the peasant compensation but I did know that beer, like grog, has long been a commodity rationed to the working classes in return for their labor in many countries. There’s much to criticize about John Calvin, his preference for wine just adds to the total. Loved the dog story. My Irish relations all have tales to tell about dogs that were regulars at the neighborhood bars and how they were treated like paying customers. For Max it’s too late – old dogs and new tricks you know.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Young folk drink lager rather than beed here, just to get drunk.
        Folks over 30, our age, tend to drink something with a bit of flavour.
        ‘Fullers,’ ‘London Porter,’ when available, is better than Guinness.
        Such bottled beers sell well in Supermarkets.

        Liked by 1 person

        • “Folks over 30, our age” – In the interest of full disclosure and veracity I have socks that are over 30. But I guess as long as the upper limit is left undefined, “over 30” is accurate if deceptive. I’ll check in my local Superstore (“Total Wine & Spirits”) for those beers and if on hand I’ll give them a try. Always grateful for beer recommendations. London Porter sounds like something I could definitely spend some time investigating.

          Liked by 1 person

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