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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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