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The Long, and Often Overlooked, History of Women in Beer

By Kerri Shadid for Equity Brewing Co.

Women dominate the history of beer. They were the force behind its creation and its continuation for thousands of years. Women were the first to use hops in beer and were responsible for bringing beer down from the heavens to us mortals on earth (according to many old world dieties).

Yet today, we are recovering from a more recent history in which female brewers were maligned as witches and the industrialization of beer made it the purview of men. Women are back at the helm of beer-making at a number of breweries—in 2014, a woman even became the first brewmaster at a Trappist Abbey, Orval—way to go Anne-Françoise Pypaert! However, 79 percent of breweries today do not have a single woman in a leadership position.

At Equity Brewing Co., we believe it’s important to understand the history of women in beer, how they went from creating and innovating to being cut out of the industry, in order to understand why inequity exists and why it needs to change. Recognizing what women have brought to the table throughout history is the first step in building respect and appreciation for the contribution of women in beer today.

The vast majority of brewers in the ancient world were women. When brewing began in China around 9,000 years ago, women gathered the ingredients for their rice “beer” while men were away hunting. Even after the cultivation of barley, wheat and other grains, women retained their role as chief beermakers in the ancient world.

Throughout ancient times, women brewed beer in their kitchens, sold the surplus for profit and owned the taverns. The earliest recorded recipe for beer dates back 2,800 years and comes from the southern Mesopotamian region of Sumer. The recipe is called the “Hymn to Ninkasi,” as Ninkasi was the Sumerian goddess of beer. Sumerian female brewers garnered great respect and likely were seen as Ninkasi’s priestesses.

The Egyptians also worshipped a goddess of beer, Menqet. In both civilizations, brewing was associated with women rather than men. (Although later in ancient Egypt, men would start to replace women brewers as beer became more commercialized.)

Interestingly, the only woman ever to rule Sumer was Kubaba, who rose to power some 4,500 years ago through her role as a tavern keeper. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi always uses the female pronoun for laws concerning a tavern owner. As in Sumer, women in Babylon were highly regarded. Their beer sales and record keeping may have been some of the world’s earliest commerce.

In Europe beer was also initially the domain of women. Baltic, Slavic and Finnish lore all associate female figures with beer making and sharing. Viking women brewed the “aul” that fueled their territorial expansion. During the Anglo-Saxon period in England, around 1500 years ago, the designation of “ale-wife,” or “brewster,” appears. Women were the ones who brewed beer, both for their own homes and for noble families who employed them. Beer at this time was unhopped and prone to spoilage, which meant that brewing at home made more sense than brewing on a large commercial scale.

However, the reputation of female brewers in Anglo-Saxon culture was beginning to sour. Rather than worshipped as goddesses, they started to be seen as doomed to Hell. Could it be that a society that viewed women less favorably than some ancient civilizations did had already begun to malign women’s role in a beloved and necessary beverage?

Although it would be another 500 years before hops were widely adopted, they would play an important role in the decline of women in beer (if only Hilde had known…). Because hops increase the shelf-life of beer, it allowed for more centralized production. And because hops were pricey, brewsters operating out of their home were mostly unable to afford them.

Brewing become the male-dominated industry it is today in 1200-1500 when brewing guilds took over and industrialization turned brewing into a big business. In the cultures of this time, it was men who owned wealth and property. Once beermaking could become a profitable enterprise, it was inevitable that men would seize upon it. (We have seen a similar trend in cooking, with male chefs dominating the for-profit creation of food in restaurants and on celebrity chef cooking shows, while women remain the predominate cooks in the home.)

The Black Death, which peaked in Europe around 1350, was also a blow to women in brewing. The labor shortage caused by mass death led to an increase in wages, disposable money to spend on beer and more commercial ale houses and factory beer production. Again, as beer commercialized, men, the ones with financial power in their societies, took over.

The image of a woman brewing beer at home became saddled with negative connotations, and bubbling caldrons and brooms became associated with “witches.” Women had almost completely stopped brewing in Europe by the 1700s. (Although settlers in the “New World” initially tasked women with making beer at home, that too declined as the colonies urbanized and beermaking could be industrialized.)

Today, we are the inheritors of industrialization (and a prohibition era) that lead to mass production of beer run by men. Not only did this negatively impact the number of women drinking beer, it also harmed the quality of beer produced in mass quantity. Coors Lite isn’t quite as tasty, inventive, or healthy, we imagine, as the brews women were making in their homes.

Although the growth of craft brewing has brought a return to quality beer over mass production, the process of welcoming women back as equal players has been slower.

At Equity Brewing Co., we want to celebrate the long history of women in beer and herald a return of women to craft brewing in recent years! Our goal is in no way to drive men out of the industry—we see a great deal of creativity and vision among the men we know in craft brewing. However, we do believe that it is time for women to be recognized as equally essential in the making of great beer and for their role in beer’s creation to get the attention it deserves.

By welcoming, increasing and enhancing the role of women and other marginalized individuals in the craft beer industry, we will continue to pave the way to beer that is more innovative, more inclusive and more accessible. That is our mission at Equity Brewing Co.!

If you would like to learn more about the long history of women in beer, here are a few resources to get you started:

How Women Brewsters Saved the World” on Beer & Brewing’s website


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