Bringing Back The Brewster
By Caroline Gasparini
Posted in The Field Guide to Drinking in America, on March 08, 2016
It’s the most popular alcoholic beverage in the US, and the second most popular in the world. It’s also one of the oldest—first discovered during the Neolithic era, around 9,500 BCE. This beverage was an integral part of societies from Mesopotamia to medieval Europe. And despite its widespread popularity, and initial inclusivity to women, its production has become a real boy’s club—excluding women not only from its ranks, but largely from its customer base as well. In fact, in the US, women make up only twenty-five percent of its consumers and ten percent of its industry jobs. Any ideas as to what we’re talking about?
That’s right. Beer.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we are here to set the record straight regarding the strong role that women have played in beer’s history. Read on for five fun facts on women and brewing!
1. Clay tablets from the Sumerians have shown that not only did women make up the majority of brewers, but that brewing was also a well-respected occupation. It was protected by three female deities: Ninkasi, the goddess of beer, whose hymn—the Hymn of Ninkasi—contains one of the oldest beer recipes in the world; Siris, another patron of beer; and Siduri, a divinity associated with fermentation.
2. In ancient Babylonia, beer production was also predominately done by women. As a matter of fact, more than just the average woman brewed beer - it was also commonly brewed by priestesses and used in some religious ceremonies.
3. Female brewers were also commonplace in medieval England, where they were known as “brewsters” and allowed an incomparable level of financial independence. Not only was it acceptable for a woman of any marital status to participate in brewing, they could also operate alehouses. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution, when brewing became a large-scale industry, that women were shut out from the field.
4. Even as women were being iced out of the industry in Europe, colonial America kept the tradition alive. Colonial women brought the craft over with them, and many were in charge of taverns and brewing. In 1734, Mary Lisle became America’s first unofficial brewster when she became the proprietor of her late father’s brewhouse in Philadelphia. The popularity of beer was such that even housewives brewed it as one of their many daily chores. However, by the late 1700s, household brewing and brewsters were on the decline, as the industry became more male-dominated.
5. Recently, with the rise of craft brewing, women have once again been making their mark in brewing; however, gone are the days of brewsters—female brewers are now referred to as brewmasters. With organizations such as the Pink Boots Society—which was founded by brewmaster Teri Fahrendorf to empower female beer professionals and currently has over 2,500 members—paving the way, women are once again breaking the beer industry’s glass ceilings!
So, this March, celebrate women’s accomplishments over a beer by a brewmaster. Check out this list of female-owned breweries compiled by Brooklyn Brew Shop. And, if you’re interested in reading more about the drinking laws in your state while you kick back with a cold one, check out The Field Guide to Drinking in America: A Traveler’s Handbook to State Liquor Laws by Niki Ganong.