contributed by Ingeborg Mussche
We were talking about the history of beer at work today and someone mentioned how women were the beer makers. Also known as brewsters. I thought you might enjoy this...
Spontaneously fermented beers (using wild yeast that floats into the brew on its own) occur all over the world, from Africa to the Andes. When Columbus arrived in the "New World" in the 1490s, he found Indians making beer from corn and black birch sap. Other cultures use the grains native to their region, from millet, maize and cassava in Africa to rice and sorghum in Asia.
In almost all of these cultures, brewing was and is women's work.
From Ninkasi, the Babylonian "lady who fills the mouth," to the native Amazon legends about a woman tricked into making the first beer to 18th-century alewives, women have taken on beer brewing along with other food production. Saint Brigid was alledged to have changed bath water into beer for a colony of thirsty lepers (take that, you Greeks).
Cultural anthropologist Alan Eames even postulates that "women have maintained power and status in macho, male-dominated, hunter-gatherer societies by developing their skills as brewsters." Could be.
"In archeological sites in Egypt and the Sudan, in 5000-year-old Sumerian cuneiform manuscripts, among contemporary tribal people and rural farmers from Peru to Norway, you find the exact same thing: women making beer," says Eames. "Same way, same basket, same pot, same rituals. Tibetan beers are very similar to Amazonian manioc beers. The nomads of the Yellow River area of Mongolia have these little portable breweries that go on horseback, and the women take them wherever they go. It's kind of a collective unconscious."
In Medieval Europe, women were brewsters in public taverns, although unless widowed they could only hold a tavern license under a husband's name. Since beer was a key dietary component, bad beer and short measures were punished with flogging and worse -- a church in Ludlow, England features a stone carving of an ale wife being cast into hell, false-bottomed pitcher in hand.
Of course, once brewing moved outside the home and became a commercial enterprise, it moved to the male domain. Home and small commercial brewing as women's work continued through the 17th century, but slowly died out as mass production took over. It was big news when Elise Miller John took over the reigns at Miller Brewing for eight years beginning in 1938 - the first woman ever to run a major brewing company.