The witch report

Beer52’s Kirsty Cleary, on how women have been bringing magic to brewing for thousands of years


Given today’s infamously (even toxically) male-dominated beer world, it may come as a surprise that, over much of the course of its millennia-long history, beer has been brewed almost exclusively by women. And, given Ferment’s slightly Halloweeny flavour this month, it is worth remembering that a lot of the imagery we traditionally associate with witchcraft is, in fact, derived from the real-life magic of brewing. Let me explain…

In Europe, up through the Middle Ages, brewing, grain production, and malting were domestic tasks and, for the most part, were run by women. As the cooks and healers of their communities, these women had an extensive knowledge of which plants were good for curing ailments and for cooking. “Brewsters” or “alewives” brewed primarily for their own households, but would also sell any surplus to friends and neighbours. 

These women who brewed and sold their ales did so by traditional means: with a large cauldron of bubbling wort (the liquid containing sugars and protein extracted from the grain) outside their home, placing greenery (or in some cases, a broomstick) over their door to mark themselves open for business. They often also had faithful cats to chase away mice that would otherwise eat their grain, and tall pointed hats to distinguish themselves at the marketplace. Sound familiar? 

But the witches of Europe were far from the first sisters brewing it for themselves. The earliest known written record of beer can be found in the ‘The Hymn to Ninkasi,’ which is dated back to ancient Mesopotamia in 1800 BC. Ninkasi was the Sumerian goddess of beer and the hymn not only praises her, but also provides a recipe to make beer from barley bread and discusses brewing techniques. It was Ninkasi’s responsibility – or, more specifically, that of her priestesses – to provide fermented beverages, especially beer, in all the temples of Sumeria. 

In fact, most ancient depictions of brewers clearly have women running the show in both Mesopotamia and Egypt. It is only once brewing becomes a commercial enterprise that males are shown ‘supervising’ the experts. Classic.

In the early 1100s, Hildegard von Bingen (the Benedictine nun, botanist and mystic considered a patron saint of beer to this day) was responsible for the earliest surviving writings on the use of hops in beer, which took brewing in a radical new direction. She wrote a number of books describing the hop as a particularly useful plant, beneficial for physical health and whose preservative properties allowed drinks to be stored for much longer.

It wasn’t until the Black Death in Europe that brewing suddenly commercialised. As Europe shifted from an agricultural to an industrial-based economy, beer brewing transitioned from a household task to a profitable commercial venture, run almost entirely by men. Marginalising women away from this potentially profitable trade was part of a wider desire to suppress their independence, which was considered a threat to the social and religious orders. However, women never stopped brewing entirely, even if they were relegated to the low-pay, low-skill aspects.

Women make up a quarter of craft beer drinkers and less than a third of people working in the beer industry

Although women are slowly reclaiming their rightful place in the brewing industry, it’s mostly still a boy’s club. According to two separate studies, women make up a quarter of craft beer drinkers and less than a third of people working in the beer industry. The main obstacles that women continue to face include perceptions of taste, media influence, and preconceived notions about skill and ability. Implicit sexism comes not just from inside the industry but from consumers as well, many of whom assume that the brewery and the beer inside is made by men. 

Changing the perception of women’s role in beer must start on the consumer level. Beer advertising has been heavily targeted at a male audience for decades and, as a queer woman who loves beer but often feels underrepresented, I urgently wish to see issues around inclusion for women, people of colour and anyone identifying as LGBTQ+ being addressed. I am inspired by the brave women who speak out against injustice and make the whole industry more welcoming for everyone. We need more women, more people of colour, and a dialogue that includes and supports all identities.

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