There is no way to be certain, but the late Alan D. Eames – beer historian, beer anthropologist, author and founding director of the American Museum of Brewing Arts and History – hypothesized that the first brewers were women nearly ten thousand years ago, around the time that humans began cultivating grain. Historians used to believe that beer originated in Babylon and Sumeria though more recent evidence suggests that it actually originated in the Amazon basin, where even today, women are responsible for brewing a grain-based fermented beverage called chicha – traditionally made from lightly-chewed corn, the starch broken down to fermentable sugars by ptyalin, an enzyme found in saliva.

"Gilgamesh, whither are you wandering? Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands. Gilgamesh, fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy, dance and make music day and night. And wear fresh clothes. And wash your head and bathe. Look at the child that is holding your hand, and let your wife delight in your embrace. These things alone are the concern of men." This was Siduri's advice to Gilgamesh as he was lost in mourning and desperately, greedily, in search of immortality.

Siduri was an alewife – a beer brewster – and a wise mythological figure whose advice to Gilgamesh was recorded in the Old Babylonian version of 5000-year-old Sumerian texts. Various slabs of ancient stone show different versions of what happened to Gilgamesh after the pivotal point when he left Siduri to continue his quest, and some versions of The Epic of Gilgamesh are now illegible and can never be certain. Regardless, Gilgamesh did not heed Siduri's advice and, according to most legible versions of the story, his quest for immortality was both perilous and fruitless. Indeed, he should have filled his belly, danced, made merry and enjoyed the meager gifts that mortal man was given.

What is most fascinating to me about this story, however, is not what happens to Gilgamesh but that the moral of the story provides insight into how the ancient Sumerians viewed both women and beer. It was during this time in Babylon and Sumeria that women enjoyed great prestige for the beer they brewed. Could it have been that the advice of women was highly regarded in Sumeria – as the Epic of Gilgamesh indicates – because they brewed beer?

It may be impossible to know the relationship between beer brewing and women's status in Sumeria, but the importance of beer in ancient Sumerian culture is indisputable. By 3000 BCE, Sumerians had a full vocabulary to describe the many seemingly-modern intricacies of beer – words for different beer vessels, different grain roasts, beer strengths and styles, and for aging beer. Kas, the Sumerian word for beer, translates to “what the mouth desires.”

Ninkasi, a Sumerian goddess of beer, was the daughter of Ninhursag, the Mother Goddess. The Hymn to Ninkasi, inscribed on a Sumerian tablet in 1800 BCE, is an ode to the goddess, steeped in love and reverence, and it takes the form of a sensual description of beer brewing in the breadbasket of the world – in what is now Iran – only a few thousand years after humans began cultivating grain for both bread and beer. Bappir was a twice-backed barley bread essential to the process of beer-brewing in Sumeria.

Hymn to Ninkasi
(an excerpt, translated by Miguel Civil)
You are the one who handles the dough,
[and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
Ninkasi, You are the one who handles
the dough, [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date]-honey.

You are the one who bakes the bappir
in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir
in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
You are the one who waters the malt
set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt
set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates.

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt in a jar
The waves rise, the waves fall.

You are the one who spreads the cooked
mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes.
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads
the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes.

You are the one who holds with both hands
the great sweet wort,
Brewing [it] with honey and wine
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
Ninkasi, (...)
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

The filtering vat, which makes
a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on [top of]
a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, the filtering vat,
which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on [top of]
a large collector vat.

When you pour out the filtered beer
of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of
Tigris and Euphrates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the
filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of
Tigris and Euphrates.

Despite this reverence for brewing and amorous hymns to beer deities, women who sold beer in Sumeria were only allowed to accept grain as payment and were obligated to provide a worthy amount of beer for a given amount of grain – or face harsh penalties. According to The Code of Hammurabi (1500 - 2000 BCE): “If a beer seller do not receive barley as the price of beer, but if she receive money...or make the beer measure smaller than the barley measure received, they (the judges) shall throw her (the brewster) into the water.”

According to Egyptian mythology, the origin of beer came as a result of the sun god, Ra, becoming angry with the human race and sending Hathor – both daughter and wife of Ra and goddess of a swath of diverse realms including love, motherhood, beauty, joy, femininity, music, dance, foreign lands and mining – to punish the mortals. In her fury, she was transformed into Sekhmet, a goddess of war, who filled the streets with blood to such an extent that the human race was in danger of extinction. Ra took pity on the mortals, preparing a blood-colored concoction of barley and fruit (some versions indicate that the drink also contained mandrake, a powerful sedative) to trick Sekhmet, who drank copious amounts and fell into a deep sleep. And thus, beer saved the human race.

In much of the world, from ancient times through to the new world American colonies, beer was brewed by women because it was considered a domestic chore essential to the health and sustenance of the family. When it comes to ancient Egypt, however, there are discrepancies, uncertainties and contradictions about who brewed beer. What we do know is that beer played an essential role in ancient Egyptian society. It was customary for royalty to be buried with jars of beer to sustain them in the afterlife. Beer was used as a dietary staple and in medicine, in ritual, as payment and in trade, and it was exported around the world and used to fuel large construction projects such as the building of the pyramids.

It was the Sumerians who are said to have taught the Egyptians to brew, and it makes sense to me that this knowledge be passed on among women. However, Randy Mosher in his book Tasting Beer claimed that it was the men who generally did the brewing in ancient Egypt due to the massive, industrial scale with which it was done. In contrast, multiple online sources claim that women did all of the brewing in Egypt, and Garrett Oliver concurs with this in his book, The Brewmaster's Table. It should be noted, however, that none of these sources are Egyptologists and that Egyptian artistic renderings clearly indicate that brewing was done by both men and women – at least among the elite.

What we know about ancient Egypt is limited only to that which was recorded on the tomb walls of royalty and there is no way to know how these records may deviate from the role of brewers, or even of beer itself, in the daily life of non-royals. The underwhelming conclusion of Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology (edited by Paul T. Nicholson and Ian Shaw) is that there is no way to be certain of how the role of beer and brewing in ancient Egypt differed among the elite versus the non-elite and that further investigation may be necessary.

According to Eames – who I would argue may be one of the most reputable sources on the subject – women did the majority of the brewing in ancient Egypt under the supervision of the “lady of the house,” in a certain area of the kitchen called “the pure”, and it was only occasionally the royal brewers who were men. This conclusion makes the most sense, as it would have been massive, industrial-scale brewing that royalty required. Pharaoh Ramses II, for instance, is said to have had a 30,000-barrel brewery – or a nearly one million gallon capacity.

The English word ale is derived from the Viking term aul – and the Vikings were known for loving their beer. Once again, women were the brewers and Viking law even dictated that all brewery equipment remain the sole property of women. According to Eames, “...Viking women drank ale, flagon for flagon, along with the men. In a trance-like state, 'Bragg' women foretold the future under the influence of the ale they brewed. This 'bragging' played a vital role in religious life...” Once again, this indicates a certain status that women were awarded among the Vikings, and quite possibly as a result of the beer they brewed.

Women were primarily the beer brewers throughout medieval Europe and they were known to brew in England as late as the 13th century. Brewing was confined to the home at this point, still considered a domestic chore, but women would place a broom with a garland of hops in front of the door when there was extra beer to sell. People would happily show up to drink – the freshness of the hops an indication of the freshness of the beer, no doubt – and this would eventually lead to the development of the tavern in the late middle ages.

As taverns developed and brewing became a more profitable endeavor, a transition began for female brewsters as regulations became more limiting and penalties for dishonesty became more harsh. During this time, European law dictated that, unless a woman was widowed, she could only hold a license to sell beer under her husband's name. Any brewster who was caught selling bad or adulterated beer would be flogged and, if she were married, her husband would be obligated to take the lashing for her. Eventually, European women would be pushed out of the beer trade entirely.

Women brewed a substantial amount of beer in the early U.S. colonies, with a huge variety of ingredients, fueled by the scarcity of potable water and the need to provide an adequate balance to a diet of smoked, dried and salted meats. The term “bridal” is derived from a colonial tradition of brewing a bride-ale, a beer which was sold to provide a nest egg to a new bride. There was also something called groaning beer – aptly named, as it was intended to be served to an expectant mother during and after labor. These traditions – along with brewsters, the unusual regional styles they brewed, and any resulting status afforded to these women – eventually gave way to the industrial revolution.

By the end of the 18th century, across much of the beer-brewing world, a male-dominated beer-producing industry had begun. Money would be made. Large European-based companies would dominate the industry in much of the colonized world, and women would be shut out entirely. Then, approximately seventy later, women would begin to fight an uphill battle to re-claim that ancient status which was bestowed upon them in a different time and place, and to redefine beer-brewing for themselves in a contemporary and professional context. In 1987, Carol Stoudt would become the first female brewmaster in the United States since prohibition.

Despite beer brewing still being a male-dominated industry today, the craft beer community has generally embraced and celebrated the strength and success of the women within it – both on an individual level and through groups and organizations specifically intended to bolster the success of women in the industry through education and support. Today, the Pink Boots Society – a non-profit group intended to support and provide educational opportunities to women in the brewing industry – has nearly 1000 members. And the craft beer industry, which has evolved alongside the re-introduction of women to brewing, has produced a number of award-winning female brewmasters.

The stereotype of women not liking beer, or only enjoying certain styles, is still prevalent – and specific stereotypes can be laughably contradictory at times. Still, statistics show that only 27% of female drinkers consider beer their drink of choice, compared with 54% of men. This may be the result of a solid history of marketing beer specifically to men since there is nothing about beer – with a nearly endless range of flavor and aroma profiles – which is necessarily inherent to either gender. Recent data reflects this reality, as beer has actually replaced wine as the drink of choice among the youngest generation of female drinkers.

Seeing the growing market of beer-drinking women, the big beer industry giants have attempted to market to women by bastardizing beer, creating an even less desirable product than their standard fare, and making assumptions about which flavor profiles women prefer. These attempts – low calorie beers, pink beers, and sweeter, fruitier beers – have generally been perceived as condescending and out-of-touch with market reality, falling flat as a result.

In contrast, the craft beer industry has had ample success marketing to women by not specifically targeting them. Likely, sales of craft beer to women have been so successful because the craft beer industry neither sees women purely as exploitable statistics whose tastes can be narrowed down to a single style, nor as scantily-clad symbols used to sell beer to men. While the beer giants continue to use out-of-date marketing tactics, today's marketing-savvy women continue to drink more craft beer and the number of women involved in the craft beer industry continues to climb every year, with projections to significantly increase in the coming years.

Only a few of the women leading the beer industry today:

A few women's beer enthusiast and beer industry links:
not intended to be comprehensive by any means...

Austin Women's Beer League (TX)
Barley's Angels (local chapters)
Charlotte Beer Babes (NC)
Girl's Pint Out (local chapters)
Ladies of Lagers and Ales (LOLA) (Portland)
Ladies Who Love Ladies Who Love Beer (LGBTQ)
Lupulin Ladies (Athens, GA)
Pink Boots Society - for women in the beer industry (education, networking, scholarships)
Women Enjoying Beer (research, education, marketing)
Women Who Like Beer (San Francisco)


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10/13/2015 1:58pm

Women and beer is a wonderful combination.

11/04/2015 12:01pm

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11/09/2015 9:22am

Many thanks for including my company, Women Enjoying Beer, in your links. Indeed, as the only dedicated independent company studying women & beer (psychographic research), it's an overdue subject that changes the world for the beer - er, better. Cheers! Ginger

12/03/2015 2:27am

Thank you for this historical article! Very interesting to know such things about beer!

01/09/2016 5:08am

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01/09/2016 5:09am

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01/09/2016 5:11am

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02/19/2016 1:39am

If they were involved - it's great.

Comments are closed.