“My sister, your grain – its beer is tasty, my comfort..”
– Song of Songs; Sumeria, 2100 B.C.
“She brews good ale, and thereof comes the proverb, Blessing of your heart, you brew good ale.”
In the beer and brewing industry, the idea of women drinking beer is often met with mockery and in some cases derision, think of the advertising the industry uses, scantily clad young women and the like which are obviously meant to appeal to the male drinker. Infact I remember the cans of tenants when I was young, each having a different scantily clad young women on it, the idea being to “collect the set”. So would you be surprised to learn that the history of beer is not only full of brewing women but some historians argue that women invented beer?
Historians locate the birthplace of beer around ancient Babylon, Sumeria and Egypt around 4000 years B.C.E. In this time women were the sole brewers and enjoyed an important place in society making dozens of different kinds of beer.
In Sumeria, brewers were called “Sabtiem” and Sumerian brewers had the distinction amongst their people of being the only crafts and trades people who had a private deities to look over them – the goddesses Ninkasi (the lady who fills the mouth) and Siries who watched over the daily ritual of brewing. Only women were allowed to brew and they made all sorts of beers from ingredients we’d now associate with the craft beer industry – spices, peppers, tree bark and even crab claws. Women even ran the taverns although the beer they sold was paid for in grain not money. This was the law of the land or the Code of Hammurabi.
“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.”
In slightly more modern history, around the eight century C.E. the Vikings ravaged Europe bringing with them their beer or AUL from where the English word Ale is said to be derived. Viking brewers were again exclusively women and Norse law dictated that all brewing equipment was exclusively the property of women.
With the advent of public ale houses throughout Europe, women remained as “brewsters” the female term for a brewer but unless they were widows, were not allowed to hold the tavern license – this had to be held under their husbands name. However this meant that when the ale house sold bad beer or cheated a customer, the punishment of flogging fell upon the husband to suffer.
In a church in Ludlow, there is a carving of a dishonest ale wife being cast into hell by demons and she is holding a false bottomed jug with which she used to cheat her customers. The early churches even have the St Brigid who was said to have changed bath water to beer for a colony of thirsty lepers. (I’m resisting making a comment about changing water to wine)
With the industrial revolution the brewing industry became a high earning industry and with that women brewers almost disappeared and the industry has become the male dominated one we know today but there are still words like “bridal” in use today which come from the term Bride’s Ale. An ale which was made by the bride to be and her party and sold on the wedding day with the proceeds going to the bride.
So next time you see a women ordering ale raise your glass rather than snigger into it or if you work in the brewing industry, next time you are thinking about marketing how about you remember that scantily clad girls won’t make me buy your beer – but it will make me buy your competitors beer cause yes, women buy beer.