Women and Beer: A 4,500-Year History Is Coming Full Circle

In Ancient Egypt, beer was made almost entirely by women. As we shifted to an industrial economy, men took over. Will the craft revolution reverse the trend?

It was just moments after I finished an IPA tour at the Great American Beer Festival with Julia Herz, the Craft Beer Program director for the Brewers Association. “Women drinking beer!” one guys said, pointing up to the “womenenjoyingbeer.com” booth. Two of his male friends gave a laughing grunt, and one took out his phone to capture the moment for re-telling.

The idea of women in the beer world is often parodied and, occasionally, openly mocked. But why?

The oldest known record of beer brewing comes from Ancient Egypt, where beer was made and sold almost entirely by women. After the colonization of America, women were the family brewers, crafting rich beers from corn, pumpkins, artichokes, oats, wheat, honey, and molasses. Settlers of the colonies drank large quantities of beer as a nutritional break from a diet based largely of salted, smoked and dried meats. Beer was such a staple that there was even something called “bride-ale,” a beer brewed and sold during weddings with all proceeds going to the bride, and “groaning” beer, which was consumed during and after labor by the midwives and mothers.

But as we shifted from an agricultural-based to an industrial-based economy, beer brewing left the privacy of the home and became another commercial, large-scale product run almost entirely by men. At the same time, the variety of beer available became more limited and actually caused most of the unique regional beers that had been developed over centuries to become extinct.  

Thanks to the “good food” movement, a push to recognize local, organic, and high quality-flavored food and beverages, there has been a steady increase in craft beer at the expense of large-scale facilities. Because of its emphasis on creative flavors, food pairings, and the DIY hobby culture it steams from, craft beer gives women slightly more opportunity for inclusion—even if bros still struggle to take them seriously.

A Question of Taste

In Colorado, one of the most brewery-rich states in the country with 154 individual facilities, there are only 10 women total who are known to be a part of the main brewing process.  The main obstacles that women continue to face in this industry include perceptions of taste, media influence, and preconceived notions about their skill and ability.

For more women to be involved in the beer industry it helps to increase the amount of women drinking beer. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 20 percent of women prefer beer over other alcoholic beverages. “You have to have a beer drinker before you have a woman beer professional,” says Teri Fahrendorf, President of the Pink Boots Society, an all-female organization to help women in the beer industry.  

Beer is for guys, as just about any Budweiser or Coors television ad will remind you. The role most often played by women in these spots is either the sexy waitress or the would-be girlfriend. “The Swedish Bikini Team doesn’t make me thirsty, certainly not for beer,” Fahrendorf says. “To me, every guy in America who wants to drink beer is already doing it, but every woman who wants to drink beer may not be doing it. It has to start on the consumer level to really grow the industry.” 

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Krystal Baugher is a freelance writer based in Denver.

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