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?
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Reuters

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.” 

“Beer is universal, it’s probably the second-oldest fermented beverage behind mead and more and more people realize that there is flavor potential there,” says Ginger Johnson, founder and owner of Women Enjoying Beer. Because of the flavor potential and that yearning for local, home brewing has become a popular hobby with over a million people brewing beer at home. Many home brewers take that hobby to the next step and end up opening their own microbrewery. But even though plenty of home-brewers are women there is still skepticism about their roles when it comes to business.

“I have two male partners and it's challenging to have my voice heard,” says Inna Volynskaya, voice of reason (her official title) at Headlands Brewing Co. “We all do sales, we split up accounts. I’ll get a phone call, like, ‘Hey I went to do this sale and the guy doesn’t like me; I think he prefers someone with a skirt show up,’ and I deal with that a lot.” What she’s dealing with is the perception that female sexuality can sell a product more than the product can sell itself, which devalues both the women in the company as well as the product trying to be sold.

Implicit sexism comes not just from inside the industry but from consumers as well, many of them have the assumption that the brewery and the beer inside is made by men. Fahrendorf, who was one of the first woman brewmasters in the U.S., says that they would come into the brewery and ask to talk to the brewmaster.

“I’d say, ‘I am the brewmaster!’” she says, noting she would get into the occasional argument about it with some of the costumers. “One guy was like, ‘No, there’s some guy back there doing the heavy lifting right?’ and I said, “Well, he works for me and I’m doing the heavy lifting!”

Regardless of perception, women do have the physical strength as well as the mental aptitude to make good beer happen what it comes down to is both the desire and the confidence to know they can do it. Even if they've been out of practice for a few decades (or centuries) women have the art of beer brewing running deep in their veins. With the return to quality and small batch brewing, the craft beer industry allows the creation of both new interesting flavors and stronger community involvement, and women are finding more interest leading to a slow but steady rise in the field. 

“We belong here. You can’t let people make you feel a certain way,” says Emily Engdahl, creator of Oregon Beer Country. “As women it doesn’t matter that we’re women, we belong in any industry that we want to be in.” 

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Krystal Baugher is a freelance writer based in Denver.

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