Evidence suggests that humans have been brewing and drinking beer for at least 13,000 years. Whether or not you’re a staunch believer in the theory that it was beer, not bread, that prompted our early ancestors to transition from hunter-gathers to farmers, the beverage has clearly played a key role in mankind’s history.
Additionally, while brewing in the United States is largely a male-dominated field, women have been integral parts of the brewing process throughout history. From goddesses to tavern operators, we see evidence of women and brewing throughout the ages. We can see it in ancient religion, art and texts from around the world.
In this episode, the first in a three-part series on women in drinks history, we take a look at women’s role in brewing throughout the ages.
Digital Editor Kristen Richard, a wannabe history buff, and Travis Rupp, the Beer Archeologist and lecturer in classics, art history, anthropology and mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder, talk about the magnificence of women’s history in brewing.
Be sure to check out this article for more on women’s role in brewing beer throughout history and this story on how beer influenced humanity worldwide. You can also read up on the underground spaces where drinking while female was a radical act, how eight women changed gin history or notable first women in wine history.
Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.
Lauren Buzzeo 0:08
Hello and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast podcast, your serving of drinks culture and the people who drive it. I’m Lauren Buzzeo, the executive editor at Wine Enthusiast, and in this episode, the first in a three-part series on women in drinks history, we’re taking a look at women’s role in brewing throughout the ages. Evidence suggests that humans have been brewing and drinking beer for at least 13,000 years. Now, whether or not you’re a staunch believer in the theory that it was beer, not bread, that prompted our early ancestors to transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers, the beverage has clearly played a key role in human history. Additionally, while brewing in the United States is largely a male-dominated field, women have been integral parts of the brewing process throughout history. We can see it in ancient religion, art and texts from around the world. So grab a glass of your favorite brew and listen to digital editor Kristen Richard, a wannabe history buff, and Travis Rupp, the beer archaeologist and lecturer in classics, art history, anthropology and mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder, talk about the magnificence of women’s history in brewing.
Kristen Richard 1:23
Hey, everyone, I’m Kristen Richard, digital editor for Wine Enthusiast. And today I’m talking with Travis Rupp, the beer archaeologist and lecturer in classics, art history, anthropology and mechanical engineering. How’re you doing?
Travis Rupp 1:36
Very good. Very good. Thanks for having me.
Kristen Richard 1:38
Yeah. So today, we’re talking about women’s long history and role in brewing throughout the ages. So I guess to start, and I apologize, I realize this is a very broad question, but could you sort of given an overview of brewing and ancient civilizations and how important beer was to cultures all over the world?
Travis Rupp 2:00
Sure. Sure. Absolutely. I mean, yeah, it’s kind of interesting, because, as you know, there’s a handful of us that are working on ancient beer, and looking at how far back it really goes. And what’s interesting about beer is it’s one of those food sources that keeps getting the date pushed further and further back, because we keep finding evidence for it earlier and earlier and earlier. And some of the oldest evidence we have is from an era that’s very much, you know, in the hunter gatherer stage of man, I mean, the oldest evidence we have currently is for beer being produced 13,000 years ago. And so it seems to have been a staple of the diet pretty early on. Of course, we’re never probably going to know what came first, bread or beer. But they both are very early in our diets. And not only was beer, you know, used for sustenance, you know, literally for survival, and just a good vitamin and nutrient and mineral source, but it also seems to have been one of the earliest foods or drinks that was used for communal gatherings and activities. One of the best known locations or places we have evidence of this is Gobekli Teppei, which is in southeastern Turkey, a location that arguably was using beer for communal gatherings, you know, around 11,000 years ago, 9000 BCE. They were producing on fairly large scale, there’s evidence of upwards of 40 gallon tanks, potentially, with some new analysis and evidence has come out in the last couple of years. And so it seems that beer was a really important commodity, not only, again, just as a good food source, but it was one of the things that really fueled what makes us human, which is we’re social. It was one of the most important components in early social gatherings. I think that’s what makes it really important. It also is one of the earliest documented beverages in early societies and communities. I mean, when you think of the ancient Sumerians, sometimes credited as the first society in the ancient Near East, or look at Egyptian culture, for that matter, beer comes up in the record really early. And again, looking at very recent material that’s come out in the last couple of years about ancient Egypt, we keep pushing the date further and further back for beer production in Egypt as well, and how industrialized it was, by the time kings started ruling the Egyptian state. And so it really is a very, very important component of early human development and in communal development.
Kristen Richard 4:33
And I feel like, too, I know you referenced a few like very early examples, but I feel like every couple years, you just see things come out of like, “Okay, this is the earliest form of beer that we’ve had,” and then like, a couple years later, like, “No, this is the earliest form of beer.” So it’s awesome.
Travis Rupp 4:49
Yeah, yeah, it is really exciting. It’s a really exciting time in food archaeology and food history because as our scientific methodology gets more advanced, we’re able to learn more. And I think what’s really interesting about beer is that, you know, you compare it to other alcohols and it is way older than wine and mead, as far as we can tell currently. I mean, archaeological evidence is showing, again, beer production 13,000 years ago, where the oldest evidence we have for wine currently, is around 8,500 years ago. And so that’s a pretty big divide, you know, and it’s really interesting. And yeah, it just keeps getting pushed further and further back. That’s pretty exciting.
Kristen Richard 5:33
So yeah, to kind of go off that, from my understanding, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but in a lot of ancient cultures, brewing beer, because it was such a staple was an important part of domestic life. So it primarily fell on women to do. Is that correct? And if so, could you kind of elaborate on that?
Travis Rupp 5:55
Yeah, that’s a really good question. Because I’ve been asked to talk about women in ancient brewing quite a bit lately. Actually, there have been several times, several interviews, I’ve given our last couple years about it. And certainly, like you pointed out, you know, there is this supposition that exists in the academic world, because beer essentially is cooking, right? It’s producing a food source that it kind of fell on the shoulders or fell in the bucket of responsibilities for women in the ancient world. And there is a lot of evidence to support that. That, you know, beer would have been produced in the kitchen right next to bread or any other kind of food source. And in the early phases of beer production, when they are mostly a hunter-gatherer society, it does seem that mostly the males were out doing the foraging, hunting, gathering and bringing it back to a location for the cooking. And we presume, again, so it’s very presumptive, but we presume it was largely women that were producing those commodities. And looking again, at the earliest evidence that we currently have, this cave, Raqefet Cave in Israel. It was identified a couple of years ago as the earliest evidence we have for beer production. There are mortars in the cave where they were clearly brewing beer, and it was right next to other food source that they were cooking. So again, it seems that the responsibility largely landed on the shoulders of women. But at the same time, as we move forward in history, and we get into ancient Mesopotamian cultures, and we’re looking at more communal developments or civilized communities, for that matter, we still think that women were largely producing the beer, but the lines get a little bit greyed at times. And part of that, you know, like for example, the Code of Hammurabi, the ancient Babylonian text. It doesn’t necessarily reference or mention beer brewing. But there are laws in the code of Hammurabi that talk about tavern keepers and beer being traded or sold or consumed. And a lot of the references to the tavern keep are women. They’re referenced in the feminine as these individuals that are being regulated by the law, who are bringing or selling or trading, you know, beer for other resources. And so it shows that women were involved in the beer industry beyond just the production of it as well. They’re also a part of the actual distribution and sale. Then, to make a little bit more of a jump and get into ancient Egypt as well, I mean, in ancient Egypt, we know women were brewing beer there, but it also seems that men were as well. And where there’s a division or, you know, where the responsibilities were allocated is not entirely clear. A lot of times we find these models, there’ll be models of like a brewery, or a butcher shop or something like that that comes from tombs. We have a lot of them that come from the Middle Kingdom in ancient Egypt. And they will be these wonderful little like shadow boxes showing the actual process of how to process foods. And in breweries, breweries were right next to bakeries. It looks like they were making beer and bread in the same facility. But you have men and women working side by side doing it. And it’s an interesting piece of the ancient world because we so often want to just allocate those responsibilities and put them into buckets of women’s duties. Right? And so it gets a little blurry in that sense. And as a result, I do think that a lot of what’s been written or hypothesized about brewing in the ancient world is a lot of it is based on supposition and kind of presumptiveness. We do know women were brewing it. There’s no doubt that women were involved in the brewing process. And the question is, at what point was it exclusively a female’s job and occupation? And then at what point and why did men get involved in it in the first place in the ancient world, you know. And to link that into a Greco Roman context, it becomes even more complicated and messy and not as clear because the Greeks and the Romans don’t document beer and brewing very well. And we don’t hear a lot about the brewer. Now, when we get Latin references to brewers by name, they’re usually male. But at the same time, we wonder how much the women are involved in the brewing industry still in those parts of the world. But they were undoubtedly a part of it.
Kristen Richard 10:24
So something else I was thinking about while you’re talking that is really interesting is I totally hear what you say. I feel like there’s this like constant need to be like women did this and men did that. But to me, while you’re talking it’s like, oh, maybe it’s one of the first communal things that people came together and did, which from my limited understanding is very unique. And that’s really awesome.
Travis Rupp 10:50
Absolutely, I think you’re absolutely right. I think that, again, that’s one of those really interesting things about beer, because of its communal aspect, you know, not only the consumption of it brings us together in the social way, but it’s very possible that the production of it did as well. And there were a lot of layers to it. Even in the earliest phases, you know, the men may have been the ones going to get the raw materials for it, but then the women were the ones who are actually processing it. And I think it’s really interesting to see that blending of the sexes, as we watch the production of this really important food source.
Kristen Richard 11:24
Definitely. So then, you’ve touched on it a little bit, but I was just sort of curious of how do we see different like women and religion in beer. Do we see that play out in a lot of different cultures around the world?
Travis Rupp 11:39
Yes, absolutely. So, when it comes to Ancient Near Eastern in Egyptian context for beer and its affiliation with religion, interestingly enough it is primarily affiliated with female deities. And so you have Ninkasi, the goddess essentially of beer in ancient Mesopotamia or Sumerian texts that essentially is, you know, the goddess of beer. In The Hymn to Ninkasi we hear of this process, right? There’s this process that was undertaken in order to produce beer in the ancient Near East. When you jumped into Egypt, for that matter, the ancient Egyptians also seem to have affiliated beer and beer production with women. They actually had a goddess of beer, her name was Tjenenet, and she was the overseer of beer production. She’s more of maybe a minor deity, but the Egyptian pantheon of gods was huge, and so she was literally the goddess of beer. But there are other stories that are told about women and beer. Probably the most notable is the story of Hathor, who had to be basically tricked into drinking a bunch of beer in order to stop her rage where she was trying to kill off mankind. She was blood thirsty, literally. And so in order to get her to stop her rampage, they gave her red beer—is what we think it probably was. It may have been wine, but most of us are most or the sources seem to point to it being a red colored beer that she consumed, and she fell asleep. And then she stopped killing everybody. So we hear of these kinds of interesting stories about beer that are affiliated with female deities for that matter. But even when it comes to religion and beer, especially in ancient Egypt, one thing that makes Egypt so special—and I would say the same about a lot of the Near Eastern cultures, especially the Sumerians, Babylonians, and so on, and so forth—but certainly the Egyptians, is that they did produce wine and they did consume wine, but it was on a much, much, much more reduced scale than they consumed beer. And as a result, we have a lot of evidence for large scale beer production. But also beer was something that all classes of Egyptian society consumed. I mean, beer was considered the most appropriate beverage to give in honor or in offering to a god. It was also considered the best or most important beverage to offer to a king. And that’s why we find evidence of beer being placed in royal tombs for their transition to the afterlife. And so, you know, beer was an integral part of religion in those contexts. Now, to jump away from the ancient Near East, though, and really hop all the way across Europe and get into Western Europe. There too we seem to see some kind of affiliation with beer and in religion on kind of the female side. I mean, when the Romans first invaded Britain, and started encountering the native peoples of Britain who were beer producers—I mean, grapes don’t grow very well in Britain for a reason, right? The climate’s pretty poor for it. So the vast majority of native British peoples, and Scottish peoples for that matter, were beer consumers. And they largely worshipped female deities in those activities. There’s this reference to a deity Brachiaca who we think was probably is affiliated with brachiarias, which is this idea of a producer of beer or a processor of cereals for alcoholic beverage, but they were worshipping a goddess in those regards. Or, for that matter, we also know that if you come all the way out of it, the very institution that seems to work pretty hard to damn beer were the Christians. At the end of the Roman Empire, you know, you have Constantine converting Rome to a Christian institution. And there was a long drawn out process by the Christian institution to, it seems, and this is what I’ve argued, it seems that they were very much affiliating beer with barbarism in wine seems to have almost been kind of a symbol of conversion to Christianity. That’s not going to work for everybody. Because again, you get into territories like Britain or Northwestern Europe, where grapes don’t grow in large quantities. And we actually have a woman to thank for potentially the survival of the beer tradition in the Western world. And that is St. Bridget of Kildare, who was an Irish woman, she was a part of the early Christian institution, who in the fifth and early sixth century basically helped promote the idea that beer could be consumed at as a part of communion as well. And in particular, it was affiliated with Easter, where a lot of people drink wine at Easter as the “Blood of Christ,” she said, I don’t have wine to give to my people, so she produced beer and made it okay to consume beer as a religious item. And it really blew up from there. I mean, very close in proximity, St. Benedict starts producing beer like crazy, and beer becomes a major component of the monastic tradition. Yet we have a woman to thank for that. St. Bridget of Kildare, who really got the wheels turning, I would argue. So it’s interesting. Again, I kind of went all over with that answer geographically, but women from a religious standpoint have a lot to do with beer preservation and the importance of beer within those cultures.
Kristen Richard 17:12
No, and that’s really interesting, too, just because, you know, I know how important wine is as a symbol in Christianity. And so to kind of make that shift to like, no, I cannot do this and get like that whole institution to listen to her, that’s pretty impressive.
Travis Rupp 17:29
Yeah. It’s really interesting. And I mean, there’s some some some fun stories told about St. Bridget because apparently she also produced a red beer that she claimed could cure leprosy. We don’t know exactly what she was putting in that red beer, but it’s really interesting, again, to see this one woman who was such a figurehead of ensuring that beer was not just a barbaric beverage. That it was, in fact, a completely sanctioned or approved beverage by the Roman Christian institution.
Kristen Richard 18:00
And I apologize if you mentioned this, and I missed it, but what time period would she have been alive in?
Travis Rupp 18:06
Oh, like fifth, sixth century CE is where we get most references, or that’s where she comes from. The references to St. Bridget come from that era. So we’re talking, you know, late 400s, early 500s is where we’re starting to see beer, embraced again, as a beverage that’s okay, within the institution, and not just a symbol of barbarism simply because of her in Ireland.
Kristen Richard 18:34
So then I know you touched on this a few times, but I just wanted to ask, so I know you said that we don’t see a lot of women referenced in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome as far as beer, but they did probably exist. Could you talk about potentially what their roles were, if that’s actually accurate?
Travis Rupp 18:54
Yeah. So it is really messy. It’s difficult—it’s what a lot of my research is on now. Right now I’m focusing almost exclusively on beer production during the Roman republican empire. And one of the issues we have in trying to figure out who was making it and what quantities and who was consuming it and that kind of stuff, is that both in the Greek and Roman world literacy was extremely low. I mean, we’re talking probably 1% of the population. The highest estimates that have ever really been proposed was about 10% of the population could read and write in Rome. And that means that, you know, a lot of the literature we have then is clearly being written by the very, very wealthy affluent populations. And it’s only intended audience then is usually the very affluent because literacy was almost 100% equivocated with wealth. If you had the money to be educated, you got educated. So the vast majority of the population didn’t write and didn’t read and therefore those voices go unheard, right? So when we’re picking up ancient texts, and we’re trying to figure out who was producing what, what they were producing, it’s all being told through the eyes of the upper 1% of the population ,and all men, right? Because there are very, very few female authors in the ancient Greek and Roman world, at least that have been preserved for us to study today. So we’re getting an extremely narrow view of what’s going on. And it’s also going to be an extremely male dominant, chauvinistic view of those things. And, some people probably heard me say this before, but as I like to say, imagine, if we left it up to the upper 1% of the men in our society to write all of our history that’s read 2,000 years from now. It is not going to be a true representation of our people.
Totally different worlds.
Exactly. So that’s where it gets really fuzzy and complicated. But what we do get from certain authors and resources, like ancient authors who write about agriculture, or Pliny the Elder, who I use a lot because he references a lot of beer production on fringe territories, and on the frontier. He will reference the oddities or the intricacies and these other authors do as well of beer being produced in these frontier territories of Roman dominion. Now, with beer, what I think is potentially going on with beer at this time is beer is not a shelf stable beverage. I mean, they could have maybe put some preservatives in it, or brewed a higher alcohol beverage that might have lasted a little bit longer, but it’s not going to hold up like wine is going to in terracotta amphori. You can’t like leave it sit for years, right? It’s going to spoil, it’s going to sour. And so beer was largely being produced for fairly quick and regular consumption. And therefore, it’s not something you’re going to see being hauled into major epicenters, or cities like Rome for redistribution very often, unless it’s a very ready supply that’s coming in quite often. So I think it’s possible that a lot of beer was being produced in agricultural settings. It was being produced in rural villas. This is where a lot of milk was being harvested and meat was being processed and things to be brought into market. But we know in both the Greek and Roman food systems that a lot of food was produced—or I should say the food that was produced and brought into cities for redistribution had to be shelf stable. They’re drying the meat or salting it, they’re turning the milk into cheese or ghee. And they’re also then, with wine, wine’s stable. So a lot of that gets brought in. Beer on the other hand, it’s going to be something that’s going to be consumed quite quickly. So a lot of the beer is being produced, I think, and consumed in the rural areas of Rome and in Greece, for that matter. That’s just not as well documented in the archaeological record, because finding those sites is somewhat happenstance, right? Cities, we know where they are and we can go excavate a city. Ancient villas, unless they were referenced somewhere in some kind of document, we’re not going to know where those are. They get stumbled upon, you know, in archaeology. But that being said, then to bring it back to the topic of women, with these large villas, these large rural estates that were producing large, large quantities of food, there would have been a large collection of both male and female workers on those, and honestly, a lot of them were probably slaves. You have a lot of both male and female slaves working in that sector and being assigned to agricultural work as a slave was rough. In the Roman world it’s the worst labor and could often be a death sentence. You know, it’s really no different than our own bleak history in the 19th century, you know, where a lot of our enslaved population were in the agricultural sector as well. But there would have undoubtedly been men and women involved in that food processing in those large villa estates. But, again, it comes down to we don’t have firm evidence to say, well, all the women were brewing the beer, though, that was being distributed, or all the men or a combination of the two.
Kristen Richard 24:13
Well, yeah, and then I think we’ve talked about this before. We were saying how because beer was such a staple, it just wouldn’t have been something that people felt the need to, especially if they were illiterate, but like, just didn’t feel the need to record because it was like, why wouldn’t we have it?
Travis Rupp 24:33
Absolutely. I think you’re absolutely right. Because again, you know, when it comes to the fact again, that the vast majority of our resources are elites writing about things, they’re going to take a lot of stuff for granted, and just not care about it. I’ve been working on late republican brewing lately and specifically looking at the era of Caesar and his movement in the Roman frontier in the north, and when you when you listen to the way Caesar talks about things, I mean, he’s far from a food critic. He’s a horrible source for food and food production. But, it’s clear that the elites would talk about things when they didn’t really understand it. Like, I think one of the reasons why Pliny the Elder, for that matter will all of a sudden talk about beer that’s produced in Spain as being this weird thing is because it was weird and strange to him, because he wasn’t a person who was regularly consuming beer. Where the rest of the population, it was just something that happened all the time. I mean, you don’t see dozens and dozens of books written about milk. You know, there are a few that have been written, but they’re all new publications now. In the interest of the 21st century, you don’t hear books written about how paper is made often, or the paperclip or something like that. It’s all stuff that we just take for granted because it’s sitting on our desks around us. That’s kind of what beer was in the ancient world. It was just something that was always around and could always easily be produced, albeit with much more human involvement than wine requires or mead requires. And I think that’s why.
Kristen Richard 26:10
So to kind of go back to something you said earlier, we talked about how beer wasn’t as shelf stable as wine. So you had it being produced in more rural areas. Does that mean that they had to, you know, travel long distances to, I’m assuming what sounds like sell or trade whatever they were growing out there? And then does that mean that like wine was more prominent in the cities?
Travis Rupp 26:37
Yeah, definitely so you’re absolutely right. So beer, why it’s not as shelf stable back at this period anyway, is it’s possible, they were adding some kind of preservatives to the beer. Max Nelson, who is a beer historian, he’s written a little bit about this, where he thinks that various herbs and things may have been added to beer to prolong its life and kind of create some kind of preservative quality. But still, beer even with preservatives added, we’ve all probably had a beer that somebody pulls out of their cellar and says, let’s try this thing. And it’s like 18 months old, and you crack it, and that does not taste or smell good.
Kristen Richard 27:22
Like one smell and that’s enough.
Travis Rupp 27:22
And that’s it. And that would have certainly been the case back then. And probably even to a greater extreme because then use hops back then there’s there’s really no evidence of hops being used in beer production in the antiquarian world. And so a lot of what was being added was probably more there to cover up off-flavors or spoilage, to try to kind of hide it until it got to the point where it was just unpalatable. And because a lot of beer, you know, beer is dependent in these instances on, you know, agriculture and the foraging or collecting of a lot of grasses, or maybe various grains or fruits or sugar sources basically to ferment and produce beer. That’s going to be highly volatile, because they’re using wild yeast and things and bacteria to ferment it. And then, depending on storage, it just wasn’t a beer that was meant to be stored for long periods of time. Even if they could have produced a high alcohol in the beer, we’re kind of on the fence on how high the alcohol could have been. A lot of early scholarship thought that most of these ancient beers were very low alcohol, and therefore would spoil really, really fast. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. There’s another professor Tate Paulette, who teaches at NC State who works on Ancient Near Eastern beer. He’s written some really great stuff, and he also thinks that that the alcohol content could have been much higher, but still, that beer can spoil.
Kristen Richard 27:46
Travis Rupp 27:49
And, you know, if you’re going to produce large volumes of beer in a rural estate, and then, you know, get a whole bunch of it collected, and then try to ship that into a redistribution center, like Rome, for that matter, the old stock is going to start to spoil and be bad already. As opposed to wine, you harvest your grapes, you press them, you put them into containers for fermentation, and then you can rack them or keep them in the same container for storage and it can last a really long time, as long as the container is sealed. And they would seal with wax, typically, or fat. And it was quite effective. So yeah, back to the beginning of that question, too, a lot of it was being brought in from pretty great distances. You know, Rome, I keep using Rome as the example just because I studied it. The city of Rome had a lot of marketplaces, basically huge, huge outdoor farmers markets, basically. And a lot of that sort that food source is being brought in from tens of miles away, you know, 30-40 miles away. And as a result you’re gonna only bring in stuff that’s stable and can sit out in the open. Right? There’s no refrigeration at this point. So that’s why you’ve got a lot of dried meats, cheeses, things that are already cured or spoiled, right? They can sit out and be purchased in that way.
Kristen Richard 30:18
And then I apologize, because I know we’re taking a big leap with this question in terms of time periods, but I was reading and then I know that this was just proven that it was sort of like this myth that was going around that the witch image came from, like early women brewers in the Middle Ages. And then a lot of people came out and they’re like, “No, it’s actually not true at all.” But can you talk about women brewers in the Middle Ages in Europe?
Travis Rupp 30:51
Totally fine. Yeah, I mean, there’s quite a bit actually documented about brewsters and female brewers throughout the Middle Ages. And then, you know, really, to get back to the topic of women in brewing, it’s way better documented throughout the Middle Ages, and then really up until the industrial revolution that the vast majority of brewing was being conducted by women. And yes, there are a lot of stories told about the brewsters that would put out like brooms outside of their shops to indicate that they had fresh beer, or that they had like kind of costume, if you will, or, you know, kind of a certain uniform they’d wear to indicate that, “we’re the brewster in town, I’ve got fresh stock.” They’d go out and announce this. And I don’t know there is a lot of back and forth on whether or not there’s validity to this idea or this story of the witch’s brew being affiliated with early brewsters. I think it’s probably a little bit of both, you know, there’s a lot of false suffocation, aggrandizement and that kind of stuff of the story where it gets really beefed up in this really wonderfully romantic thing. But at the same time, it’s probably rooted in some reality. I mean, the idea of putting a broom outside your door to indicate you have fresh brew, it actually makes a lot of sense. It’s something that still happens today, like in Peru. For brewers down there, which a lot of the brewers in Peru are still female, producing chica, they’ll put a red flag outside their front doors to indicate, “Hey, I’ve got fresh chica, come here to buy my beer.” And so signaling in that way makes a lot of sense. But a lot of the brewing that was being conducted during that period was a was a largely female process, and beer for hundreds of years throughout the Middle Ages—and again, I would argue right up to the Industrial Revolution—was largely a female occupation that were brewing all these different kinds of beer in batches of beer. Where that eventually shifts though, is it’s all a product of capitalism really. It got to a point where, what happens, and it really started happening in England in really kind of the 18th century, maybe even the very end of the 17th century, where you start seeing mass production of beer for shipment to the colonies. And when it all of a sudden the beer industry gets put on steroids, and they’re having to pump out and crank out large, large volumes. All of a sudden, you have men getting involved, it’s this big capitalist move, and they’re hiring the cheapest physical labor that they can bring in to produce it on a very, very large scale. It’s not to say women couldn’t do the job, they most certainly could. But during the Middle Ages, and throughout that period, beer brewing was kind of still like a homebrew thing. Like, now you had your little shop, and they probably were producing beer and like 20, 40 gallon, 50 gallon batches for consumption to the public. But all of a sudden, when it becomes a commodity—
When it’s profitable.
That’s exactly right. Yes. 40 gallons? No, that’s how much we want in every cask. Yeah, we need to now now now, you know, and everything gets blown out of proportion and gets blown up and you see this complete reversal. And I think that’s what’s so interesting is, it’s far easier to document, or I shouldn’t say far easier, it is far more prominent in history, the record of women as the brewers than men. We can say that for probably thousands of years, women have been producing beer. We don’t know how much men were producing beer in a lot of these antiquarian contexts that we’ve discussed here in this interview. And we don’t really know of it in recorded history as a male predominant occupation until really the last 200 years, you know? And that’s where the big shift occurs, and that’s why it’s a male dominant occupation still in the United States today. A lot of the large macro brews that popped up in the late 19th century were looking to produce large, large volumes, you know, the Adolph Coors and things like that.
Kristen Richard 35:06
I would imagine, too, that when beer did start to make that shift to becoming more commercial and less domestic that, you know, because women already had—not that men didn’t have their own rules too—but because it sort of fit more into what men traditionally did, with like, go out there and get it, essentially. And with women, it was more like, well, you’ve got all these kids to take care of, you got the home to take care of, so just didn’t really fit into like what society expected them to do. And maybe I’m wrong.
Travis Rupp 35:39
I think you’re right, though, I think you’re right. There was, especially when you go back, you know, to that period of, if we were to just go back to say, the 17th through the 19th centuries, there is a cliche, kind of like stock understanding of what the responsibilities of the woman are, right? The responsibility of the men are. But I think you’re right, I think that that’s probably it. Once it became a commercial capitalist venture, the men were just like fighting to who could do more, who could put out more who could do it faster. I think you could also argue, though, and this is really a tip of the hat and kudos to the women brewers throughout history is that, unfortunately, I think that we lost a lot of different beer styles and a lot of different experimentation in beer as a result of that. When you think to, for example, when you think about all of this kind of experimentation, and brewing on a small scale, and almost like home brewing level production that was being undertaken during the Middle Ages, that’s when we see a lot of experimentation with different spices and different herbs and things in different beer styles for that matter. One of the things that I think is is unfortunate, and maybe a product of why beer was the way it was until like the 1970s, 1980s, when a few male brewers started becoming more experimental in the United States. Why I think one of the products that might have been this capitalist movement, again, this, you know, when you all of a sudden are like, we need to make it big, we need to make a lot of it make it now mass distribution that happened when the beer industry switched to being more male dominant. A lot of what was lost was a lot of experimentation in beer design. I mean, if you look back at, you know, beer produced in the late 19th century, and then really up through to post World War II and all of that, it’s lagers, right? You hear of a lot of lager production. And certainly there was a large migration of German brewers in the United States, which promoted a lot of that, and I’m not saying the beer was bad, a lot of it was probably very good. But everything becomes much more traditional, much more kind of idealistically packed into what beer was, or what the idea of beer was, was going to be. And I think because of that industrialization, you lose a lot of the experimentation of the female brewers, the brewsters of the Middle Ages, and of, you know, later periods of especially English history, who were experimenting with new herbs and spices and doing new, interesting things that were certainly driving the beer creativity forward. And really the only other male facet that was doing that were the monks. I mean, the monastic tradition growing, of course, was a male dominant occupation in a monastery, right? And St. Benedict was the one that drove that. But we see a tremendous amount of experimentation and new beer styles and new gruets, you know, new different spice blends for beer, because it was produced on a smaller scale, and it was distributed in a more selective way. And you know, I’m not just saying this because I’m doing an interview on women are brewing, I really do think that when you remove that small scale, smaller scale experimental process that I think a lot of the women were conducting, and you focus on the capitalistic venture of mass beer production, a lot of it’s lost, and a lot of things get streamlined. A lot of it becomes just generic. You know, and I think you could argue that the craft beer revival that happened, you know, in the last 30 years, 30 to 40 years, is kind of a kick back to those old ways of experimenting with new things, driving for new styles of beer production. But unfortunately, it’s still mostly a male driven industry. And more women are getting involved, but it’s still way, way heavily male centered and male centric in 2022.
Kristen Richard 39:29
So, something I was thinking about while you’re talking of how we might have lost that experimentation, I was reading that in the Industrial Revolution, and probably up until the Gilded Age, there was a big push for science. So you had a lot of—and I’m speaking here about America specifically—but you had a lot of books coming out and cookbooks that were kind of putting down like women’s way of brewing, maybe because it was seen as a little more experimental and a little more like there wasn’t a recipe. And so you kind of have this shift of, “Oh, that’s not that’s not good, this is what’s good.”
Travis Rupp 40:09
Yeah, yeah, I think that’s definitely true. I mean, and I have a lot of those cookbooks, they’re actually sitting behind my head on one of the shelves. I have a lot of books from the 19th century that beer was still kind of considered, even though there is this mass production and this industrial revolution is this capitalist adventure in brewing, a lot of recipes for beer were still being produced in housewives’ guides and things like that. And in cookbooks. I love those because it’s amazing. You crack them open, you’re like, Oh my God, I didn’t even know they produced a beer like that. There are all these kind of interesting details of that experimentation or that that really interesting variety on a smaller scale. But yeah, because of that, even outside of America, and you look at a lot of the scientific journals, or look at the work of Louis Pastore, it was all about trying to just figure out the process of brewing. I mean, Pastore’s work was all about trying to isolate what Saccharomyces yeast was doing. And exactly, to figure out what brewers yeast was, and it was all just looking at it from this very mechanical, this is what the yeast is doing to sugar. And it’s turning the sugar into beer. And a lot of the the wonderful ingredients and botanicals and fruits and things that have been used to varieties beer in different regions of the world or different states in the United States was completely lost. Nobody was paying attention to, or nobody really cared anymore. They were looking at efficiency, you know, massive conversion of that sugar to alcohol, for beer production. And so yeah, I think there is a lot to that. I think there’s a lot to be said about it. And also to the point, you know, the topic of our conversation, which is women as the brewsters for the longest period of history why a lot of that experimentation also would have been very much a part of the female brewer, if their bucket is to be the food processor, right? The food producer for their families, they’re the ones that are going to have the knowledge of how those ingredients. How they were, what parts of them can be used and what can’t, how to heat them, or cook them or get them to emulsify in various concoctions. I think that’s one of the most important pieces of the female brewer was they had this far larger acumen. When I first got into beer a long, long time ago, it was well before I met my wife, but I was a home brewer and I was just kind of doing it, you know, like, like everybody does in homebrewing, and you’re trying to figure out the mechanics. And then I became a professional brewer. But as the director of research and development at the brewery I was at, I learned a lot from my wife, because she was very much into cooking, she has been for a very long time. But she understood how you use certain, you know, powders or spices in ways in food that I’d really never thought about. And again, it’s not because my wife is in a bucket, you know, where that’s all she does. But she really likes cooking. And I do too. But I learned a lot from that. And I think that, again, is where a lot of the experimentation comes from, and where a lot of varietisation in beer was probably lost when that shift occurred, from a female dominant occupation to a male dominant occupation.
Kristen Richard 43:30
Plus, I’d imagine too, that a lot of those recipes were being passed down through word of mouth. So it’s not like you’re following a strict thing. You’re like, oh, like, I put a little more of whateverthis spice is and I liked it better. Like I forgot what she said, so I’m just gonna like add my own thing.
Travis Rupp 43:52
I think you’re absolutely right. You know, and I’ve worked on a little bit, one of my kind of side projects has been on kind of revolutionary America and looking at beer production at that time. And there were references to, like you said, women brewers at the time. I mean, even Jefferson’s wife, Thomas Jefferson’s wife supposedly was brewing at Monticello before they started having slaves produce the beer. I think it’s unlikely. I think she probably was still having slaves produce the beer, she just was the one that was in charge of it. But it’s to your point of some of the intricacies and the artistry of it being lost that is very much the case, because slaves were primarily producing beer as well in the early colonies. And a lot of it was word of mouth. It wasn’t something that was written down. And a lot of, you know, we’re trying to piece some of that material back together the best we can from oral traditions still that were passed down after our slave era in the United States.
Kristen Richard 44:51
What I really love about like discussing and learning about drinks history specifically is I feel like when you study history there’s this want to put things in neat little buckets, but they just they don’t fit. And I feel like beer and wine, particularly beer because it is so old, like has a really cool way of like, our understanding of it is just constantly evolving and sort of how it plays into human history. I just think it’s so fascinating.
Travis Rupp 45:21
I totally agree. I totally agree with you in that regard, Kristen, because I think that’s what has attracted me to the topic. I mean, if I were to go back, you know, like, 15 years ago, when I was in grad school, and look at what I thought I was going to do in the classical world, I was working on architecture in the Roman Empire, you know? And as I got more into the beer side of it, the interesting thing about beer is you can find it everywhere. I can still see architecture through the lens of beer, because we find facilities where they were producing the stuff, you know, or, like, you can find it in war and the logistics of warfare and moving troops and how people survived. And then also, it’s just such a complex food source. We take it for granted is this simple thing that I think even still today, beer is largely relegated to the working classes, right, that consume it. But you can go so many different directions with it. When it comes to wine. It’s just grapes. You press the grapes, you introduced some yeast, and you let it do its thing. But even today, in this world, wine has to adhere to very specific strict guidelines. It has to be 100% certain things, it has to have certain percentages of grapes, you can’t put any additives in it, or it’s not wine. Same is true of mead. I mean, you can make fruited meads, but it’s supposed to be basically just honey and water. But beer, beer goes all over the place. I mean, it’s literally almost anything you can find as a sugar source, use it. As long as it’s not a poison, you can put any kind of additive into it, any adjunct, you know? And then as a result of that, it’s just so complex and intricate. And that’s one of the wonderful things about it. I agree with you, you can find it in every facet of history. It’s amazing.
Kristen Richard 45:37
And it always seems to be going through its own renaissance. Like, I feel like, you know, we’ve seen a lot of things of like, oh, like the craft beer boom in America. And it’s like, okay, well, this actually isn’t new, like there was this happen a couple decades ago then from talking to you, and other historians, like no people then experimenting and putting all types of crazy stuff in beer since we’ve been making it and I just think it’s so fascinating to see how it kind of evolves with us. And going back to the topic of women, I really liked what you said about how earlier on it really was a communal thing, because I feel like sometimes that can get lost in everything. And that’s really important to remember.
Travis Rupp 48:02
Yeah, thank you. Because I think that that’s one thing that over the last year of talking about this topic more of women in brewing, that I’ve had to kind of work out. It’s kind of funny, and I will say this on the record, it’s funny that I keep getting asked to talk about women in brewing. I’m a white male, you know, but also like my wife told me before I was getting ready to the interview, she said, “Yeah, but maybe you’ll inspire some women out there to also go try to study more about it in ancient history.” And I hope so because it, for me even, my approach to it is obviously gonna be very different than a woman who’s looking at this in the past. I can’t put myself in those shoes. But over the last year, I’ve tried to figure out why it is such a difficult topic for me to parse. And I think a lot of it is because it’s really hard in the ancient world to put those responsibilities into buckets by sex. Where I do think that women were probably primarily the brewers for a large portion of the history I study, it’s not exclusive. And it wasn’t like, you will be the person that’s brewing and cooking all the time. You know, we have evidence that males were involved in it as well. And ultimately, it was a communal thing. The ultimate process and product, at least in the ancient Near East and Egypt, was to produce something where everybody collectively came together for some kind of festival, whether it be in honor of the gods or their ancestors, or just various festivals regardless. And I think that’s kind of cool, where we we always, especially to this day, we’re trying to break those barriers down, right? We don’t want a society where all responsibilities are female or male. And I think in the ancient world, they weren’t always that cut and dry, either.
Kristen Richard 49:50
Well, yeah, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me about this. I really appreciate it.
Lauren Buzzeo 50:00
From goddesses to tavern operators, we see evidence of women in brewing throughout the ages. And, while beer has shifted to being a male dominated field in its recent history, we also see that starting to change. Be sure to check out winemag.com for more stories on women’s role in brewing beer throughout history, as well as females who are impacting the drinks industry today. Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. If you like today’s episode, we’d love to read your review and hear what you think. And hey, why not tell your wine and beer loving friends to check us out too. You can also drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more wine reviews, recipes guides, deep dives and stories, visit Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com and connect with us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @WineEnthusiast. The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Lauren Buzzeo and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers.
Last Updated: June 5, 2023