5 little-known facts about women’s role in brewing history

Beer and women.  Women and beer.  Nowadays, when you think of the two, you probably fall in line with what’s shown in commercials: a manly drink with bold flavors brought to you by buxom, scantily-clad ladies.  While that all sounds like a good time, it really couldn’t be further from the truth of beer’s origins and how brewing was throughout most of history.  Most people wouldn’t think that brewing beer was originally a woman’s responsibility or something that fell within the homemaker’s domain.  So, in honor of International Women’s day this March 8th, let’s take a look back at the history of beer and see just what kind of role women played in it.

1.  Beer led to Civilization, and women were its brewers

Godin Tepe - one of the first brewing sites

Godin Tepe – Western Iran – Evidence of beer found here 5,000 years ago. Credit: Royal Ontario Museum

There is a lot of historical evidence to suggest that beer was one of the main reasons that humans settled down and began cultivating grains.  Basically, once some hunter-gatherers realized “Hey, this barley bread makes a tasty drink if you mix it with water and let it sit for a while” and word about it got out, everyone wanted to get in on the action.  As they should, because beer is delicious.  Women took up the responsibilities for brewing along with their other domestic duties and became the first brewmasters.  Beer was very much in the woman’s domain.

2.    In Sumeria and Egypt, where brewing began, most brewers and tavern-keepers were women.

Code of Hammurabi - regulating beer and brewing

The Code of Hammurabi – Mess with my beer and there will be consequences. Photo by Urko Dorronsoro via Wikimedia Commons

Beer was serious business back then.  The Code of Hammurabi specifically calls out brewers and tavern-keepers (who were by and large women) and fixes a fair price for beer and imposes harsh penalties for charging unfair prices or trying to cheat customers – like beatings and death.   The Ebla tablets – a series of clay tablets discovered in the ruins of Ebla, Syria dating around 2500 BC- describe a wide range of beer styles produced by the city for both domestic consumption and trade.  Beer was important and the women that brewed it helped drive the economic engines of their cities.  And in Ancient Egypt, beer was a part of the Pharaoh’s daily diet.  And, just as in Mesopotamia, brewing was largely a female activity.  Hieroglyphs and pictures in tombs show women brewers and the importance of beer in ancient Egyptian society.

3.    Beer in ancient Mesopotamia was divinely protected and sanctioned by female goddesses:  Ninkasi, Siris, and Siduri.

 

Ninkasi - Goddess of Beer

Ninkasi, Sumerian goddess of beer

Beer and brewing was the only area in society in Ancient Mesopotamia where the social sanction and divine protection came from female goddesses.  Ninkasi – the ancient Sumerian goddess of beer and alcohol – is part of a trio of important female deities in Sumerian beer mythology.  The other two are Siris – who is also a goddess of beer – and Siduri, a wise and divine alewife from the Epic of Gilgamesh.  Think about that for a second: one of the drivers of ancient Mesopotamian society (where women had a strictly defined role) was quite definitively a women’s role and under the protection of distinctly feminine deities.

In some versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Siduri delivers to Gilgamesh some advice which can be construed as the origins of “Carpe Diem” (or “YOLO,” but we won’t get into that since we’re discussing positive things here).  At one point in the old Babylonian version of the Epic, she encourages him to give up his quest for immortality and to focus on the things and people in his life that bring him happiness.  So, not only do you receive deliciousness from these divine beer ladies, but you also receive civilization and wisdom.

4.    It led to the invention of the drinking straw, which was originally used to bypass the bitter solids left in the Sumerian beer.

Sumerian Drinking straw

Early depiction of the drinking straw as used by the Sumerians for the consumption of beer.

Straws are an amazing tool; they can be used to shoot spitballs (which is pretty rad when you’re seven or forty), they can be used to create modern art, they can save you from being roofied, and they overall make drinking better and easier.  The first known straws were from Sumeria, around 5,000 years ago, and they were used to drink beer.  There were a lot of particulates and other unenjoyable things floating in Sumerian beer, and the straw allowed you to bypass those floaties.  The straw then continued to evolve and improve through the ages to become the epic drinking device that we use today.  Without those ancient Sumerian women and their beer, we wouldn’t have this awesome thing:

DIY Crazy drinking straw

You know you want one

5.  It wasn’t just in the ancient Near East that Women were brewers

Cerro Baul - ancient Wari brewing site

Cerro Baul – site of a Wari brewery staffed by noblewomen

In England, until the Black Death and the Hundred Year’s War rolled around, the primary brewers were women.  Once the social landscaped changed as a result of the plague, and demand for beer skyrocketed due to the increased militarization of the Hundred Year’s War, beer began to be produced on a more industrial scale.  Unfortunately, due to laws at the time, women were not able to own or establish breweries in order to keep up with the increased demand.

In many South American civilizations like the Incan Empire or the Wari Empire, noblewomen oversaw brewing operations and were responsible for the production of the native brew, Chicha.  Excavations of ancient brewery sites in the Andes, such as the Wari brewery in Southern Peru at Cerro Baúl, showed that noblewomen played a key role in the beer’s production.  Incan noblewomen were taught brewing techniques in the Aqlla Wasi (the Incan women’s schools).  And in many traditional Amazonian cultures, even to this day, brewing is still very much a woman’s responsibility.

So, the next time you’re out at a bar or cracking open a bottle at home, make a toast to the great women thousands of years ago who made possible that delicious nectar in your hands.  Without them, we wouldn’t have the world that we live in today.

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