March is National Women’s History Month and March 8th is International Women’s Day - a day to celebrate the accomplishments of women everywhere. The brewing industry is often seen as a male-dominated world but did you know, the vast majority of ancient brewers were women? While it’s true that currently there’s room for growth in the percentage of female brewers, history is there to remind us that it was ancient women who first mastered the task.
If you think back to what you may have learned about ancient civilizations and gender roles; men were the hunters and women the gatherers. While the men were out hunting, the women stayed back growing and gathering the ingredients necessary to prepare food or beverages to serve with that day’s catch. Consequently, their roles as women of the house led them to become the original masters of baking and brewing.
The history of female brewers through ancient times is not a short one either.
The earliest use of barley beer was traced back to ancient Mesopotamia when they realized planting barley, wheat, and other grains could produce both food and beverages. Bread and beer have a lot of similar ingredients but once you bake bread, it boils off all the alcohol. This discovery meant these ingredients could be incredibly versatile for ancient farmers.
Sumer is the earliest known civilization in Mesopotamia, and historians say their brewers were highly respected. Not only did their women brew beer for religious ceremonies and food rations, but like many civilizations to come they also honored a beer goddess. After the fall of the Sumerian civilization, the city of Babylon arose and some historians believe that their women broached new horizons. Its said that aside from selling beer, they were encouraged to commercialize their talents in taverns, bakeries, or breweries.
Archeologists suggest that one of these Mesopotamian civilizations is responsible for later introducing the brewing process to the Ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians worshiped a beer goddess like the Sumerians and ancient hieroglyphics show women brewing and drinking beer. It’s even documented that Cleopatra lost increasing popularity after imposing a tax on beer even though it was intended to help pay for their wars with Rome. Historians say that as the process spread through Egypt and production increased, that’s when men began to replace women as brewers.
Whether you look at the earliest traces in Mesopotamia and Egypt, the Vikings that only allowed women to brew their alcohol, the German nunneries that recommended hops for a number of uses, or through the rise and fall of civilizations, there’s continued evidence of the importance women played in the evolution of brewing. While some may want to credit men for the golden brew, history shows that brewing began with women discovering the diversity in a set of limited ingredients.