A Brief History of Beer Brewing
Let me start with a brief history on myself. My name is Ruthie Dixon, and I am the head of sales and customer service at Yakima Valley Hops. I studied at Western Washington University for my undergrad with the intention of becoming a history teacher. WWU’s history department has a lot of Ancient Historians teaching classes and in one of those classes we studied the origin of beer. I remembered some bits about Ninkasi (not the brewery in Eugene) and beer being a way to preserve grains. In an earlier class, I learned about the European witch trials and about the alewives that preceded the trials who were brewing beer partly because beer is delicious and partly because beer was often safer to drink than water. From this education I had a kind of disjointed sense of brewing and women’s involvement in it.
In pursuit of clarity, I consulted Google (and Google Books) and my old textbooks. It turns our historians and beer enthusiasts have written about brewing and women’s involvement A LOT. I mean, a real lot.
In the beginning there was beer.
Literally anything else except water…
There was humble beer.
One of the first beer-related writings we have is of the Sumerian goddess, Ninkasi, who originated in the Ancient Near East (ANE), more specifically the Fertile Crescent, the ~birthplace~ of Western Civilization. The ANE only became a Thing because farming was invented so it’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg situation; civilization pops up because of farming but also, farming pops up because there are people living there and working the ground.
And while I know it’s hard to imagine a world without simple carbs (s/o to bagels), back then farming, harvesting, and storing grains was just getting started.
Anyway, one of the ways to preserve grains after harvest was to brew it into beer. Before they knew it, ancient people were moving, grooving, farming, storing, brewing, and partying! … Oh, and Ninkasi? She was the source of the beer. People LOVED her to such a degree that the Sumerians wrote a hymn about her called, The Hymn to Ninkasi. Ancient people believed Ninkasi made beer and was beer; she was the water, the grains, and the yeast that made up their beer. Hops were like the 4th wave of beer, but don’t worry – we’ll get there.
Likely one of the first #influencers, Ninkasi was out their changing cultures long before we have any record of her. The first western record of brewing we have is in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the tragic and occasionally absurd journey of a king searching for immortality. The Epic of Gilgamesh is worth mentioning because not only is it the first written work we have from the ANE, but it mentions the first beer brewer ever recorded, Siduri. Siduri, a woman, was the ANE’s pinup girl; she was hot, she was fun, she didn’t have strong opinions, she could hang with the guys, she was fertile, loved her kids, loved beer, and loved brewing beer. Ninkasi was a goddess, but Siduri was truly a fantasy. Between Ninkasi and Siduri, there is connection that hinges creating and sustaining life.
Women dominated brewing for about 5000 give-or-take years. Brewing beer was on the same level as laundry, dishes, baking bread -- you know, women’s work. However, in the 12th century, a brewer would come along that would change beer for the rest of history. If you guessed St Hildegard of Bingen, the patron saint of brewing, congratulations, baby! Hildegard is notable as she was the first recorded brewer to use hops in beer. Most likely other brewers had been experimenting with hops, but it was Hildegard that popularized it.
There is this really funny story to me about Hildegard where she goes on to talk about the bitter and unpleasant nature of hops, but that she was going to continue using them because she believed hops extended the life of beer (we now know she was right). Ironically, Hildegard lived an astoundingly 40 years longer than what was average for women at the time. Since this is a blog about history, not historical or scientific academic work, I’m just going to go ahead and say it was likely the hoppy beer that extended her life.
Hildegard was a pioneer woman in that she added hops to her beer, but European women continued to be the primary brewers of beer just as they had always been. During the latter part of the Middle Ages, beer grew in such popularity that pubs and ale houses became relatively lucrative and female brewers were starting to make some cold, hard cash. These women were the original Girl Bosses. It would be a stretch to suggest the Middle Ages were in any way a heyday for women, but this little glimpse of independence is novel because there are very few moments in history where women have any agency whatsoever.
Many of the women that were able to capitalize on brewing during the Middle Ages depended on brewing to financially support their households. These savvy businesswomen were called Alewives and they created a competitive market and expanded brewing horizons. As an early marketing scheme, Alewives wore pointy hats to signal to thirsty folks that they had beer for sale. While all these women were growing their Wiznesses (women-owned businesses), another cultural phenomenon started to take-hold in Europe and it helped sever the relationship between women and brewing for centuries.
I’m talking about the witch trials, people. YIKES. Talk about bad optics, amirite?! Those tall pointy hats made Alewives prime suspects for witches because if there is one thing insecure men are intimidated by, it’s empowered women.
The witch trials were horrific for a number of different women; alewives, midwives, natural healers, societal outcasts, or even neighbors with a nice view from their front porch that glared at you once were targets. Historians estimate about 50,000 women were killed during the European Witch Craze (1300s-early 1800s). Women eventually disappeared from brewing and the industry became dominated by men. This is a period of time I like to call the Brewing Dark Ages.
To say women were robbed is like the understatement of the last 5 millennium. No joke! What started out as a very female-centric activity became dominated by bearded, white men. Women were alienated on two fronts; first, that there was little representation (BA estimates 93% of professional brewers are men), and second, the belief that beer makes you fat – a cardinal sin for any woman. Metabolisms and diet aside, ladies… 93%??! That is absolutely nuts.
Call it a shameless plea from a bitter feminist, call it a desperate plea from a lady who loves beer…call it whatever you want, but y’all need to recognize women and beer are a timeless pair. If you felt conned because you didn’t realize this was going to be about the historic moments in beer that women directed, I’m not sorry.
I got curious while writing this so I brought my social media accounts back to life to delve into the accounts of fine folks who devote their online presence to beer and brewing. March was women’s history month and there were all these new (to me), wonderful faces in beer that were getting plugged by larger influencers. My feed was filled with a beautiful array of people from different lifestyles, regions, and backgrounds that are all trying to do the same thing, take ownership of beer and brewing. We know that social media is not always the most accurate representation of reality, but there are some really great accounts out there! Whether I was aware of it or not, pioneering folks are already taking up a little more of that 93% to change the face of beer and it made me hopeful for all the years to follow.
I am reminded that being a pioneer in any capacity is hard. It’s hard to not have contemporaries, it’s hard to look around and not see people that are like you, to wonder if you’re doing it right, or wonder if you deserve to take up space because maybe you’re a token or maybe no one has figured out how little you know. I have been in this industry for three years and I still find myself worrying about the space I take up and I wonder if I deserve to be here. To make this imposter syndrome more acute, I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one worrying about it. BUT! In the past three years I have formed a growing community of folks in the beer industry from all over the world and they have made me feel far less alone and I gotta be honest, that has made my life a whole lot easier.
My motive in writing this is to pay respect to the women that invented this craft, improved the craft, made beer a staple, and to the folks that are reclaiming brewing culture and making it more inclusive and diverse. Cheers to the past, present and future pioneers of brewing!
Because old habits die hard…
Bennett, J. M. (1999). Ale, beer and brewsters in England: Womens work in a changing world, 1300-1600. New York: Oxford University Press.
Foster, B. R. (2019). The epic of Gilgamesh. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Goode, E. (1996). Social deviance. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Hardwick, W. A. (1995). Handbook of brewing. New York: M. Dekker.
NURIN, T. (2021). WOMANS PLACE IS IN THE BREWHOUSE: A forgotten history of alewives, brewsters, witches, and ceos. S.l.: CHICAGO REVIEW.
Prince, J. D. (1916). A Hymn to Ninkasi. The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, 33(1), 40-44.
Schaus, M. (2016). Women and gender in medieval Europe: An encyclopedia. New York ; London: Routledge.
- Ruthie Simmons