The brewing industry might still be seen by many as a bearded boy’s club, but “brewsters”—the medieval term for a female brewer—have been killing it forever.
In ancient Egypt, beer was traditionally brewed by women, giving them a way to earn extra cash and bartered goods. The gods were often given offerings of beer, especially Tjenenet, the ancient Egyptian goddess of both beer and childbirth. While the Greeks saw wine as a man’s drink, beer was considered effeminate, and thus was made and consumed by women.
Throughout medieval Britain, wives would brew beer in the close confines of the domestic sphere for all the family to swig throughout the day. The beer was made from grain and water, and then fermented with yeast to brew for a day in large, cauldron-like pots. Early beer might have resembled miry puddle water, but it was awash with minerals and far safer to consume than water. As the cleanest drink available, beer became staple fodder for all. Workers would routinely drink up to a gallon a day and were often paid in pints rather than wages.
At first, brewing beer was yet another chore on a never-ending list of domestic duties, but eventually became a profitable vocation, providing women with financial independence. Unlike other trades that required land ownership, apprenticeships or education—all of which were out of bounds for medieval women—brewing was permitted because it didn’t involve leaving the home.
Until the 15th century, women were brewing and selling the majority of ale for both domestic and commercial use. If you were in the habit of draining a tankard each evening, chances are a woman’s work was behind it.
After the Black Plague, this changed. So many people had died during the plague that Britain was left with a labour shortage. In turn, wages increased significantly and workers were able to spend more money on beer. As ale houses opened, production moved from the home and into the factory. When brewing became more commercialised, it moved firmly into the hands of men. Unlike female brewers, men possessed the financial, cultural, and legal resources to conquer such a quickly expanding industry. And so the boy’s club began.
By the early 17th century, all beer across Europe had been hopped, thanks to the help of a German nun. Five centuries earlier, Hildegarde von Bingen, an esteemed natural scientist and herbalist, was the first to discover that adding hops to beer radically increased its shelf life. Bingen lived to the age of 81, which was ancient for her time. Must have been the beer.
Now, though, we’re coming full circle, with increasing numbers of women not just joining, but spearheading the beer trade—particularly craft beer. In Britain, 197 micro-breweries opened last year and there are loads of good, spunky women at the centre of this boom in independently brewed, small-batch beer. Over a quarter of those with a diploma in brewing are women.
Jenn Merrick, the head brewer at Beavertown in North London, is one of them, and widely known for her penchant for slightly wild flavours. “At the moment the conditioning tank is brewing a sour cherry and red currant beer,” she tells me. “We’ve fermented the sugars out of the fruit so all that’s left is the powerful aroma and colour. It almost tastes like a sweet wine.”
Born in the Rocky Mountains of Salt Lake City, Merrick’s rapport with yeast began with baking rather than brewing. She quickly bored of the bagel shop where she worked, though, and moved onto beer. “I launched my drinking career in the local craft breweries of the Rocky Mountains but before long I realised I had to learn how to actually make the stuff, so I moved to the UK”.
In the northern town of Sunderland, Merrick embarked on an intensive brewing course at the Brew Lab College, where she said it wasn’t easy to get her foot in the door as a female, though that changed once she had the qualification. Still, when she started working at York Brewery after graduating, the old school-ness of the business took some getting used to. It was full of “old Yorkshiremen who had been working there for 40 years. While most were welcoming, others were less so. They would give me the cold shoulder or simply discount my opinion. I guess until recently it had been an all-male domain and they weren’t used to having women around.”
Like all entry-level brewers, Merrick had to graft—hard. Stripes had to be earned. “I had to serve my time lifting and shifting barrels,” she says. “It’s definitely not a career choice for anyone who can’t hack a hard day’s work because you can’t get round the work horse element of the job.”
Merrick made her way through a handful of breweries before she finally joined Beavertown as head brewer in 2013. As well as managing her team of 15, she spends her days inventing new recipes, upscaling old recipes, and making sure the beer tastes just right. It’s a big business. “At the moment, we’re getting more requests than we can say yes to,” she says. “We are now stocking beer bars and bottle shops as far as Scotland and Scandinavia.”
As a longstanding custodian of the craft scene, Merrick says that its experimental attitude to flavours extends to its whole ethos. “Craft is about doing beer differently and that spans to everything. If you have 70 teeny-tiny breweries instead of one great big multinational company, you’re going to create much broader opportunities for the workers involved.” What’s more, she argues that “the younger generation of drinkers means there is much less of a gender divide in the craft scene. After all, if the beer tastes good, who cares who brewed it?”
Outside the cosy world of craft, though, the act of drinking beer continues to be associated with certain macho tropes. Even if bottles of Tenants no longer bare bikini-clad breasts, the beer industry is still awash with sexist advertising. Sara Barton, who in 2012 became the first and only women to gain the title of “Brewer of The Year”, says that half of society is being discounted when advertisers aim beer at men.
“Not only does the marketing put women off beer, we’re constantly told that it’s bad for us, that it’s high in calories,” she says. “In reality, beer is much healthier than other spirits and alcopops out there.” Not only is real ale low in carbohydrates, it is made from natural and fresh ingredients—hops, wheat, and barley—which all include vitamin B, riboflavin, niacin, and zinc.
After working in a whole host of breweries, Barton decided to set up her own in 1998. “I couldn’t experience the true passion for brewing on an industrial scale,” she says, “so I decided to set up my own smaller, artisan brewery called Brewsters.”
According to Claire Monk, who set up her own brewery, Wellbeck Abbey, when she was 23, Barton’s reclamation of the brewster title has been an inspiration. “I started it on my own from scratch,” Monk says, “and had to do everything—from the brewing to the sales, orders, casking up, finding customers and writing invoices.” Since it was founded in 2011, Welbeck has grown quickly, and now brews 18,000 pints a week, delivering to 300 independent pubs within a 35-mile radius. Monk got into brewing after finishing her degree in microbiology. “I’ve always been a bit of science geek so I wanted to find out how beer got its particular flavour or colour.”
Monk says she is pleased that the image of beer brewers and drinkers is changing. “When people find out you’re a young woman who brews beer, they’re impressed,” she says. “People are definitely starting to leave the old-fashioned, weirdy-beardy image of beer behind.”
There might still be some way to go before women are fully embraced as both beer consumers and brewers alike, as there are stubborn dinosaurs in every industry. But as craft beer has shaken up the industry, brewing has opened up and diversified, slowly enabling women to not just return to, but own, a profession which was once their own.