Beer, Masculinity and the Forgotten History of Women in Brewing

by | December 14, 2015
filed under Feminism

1156px-Aufseß_Bier

You’re watching TV, maybe you’re watching a football game, and the Budweiser ad pops up with all the guys in it hanging out and being fun. Women are either simply objects of male attention, or they’re serving the beer to the guys. I’m guessing you’ve seen this kind of ad repeatedly, for various brands of beer.

I remember seeing a poster with a shot of a woman in thong underwear bending low in front of a refrigerator, baring her ass. The caption read: Why guys always keep their beer on the bottom shelf. So they can watch the woman bend over. This might as well have been an ad for women as alcohol-friendly sex objects.

Over and over, we’re being told beer is mainly a guy’s thing, like football or military combat service. Beer belongs to men. Women simply fetch the beer, laugh at what the guy says.

Why are we at the point where a beverage is supposedly guy-territory (unless it’s the “lite” version, in which case, women are allowed to partake)?

Women and beer in history

Back when “ale wives” were the primary brewsters (brewster is the old word for a female brewer), the entire family drank beer. The nutrients in beer fulfilled a dietary need. In no way was brewing and drinking beer simply a guy thing.

At the beginning of the history of beer, there was Mesopotamia and the goddess Ninkasi. Ninkasi was the goddess of beer, first mentioned in a Sumerian poem. Women and priestesses were the brewers and it was an esteemed occupation—the goddesses Ninkasi, Siris, and Siduri protected brewsters. Brewing beer meant being powerful: you were the one who had the secret to producing this precious beverage.

In ancient Egypt, in ancient Greece, and in medieval Britain, women were the brewers, and beer was directly associated with women. The Egyptian goddess Tjenenet was goddess of beer and childbirth. The Greeks considered beer “effeminate,” and women were the producers and consumers of the drink. In medieval Britain, being a brewer was a good occupation for women, and it even contributed to a level of independence, because women could brew from home. In the 12th century a German nun, natural scientist and herbalist named Hildegard von Bingen discovered that the addition of hops lengthens the shelf-life of beer, an incredibly important contribution to enabling a beer-brewing industry.

But then something happened.

The Black Plague hit, after which the production of beer became more commercial and industrialized. After the Black Plague, the population was lower. Less available workers equaled better pay for those remaining. Better pay meant more money to spend on beer. More demand, and the resulting factories, placed brewing in the hands of men, who had already entrenched control of the large-scale industry of the land.

Men and beer in history

All my research shows that men took over the production of beer when it became a capitalist venture, not just an in-home product.

Men made the money in the household and took over in terms of Big Brewing. Women still brewed at home, mostly in colonial America – the combination of industrial expansion and witch hunts mostly obliterated brewsters in Europe by the 17th century.

How we brought beer to this place, where drinking is associated with masculinity, well that’s an American story.

After prohibition, the watered-down, mass-produced version of beer reared its head. Men were the workers and the brewers mass-producing beer.

Advertisers viewed men as the market to tap, so to speak. Advertising created the perception that drinking beer is a man’s activity, and advertisers used women’s bodies as a lure. It’s especially problematic when you realize that about half of sexual-assault cases involve alcohol, and at least twenty-five percent of American women have been assaulted.

Beer, men and women today  

With the resurgence of craft breweries, women are beginning to make their way back into the brewing world. But the numbers are still small. In 2012, women made up about 10% of the workforce in the beer industry, and the number of brewmaster women was even lower than that.

Craft brewing offers a niche where it’s about the flavor, not the sexist image. There are profiles of women making a difference in the craft brewing industry. But years of sexist marketing, including an emphasis on women staying skinny, have made some women leery when it comes to drinking beer.

I think men have made the beer-drinking world friendly to men, not women. So the next time a sexist beer commercial comes on, change the channel. We need to change the way we think about beer and stop associating beer with treating women as objects.

Image of beer steins: “Aufseß Bier” by User: Benreis at wikivoyage shared. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


Topics
, , , , , , , , ,


  • Robert Keaney

    This article was quitte insightful. Thank you Mr. Mathews.

    • Daniel Matthews

      Glad you liked it, thanks Robert!