October has once again arrived –Oktoberfest and pumpkin beers are in full swing, the leaves transform and the pop-up costume shops are working overtime. This is one of my favorite times of year, especially in the Northeast where changes are easily absorbed by the senses and come and go in a matter of weeks. It all ends with Halloween, a celebration of candy, costumes, and creepy crawlies. As I get ready to fill up my candy bowl for the trick-or-treaters and decide on a costume, I am reminded of the three witches of Macbeth by William Shakespeare and this famous quote: “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble.” While this witches’ brew was made of “eye of newt and toe of frog,” a much more delicious concoction primarily brewed by women (not witches) with its own magical properties was being made in different parts of the world.
Beer’s connection to women is as ancient as the history of beer itself, one of the oldest libations known to man. Evidence of women’s importance to beer can be seen as early as 2100 B.C. in the Sumerian Song of Songs: “My sister, your grain – its beer is tasty, my comfort…” While some may argue the validity of beer’s magical properties, there are historical references to beer, magic, and women. Take for instance Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of beer who scribbled down a recipe for beer on a clay tablet. Her spiritual connection with women and blessing beer was not lost on anyone during that time. In ancient Egypt, beer, known as “hekt,” was such an important staple that it was the hieroglyphic symbol for food (along with a cake of bread). It was brewed and sold primarily by women who developed a number of beer styles that were exported as far away as India.
Around 1000 B.C. in Finland, the epic Kalevala (written in the 19th century) tells of how the first fermentation of barley was created by three women, one of who used a bear’s saliva and combined it with honey to make ale. In 8th to 10th century Norway, it was the Viking women who exclusively brewed in Norse society, their brewing equipment lawfully their sole property. While men were out fighting and hunting, women were, among other things, indoors cooking. Brewing was seen as a form of cooking, and therefore woman’s work. Not only did the Viking women make ale, they drank their fair share and used magical inscriptions (known as runes) on their ale cups to ward off evil. These women, under the influence of their creations in a trance-like state, would foretell the future to those who would listen.
In medieval Europe, there were very few male brewers, as women brewed and sold ales in the public taverns. In England, women could only hold a tavern license under a husband’s name, hence the term alewife. To serve bad beer was a serious offense, one that carried the consequence of flogging. So serious was the dishonesty that a church in England displays a stone carving of an alewife cast into hell by demons.
In the United States, the European tradition of women as brewers continued. Women brewed for their loved ones and neighbors, and brewed with a variety of ingredients such as corn and pumpkin (pumpkin beer isn’t a new found thing!). Women brewed beer also for special occasions, such as “bride-ales” for weddings and “groaning” beer for midwives and mothers-to-be. As our country grew and changed, home brewing by women declined around the 18th century and was replaced with commercial and larger scale brewing. As we are now in the middle of a craft beer boom, more and more craft beer goddesses are emerging as modern day brew masters, cicerones, executives, sales people, writers, and the list continues to grow. There couldn’t be anything more magical than that. As Shakespeare also wrote, “She brews good ale, and thereof comes the proverb, Blessing of your heart, you brew good ale.” Cheers!
Originally printed in Table Hopping, October 2013