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Yankee Brew News Archive

Beer, Women, and History

Originally Published: Sum/93

By: Alan D. Eames

"My sister, your grain - its beer is tasty, my comfort.."

- Song of Songs; Sumeria, 2100 B.C.

"She brews good ale, and thereof comes the proverb, Blessing of your heart, you brew good ale."

- Shakespeare

Deep within the jungles of today's Amazon rain forest, a scene from the dawn of time is enacted by the women of Stone Age Indian tribes. Seated in a circle, the women slowly chew cereal grains, the enzyme ptyalin in their saliva converting the starches in the hard kernels to fermentable sugars. Spitting the resulting "mash" into clay pots, the first step in the ancient woman's art of beer brewing has begun. For early mankind, beer was perhaps the single most important diet staple. A valuable source of protein and vitamins, brewing was a significant milestone in ensuring our survival as a species. Modern scholars have proposed that beer's combined power to both alter mood and provide nutrition gave early man the notion to settle into village life, forsaking the nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle forever.

Brewster is the feminine form of the word brewer and it is likely that a woman presided over the birth of beer some ten thousand years ago. This most ancient of women's skills was probably learned before the first baking of bread and certainly before the appearance of wine.

Traditionally, historians locate the birthplace of beer in the areas of ancient Babylon, Sumeria, and Egypt. New findings, however, indicate that beer may have first been brewed in the Amazon basin some ten thousand years ago. Certainly, early civilizations of Amazonia had all necessary components available to brew the same styles that continue to survive today among the tribes of Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador.

Four thousand years before the birth of Christ, women brewers enjoyed great prestige making dozens of kinds of beer in Babylon and Sumeria. Called "Sabtiem," Sumerian brewsters had the distinction of being the only tradespeople with private deities. Ninkasi--"the lady who fills the mouth"--and the goddess Siries watched over the daily ritual of brewing. Only women were allowed to brew and these Sabtiem made beers from such strange ingredients as spices, peppers, tree bark, and powdered crab claws.

Women also ran the beer halls and taverns, the price of beer always being raw grain, never money. In the oldest book of law we read:

If a beer seller do not receive barley as the price of beer, but if she receive money...or make the beer measure smaller than the barley measure received, they (the judges) shall throw her (the brewster) into the water.

The Code of Hammurabi

1500 - 2000 B.C.

An added gift to our world from these women of Sumeria is the drinking straw. Ancient beer was fermented, grain husks and all, in wide-bottomed, narrow-necked clay pots. During fermentation, impurities, husks and debris from grain would float to the top of the beer jar. The straw, usually made of hammered gold or silver, pierced the layer of flotsam allowing the drinker to enjoy the clear beer below. A combination beer toast and prayer preceded both funeral services and drinking bouts:

May Ninkasi live with you-

Let her pour your beer everlasting.

Perhaps the oldest narrative known to history, The Epic of Gilgamesh contains references to Siduri; an archetypical brewster and barmaid who gave beer, comfort and counsel to Gilgamesh, greatest of the Sumerian kings. Archeological sites throughout the Near East have yielded thousands of cuneiform tablets containing recipes for and prayers in praise of beer. Among the many types of brew made by these ancient brewsters of Sumeria were: black beer, white beer, red beer, beer of two parts, beer from the nether-world, beering for the offering (sacrifice), mother beer, beer for the supper, beer with horns, wheat beer and beer with a head. As in the later society of ancient Egypt, Sumerian-Mesopotamian beers were made from bread loaves called "bappir." Barley malt was rendered into a breadcake form, crumbled into water, and with the aid of ambient, airborne yeast, fermentation took place. Most ancient societies used honey as a source of fermentable sugar.

For the ancient Egyptians, beer was so important that the hieroglyphic symbol for food was a pitcher of beer and a cake of bread. Egyptian hieroglyphics tell of dozens of varieties of beer for both this world and the next. Pharaohs were routinely buried with tiny model breweries complete with miniature wooden brewers to ensure a regular supply of beer on the arduous journey to the afterworld.

Egyptian beer, called "Hekt," was widely exported all over the known world: to Rome, Palestine, and as far away as India. Egyptian women brewed their beer in an area of the kitchen called "the pure," the lady of the house always supervising. Although royal brewers were sometimes men, most Egyptian beer was made and sold by women who developed scores of beer styles. Brown beer, iron beer, sweet beer--lagered with dates, neter or strong beer, white, black, and red beer and Nubian "boosa"--the origin of our word booze--were just a few of the beer styles commonly made. Special brews for religious purposes included Friend's beer; the beer of the Protector; Hemns or old beer; the Beer of Truth; the beer of the goddess Maat; and Setcherit, a narcotic beer using as a sleeping draught. Hops were unknown to the ancient Egyptians although bitter herbs like Lupin and Skirret were often used to bitter the brew or served as an appetizer with the beer itself.

The Greeks, even though they imported shiploads of Egyptian beer into Greece, never fully trusted beer. The Greek physician Dioskorides complained that the beer of Egypt, called Zythos by the Greeks, caused too frequent urination. Other Greek doctors thought beer to be the direct cause of leprosy. These suspicions not withstanding, Greek craftsmen used the beer of Egypt to soften ivory while making jewelry. In the Egypt of the Pharaohs, beer was the staff of life. Slave and commoner, soldier and king, women and children; everyone drank beer. In fact, the minimum wage of the day was two containers of beer per day's work and in this regard beer was the most basic medium of exchange. As to the power of Egyptian brews Aristotle observed:

They who have drunk beer...fall on their back...for they who get drunk on other intoxicating liquors fall on all parts of their is only those who get drunk on beer who fall on their backs and lie with their faces upwards.

In the land of the Pyramids, where beer was king, the barley-bread brew played a large part in the religious life of the Egyptians as well. Consider the ancient myth explaining beer's birth. The Sun-God RE lost his divine patience with the very wicked human race and decided to punish mankind for its sins. RE gave the task of chastising humankind to the goddess Hathor. Hathor did such an effective job of it that the streets were "flooded with blood." In fact, the whole punishment project got so out of hand, that the survival of our species was in some doubt. But, once started on her gruesome work, Hathor was not easily stopped.

In order to slow her down, RE took the human blood then flooding the towns, added barley and fruit, and the resulting mixture became the world's first beer. The next morning when the goddess returned to finish mankind off, she was stopped dead in her tracks by an ocean of beer. Tasting the brew she quickly got drunk and forgot all about her mission, falling into a deep sleep. As such, Hathor remained, for the Egyptians, the chief goddess of beer and drunkeness. The abuse of beer, this divine gift of the goddess, was frowned upon by the middle class ancient Egytians. In the papyrus Sallier, a father tells his son:

I am told that you neglect your studies, have a desire for enjoyments, and go from tavern to tavern. Whoever smells beer is repulsive to all; the smell of beer holds people at a distance, it hardens your think it proper to run down a wall and to break through the board gate; the people run away from you...Do not give the beer mugs a place in your heart; forget the beer-pots...Don't undertake to drink a whole pitcher of beer. If you then talk, so from your mouth comes nonsense...your drinking companions stand up and say only: away with the drunkards.

Further temperance advice is found in what is perhaps the first known description of death from alcoholism and is taken from a tomb inscription circa 2800 B.C.:

His earthly abode (body) was torn and broken by beer.

His spirit escaped before it was called by God.

Abusive beer drinking notwithstanding, beer remained the chief component in all ancient Egyptian medicine and appears to have done far more good than bad to these people of the Nile valley.

From the eighth through the tenth centuries A.D., Vikings spread terror throughout the civilized world. In a state of ale-induced "berserk" they raped, burned and pillaged their way through North Africa, Holland, England, Ireland, Wales, France, Germany, and Italy. Viking brew was called AUL and from this word comes our English term ALE; a beer style that spread wherever the Norsemen conquered new lands. Viking women were the exclusive brewers in Norse society and law dictated that all brewhouse equipment remained the property of women only.

As to the creation of beer, Norse myth offered the following explanation. The gods were at war with a human tribe called the Vans; after much killing, a peace conference was arranged and a treaty was sealed by members of both sides spitting into a jar. To preserve the occasion, the gods shaped the saliva and some dust into a living man named Kvaser. Kvaser was soon murdered by a race of dwarfs, his blood being collected in an iron kettle. The enterprising dwarfs added honey to the grue and the whole mess became ale.

Norse paradise, called Valhalla, was no less than a giant ale house having 540 doors where the Viking god Woden entertained the dead with tales of battles fought and flagons of ale. This ale streamed from the udders of a mythic goat named Heidrun, whose endless bounty of beer kept the divine company in a constant state of bliss.

On earth, Viking women drank ale, flagon for flagon, along with the men. In a trance-like state, "Bragg" women foretold the future under the influence of the ale they brewed. This "bragging" played a vital role in religious life as did "runes," magical inscriptions placed on ale cups to ward off evil:

Ale runes thou must know, if thou wilt not that another's wife thy trust betray, if thou in her confide. On the ale horn must they be graven.

Sigdrifumal, 700 A.D.

The ancient Finnish people credited the birth of beer to the efforts of three women preparing for a wedding feast. Osmotar, Kapo and Kalevatar all labored unsuccessfully to produce the world's first beer but their efforts fell flat along with the beer. Only when Kalevatar combined saliva from a bear's mouth with wild honey did the beer foam and the gift of ale come into the world of men. From the Kalevala, the ancient Finnish account of the creation of the world we can see the importance of ale in human society. In this early tale of the origin of all things, the creation of ale is given twice the narrative space than is devoted to the creation of the world:

Great indeed the reputation of the ancient beer--

Said to make the feeble hardy,

Famed to dry the tears of women,

Famed to cheer the broken-hearted,

Make the timid brave and mighty,

Fill the heart with joy and gladness,

Fill the mind with wisdom,

Fill the tongue with ancient legends,

Only makes the fool more foolish.

As late as the 13th century, English records from a single town show that less than eight percent of brewers were men. Beer remained an essential part of diet and selling surplus beer became important to the economy of most households. When a housewife had extra beer to sell, an "ale-stake"--a long pole or broom handle--would be placed over the front door or in the road.

Sometimes appearing as a garland of hops atop a broomstick and hung over the front door or road, he ale-stake is found in one form or another throughout the world in every primitive society. Native African blacks alert neighbors to the availability of fresh homebrew by displaying a garland of fresh vines and flowers outside the brewster's hut. How this universal symbol of "beer for sale" came to be remains a mystery of the collective human unconscious.

With the advent of public taverns, women remained as brewsters in medieval Europe, but unless widowed, could only hold tavern license under a husband's name. The penalty for a brewster selling bad or adulterated beer was flogging; however, the license-holding husband bore the lash himself for his wife's bad brewing. As beer was considered a vital food, good beer and honest measure were expected of ale wives and dishonesty was not tolerated. A stone carving of an ale wife being cast into hell by several demons resides in a church in Ludlow, England. The doomed brewster holds in her hand the false-bottomed ale pitcher she used in life the cheat her customers. Another early church figure was Saint Brigid who, through an act of prayer and faith changed bath water into beer for a colony of thirsty lepers.

In the new world colonies of America, women continued to brew for their families and neighbors. Early colonial settlers drank large quantities of beer and ale as a nutritious break from a diet of salted, smoked, and dried meat and fish. Resourceful women brewed with corn, pumpkins, artichokes, oats, wheat, honey, and molasses. Before weddings, a nuptial beer was brewed and sold, the proceeds going to the bride on her wedding day. These "bride-ales" survive in our word bridal. "Groaning" beer was brewed for midwives and expectant mothers to be served during and after labor.

Sadly, the late 18th century saw the decline of brewing as a household art and the rise of the male-dominated "beer business" had begun. Along with commercial, large-scale brewing began a decline in the number of beer styles available to the public. Unusual, regional varieties of beer, developed by women through centuries of trial and error became first endangered and then extinct.

Alan D. Eames, a resident of Brattleboro, Vermont, has been dubbed "The Indiana Jones of Beer" by the world media. He is an internationally known beer historian, author, consultant, and beer anthropologist, and is the founding director of the American Museum of Brewing Arts and History.

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