Every few weeks, Sophie writes about Beer, Brewing and Bites. Her stories are witty, educational and worth a read!
Women and Beer – Hiding in Plain Sight
April 3, 2019
The month of March is notable for basketball’s March Madness and the spring equinox, though I’ve noticed that “Spring” is mostly on my calendar and not outside my door. But March also includes the celebration of International Women’s Day (March 8th). First adopted by the feminist movement in the late sixties, the United Nations gave it annual recognition in 1975. The crew at the Saltbox happily recognized it in 2019 by encouraging some female stirring of the proverbial brew pot. A few of the women staffers, led by tap room manager Rhiannon Visser, spent a quiet mid-March morning at the back of the house, brewing beer. The result was “Salty Gals Killer Keller” – a recipe based on a traditional German kellerbier. “Keller bier” translates to “cellar beer”, a rather unique Bavarian style historically brewed in the cooler months of the year and stored in caves, where the cool, cellar-like temperatures allowed a slow, stable maturation. I was able to snag one of the first samples of The Salty Gals brew this week. The beer splashed into my glass with a beautiful golden amber colour and moderate amount of carbonation. It smelled of crusty bread and dry spice and glided across my tongue with a pleasurable balance of malty sweetness and herbal hoppiness (must have been the use of those German Noble hops). I wasn’t the only one impressed by the result; Salty Gals Killer Keller was released on March 29th and sold out within 24 hours.
It’s ironic that when you think about who brews your beer, you don’t often imagine a woman standing over the brew kettle. More likely you picture some round-bellied guy with a beard and a ball cap (sorry guys). But it wasn’t always this way. A female brewer is referred to as a “Brewster”, and it recognizes a long history of women and brewing. In fact, women are credited with the invention of beer. Many are familiar with the “Hymn to Ninkasi”, the first written beer recipe some 4000 years ago, dedicated to the Sumerian goddess of beer who taught mankind the secrets of brewing. The Sumerians were serious about their beer – it was a regular commodity in foreign trade. Perhaps that’s why a woman, Kubaba, was the only Queen on the Sumerian King List; a role she earned not as a birthright, but as a brewer.
There are a myriad of women throughout history who made their imprint on beer, primarily because the making of beer went hand-in-hand with the baking of bread. It was a household chore. In medieval England, brewsters were not just the primary ale makers for their families, they often produced enough surplus to sell to local villagers. Known as “alewives”, they would hawk it on the street corner by wearing a tall hat so that they could be seen above the crowd or signal that they had beer for sale at home by placing a broomstick outside their door. Add to this picture the boiling cauldron and a household cat used to keep rodents away from the malted grain, and you can see why many think the image of the alewife gave way to that of a witch...”double, double toil and trouble”. Think those witches might have been brewing beer?
Some historians surmise that the shift of brewing from women to men occurred when royal edicts and brewing guilds started making rules about beer ingredients and brew methods. As the making of beer grew from a cottage industry to a commercial exercise, it began to fall outside the household domain. By the 20th century, beer production was firmly in the hands of men.
But the connection back to the days when women brewed for their families, communities, and convents remains alive. In Germany, Sister Doris Englehard is the last in a 1,000-year line of Bavarian brewing nuns at a 12th century abbey in Mallesdorf. Her existence has spawned new generations of women brewers in Europe like Rosa Merckx who became the first female master brewer in 20th century Belgium in 1972, and Anne-Catherine Dilewyns, the youngest female brewer in Belgium at the age of 29 at Brouwerij Dilewyns. In North America, thousands of women now own breweries, bars, bottle shops, or homebrew-supply stores and make, sell, test, market, or write about beer. As brewsters, we remain a minority, but the numbers are growing.
On April 27th this year, Good Robot Brewing Company in Halifax is hosting its inaugural Brewster Festival. As a way to celebrate women in brewing, they have invited women-identified brewers and staff from around Atlantic Canada to create their own beers to serve at the event. Already over a dozen local breweries are participating, including our own Saltbox Salty Gals.
Remember, if history has a lesson, it’s that women know their beer. Celebrate the women of this century who have been hiding in plain sight. Be on the lookout for aspiring female home brewers at King Street Brewery – opening in Bridgewater, NS on May 3th! (https://www.kingstreetbeer.ca/lahave-river-beers.html). We hope to see you there!