Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Again, with the women!

I must admit to a small level of guilt that has been nagging at me since my last post. While the imagery surrounding women and drunkenness is a point of interest, which has a perceptible connection to the past, I felt that female imbibers didn't exactly end up in the best light. To remedy the situation, I thought it would be useful to examine a more positive relationship women have cultivated with alcohol over the years.

As a woman myself, and one who can appreciate a fine glass of beer or bourbon, I have long been intrigued (or at times frustrated) with the way drinking women tend to be portrayed. First, women aren't supposed to be habitual drinkers (see last post). Second, women drink wine. Beer is a "guy's" drink, and women who do appear as beer drinkers (in movies/TV/other forms of entertainment) they appear as either masculinized, or overly sexualized. Moreover, the notion that there are women in the world who not only like, but they also prefer beer to wine, seems to surprise some.

German Barmaid, via Wikimedia Commons

A few years ago, news articles began to emerge that, in essence, pointed out, "Hey! There are women who like beer! Even more than wine! How strange!" It isn't just a case of, yes there are women who drink beer and they like it, but the overall percentage of women who regularly drink beer as their beverage of choice is growing. In 2009, a Gallup poll found that 21% of women in the US preferred beer to wine, but in 2012, a new poll showed beer winning out over wine among women aged 18-34.  Women aren't stopping at drinking beer either - many have become active brewers, too. The Wynkoop Brewing Company out of Denver hosted an all-female brewing event earlier this year to showcase the talent of female brewers working across Colorado. So the news that women are into beer shouldn't be that surprising (and I must echo the exasperation of Kelly Tidd from Denver Off the Wagon that drawing attention to the fact women drink beer really isn't "news").
Domestic brewing simply could not
compete with large-scale production.

Historically, this isn't even close to news at all. In fact, for centuries women served as the primary producers of ale and beer, particularly in England. Judith Bennett's study on the subject, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters, reveals the long, and very strong, connection women had to brewing first ale and then beer.* While Bennett's study focuses on women in England from 1300-1600, Sarah Hand Meacham's study, Every Home a Distillery, shows that this connection between women and the production of alcohol persisted in Britain's American colonies. So if women have such a long history of working as brewers (or brewsters^), then why all the surprise?

A commercial brewery,
circa 18th c.
As brewing developed into a commercial industry across Europe over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, breweries tended to hire men over women. While women continued to participate in the trade, over time the noticeable presence of women in breweries faded away. Female brewers often worked out of their own homes, but as the commercial supply of beer began to replace what families usually brewed at home, the overall association of women and beer simply came to an end.

The loss of this connection did not occur everywhere, however. Evidence of women who persisted in brewing throughout the centuries appears across Latin America, particularly in Peru, where women continue to produce a traditional brewed beverage known as chicha beer.

Chicha beer is a maize-based beverage, which is produced in a similar manner as beer. There is one noticeable distinction in the preparation of chicha, and that involves the mastication of the germinated maize, as the enzymes present in saliva help break down the starches in the grain into fermentable sugars. In other words, the brewer chews up and spits out the maize before brewing it into beer.

The history of chicha beer is still new to me - I first learned about it through the Discovery Channel series Brew Masters, in which the master brewer of Dogfish Head Brewery, Sam Calagione, visited Peru to learn the technique behind chicha brewing.

The details surrounding chicha brewers fascinated me for a number of reasons. First, the continued presence of women in brewing throughout history is interesting simply by itself. But there were a number of details that stood out to me, and honestly surprised me, as I learned about this particular beverage.

One rather minor detail that the episode quickly passed over was that chicha brewers place flowers outside of their chicherias to notify the public that a fresh batch was in the works. After a couple days, when the flowers began to wilt, customers would know that the chicha was ready for drinking. What is absolutely fascinating about this detail is that medieval brewsters in England notified their customers that a fresh batch of ale was brewing by hanging their brewing brooms (which they used to stir the batch of ale or beer) outside of their house to dry. (Scholars cite these brooms as the precursors to pub signs.)

A brewster and her broom, circa 14th c.

What can we take from this somewhat odd parallel between cultures? Perhaps it is a mere coincidence that female brewers living on opposite sides of the Atlantic, who had no knowledge of the other's culture, or that the other even existed (during the fourteenth century, anyway), engaged in a strikingly similar practice when brewing their respective beverages. There is likely little to take away from this beyond the fact that it is purely interesting, but it remains a point of fascination to me.

In the end, however, it is important to recognize the long history that existed between women and beer. While men may currently make up the bulk of the customer base for modern beer companies, the fact that women both make and drink beer should not come as such a surprise. In fact, one could argue that beer is more of a woman's drink than one for men. Either way, the emerging trend in beer drinking demographics certainly seems to suggest that women are returning to their alcoholic "roots" as they enjoy the complex and delightful flavors of a well-brewed beer.

* The difference noted here between ale and beer derives from the historical distinction between un-hopped ale and hopped beer. This distinction was very important during the time that hopped beer first arrived in England - many English drinkers did not care for the flavor of hopped beer and upheld the superior qualities of the more traditional un-hopped ale. Over time, the English learned to enjoy hopped beer, and by the eighteenth century, this distinction became less of a necessity. Today, all beers, including ales, are brewed with hops.
^ 'Brewsters' is the feminized form of the word 'brewer' (which is gender neutral). As pointed out by Bennett, it is the only gender-specific word that applies to a person who brews beer.

Further reading:

- Judith M. Bennett, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 (NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1996).
- Sarah Hand Meacham, Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2009).
- For more on Dogfish Head's adventure in chica brewing, see: Chew It Up, Spit It Out, Then Brew. Cheers!
- For more information on modern brewsters and female beer drinkers, see: Women, Craft Beer and Centerfolds


  1. Nice. And also, women drinking beer are often portrayed as low class/"White Trash" (think Ellen Barkin in Drop Dead Gorgeous - http://www.slantmagazine.com/assets/house/lists/15famoushicks_2.jpg )

    If we women drink, it shouldn't be beer as that is déclassé. *scoffs* Or if it IS beer, marketing tells me it should be Light, Lite, Low Carb, 64... or Skinny... YUCK.

    And I really need to start a blog while dissertation happenings are in my brain!

  2. I forgot that Allison Janney is also chugging hootch out of a paper bag wrapped bottle in that scene (still pic). See what I mean...

  3. Exactly! Beer isn't "classy" enough for ladies, and that's why women are supposed to drink wine, right? Though I think people are finally coming around to the idea that beer is as sophisticated a drink and can be enjoyed on the same level as wine.