Like most things from long, long ago, beer has a colourful history of tall tales, sketchy beginnings and hazy details. It’s not surprising, really, if you consider that the people who took the time to write down beer history probably enjoyed a pint or ten. (I’m not saying that all beer historians were drinking on the job, but I think it’s safe to say more than a few were.) One story that everyone does agree on, though, is that we have women to thank for the delicious beverage we call beer.
Around 5000 BCE, humans began settling in the Fertile Crescent (today’s Middle East) to plant and harvest grain. This was a big leap forward in human evolution that saw us trade in our nomadic lifestyle for farming. The civilisation of Sumer soon developed, and it’s the Sumerian women who are among the first to be credited with the beginnings of beer. (Some form of fermented beer porridge was probably made earlier, with some evidence pointing towards China, but it was the Sumerians who put it down on paper – or, well, clay tablet.) They wrote the recipe in song form so no one would forget it because, you know, beer. It’s called the Hymn to Ninkasi – Ninkasi being their goddess of beer – and it was written around 1800 BCE.
Ancient Egypt followed a similar pattern, with women in charge of the brewing. A honey-infused brew was the tipple of choice under the blazing desert sun. The pyramid’s construction teams received three rations of beer a day to keep up morale. The Egyptians also worshipped a goddess of beer called Tenenit. In Sumeria and Egypt, the women not only brewed, but also ran the taverns.
In medieval Europe, the women in charge of brewing were called brewsters. In Britain, it was a way for women to become financially independent. Unlike other trades that had barriers to entry – like land ownership, an education, or being a man – brewing was a job that could be done from home. Unfortunately, during the Industrial Revolution, beer-brewing moved from homes to factories, bringing the golden age of the brewster to an end. It may sound like doom and gloom for female brewers, but some cultures have kept the tradition alive. Sorghum beer, or umqombothi, has been brewed by African women for as long as anyone can remember. And, with the rise of craft beer, we’re seeing women take their place at the mash tun once again.
South Africa’s craft industry has a vibrant group of women comprising brewsters, writers and business-owners who are staking their claim in this male-dominated industry.
Stay tuned – over the next few weeks, we’ll be interviewing some of the leading ladies to hear what they think of the current industry and how we can make it better.