The Untold History of Women in Wine, Beer, Spirits & More

Guest Post by Rebecca Caroli of Town Under Black Distillery

It may seem unusual now to conceive of the bearded and mustachioed world of craft alcohol as something inherently feminine. In part, this is because general western knowledge of beer, wine and spirits extends only as far back as 100 years, with the formation of the major commercial labels we drink today. Yet, prior to the Industrial Revolution, the crafts of brewing and distilling were globally predominated by women.

Historically, this makes a lot of sense. The fundamentals of brewing evolved out of the practices of gathering (foraging) and baking. While men hunted and farmed, women processed plants, ground grains and cooked up nutrient-rich brews, which inevitably fermented. Women formed the clay fermentation and serving vessels that bore the bubbling inebriates for ritual and social consumption. Innovative women boiled their brews, collecting the vapor to produce essential oils, medicinal tinctures and perfumes. The long rote hours of tending a still drew a direct parallel to minding the household hearth. Though these roles developed organically, the relationship between women and the production of craft alcohol was so profound, it was perceived as divine appointment.

Women In Wine & All Craft Alcohol…Ingrained In Us From the Divine

Women in the craft sprits industry is as old as time

An etiological examination of the origins of beer across the world reveals a striking similitude. “In all ancient societies, in the religious mythologies of all ancient cultures, beer was a gift to women from a goddess, never a male god, and women remained bonded in complex religious relationships with feminine deities who blessed the brew vessels,” writes the beer anthropologist Alan Eames in The Secret Life of Beer. Across Chinese legend, Japanese mythology, Finnish epics and African folktales, the female deities of hearths and homes, fertility, womanhood, celebration, and protection were ubiquitously the discoverers and patrons of fermentation and brewing. To the Apache, she is the White Painted Woman, and the dancing goddess Yasigi to the Dogon peoples of Mali. She is the spirit of the agave plant, Mayahuel; she is Hathor, whose temple in Egypt was celebrated as “the place of drunkenness.” But perhaps most famously, she is Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of brewing, to whom the earliest recorded recipe for beer was dedicated.

Due largely to the discovery of the “Hymn to Ninkasi” on a series of cuneiform clay tablets dating to 1,800 BC, the origins of brewing are traditionally associated with Mesopotamia. However, archaeological evidence increasingly shows that womankind likely harnessed the art of fermentation concurrently across Africa, Asia and South America. Though we typically start the timer with the domestication of barley, 11,000 years ago, the innate ability of homo sapiens to metabolize alcohol indicates that our primate forebears were already getting tipsy on fermented fruit, and humans have actively been brewing mead and plant-based beers for at least 35,000 years.

The first “brewsters” (the feminine term for brewers), prepared their beverages for ritual use, as well as personal consumption. Divinely gifted, alcoholic beverages were inextricably tied to the sacred and ceremonial, heightening the status of those women blessed with the arcane knowledge of the craft. Norse vikings allowed only women to brew the ale that lent them courage and ferocity in battle. To this day, in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, the Tohono O’odham tribe relies on a respected matriarch to oversee the ceremonial brewing of the saguaro cactus fruit wine, tiswin, which summons the much-needed monsoonal rains to the sun-parched land.

Women In Craft Alcohol – Mothers of Invention

The Alembic Pot Still invented by Maria Hebrea

Precious notions have long prevailed that women continued to produce their brews at quaint levels, performing ritual needs and rendering only surplus fruits or grain from their homesteads into the occasional tipple for their husbands, fathers and sons.

“A myth pervades that commercial brewing did not exist until it was seized and monetized by entrepreneurial men. Needless to say, this could not be further from the truth. These ancient women were getting paid. “

From extensive administrative ledgers preserved in the Levant, we have learned that Bronze Age women had developed their domestic arts into a thriving enterprise. In Sumeria, of all the professional occupations, only one was presided over by a female deity — the goddess was Ninkasi, and the trade was brewing. Priestesses across the Fertile Crescent sold their bread, their beer and their bodies in a booming temple-tavern industry. During the Wari Empire, it was elite women who owned and ran the breweries of Peru. Indeed, the Spanish recorded that women in the New World were not only the primary brewers, but the main market vendors. The Medieval alewives of Europe established bustling brewhouses and biergartens. In Burkina Faso and Tanzania, women have been producing and selling a variety of beers, including sorghum and cassava, uninterrupted for the last 5,500 years.

Women in craft alcohol were not just getting people drunk; however, they were pioneers of food science, medicine and chemistry. In the 3rd century AD, an Egyptian alchemist named Maria Hebrea (Maria the Jewess) is credited with inventing a number of chemical instruments, among them a system for alcohol distillation that is widely used to this day. Maria’s alembic still converted low-alcohol beers and wines into clear high-proof ethanol, the “water of life.” Women began to run apothecaries, selling medicinal spirits for a panoply of maladies and ailments.

Hops were added to beer by German naturalist and nun St. Hildegard of Bingen

Nearly a thousand years later, St. Hildegard of Bingen, a German natural scientist and nun, was responsible for revolutionizing beer with the unprecedented addition of hops. As Tara Nurin of the Pink Boots Society, a women’s beer collective, writes, Bingen “distinguish[ed] herself as the first person to publicly recommend hops as a healing, bittering, and preserving agent, some 500 years before mainstream society took heed.”

After spirits proliferated in the Americas, a woman named Catherine Spears Frye Carpenter developed the first recorded recipe for sour mash, so-called for the use of backset (liquid leftover in the still after an initial distillation) to raise the pH of the next batch of mash. Whiskey connoisseurs will know, the process of sour mashing is now common practice in American whiskey-making, as it suppresses bacterial contamination of the wort and provides a healthy and nutritious environment for yeast to thrive.

Women’s advances in the business and technology of alcohol began to turn the cottage beer and medicinal alcohol industry into a lucrative trade, rife for exploitation. Gregg Smith puts it best in his book, Beer in America, The Early Years: 1587-1840, writing that “when money got involved, men increasingly started brewing. As the industry developed, it went that way even more.”

Toil and Trouble

The preeminence of women in beer and women in the spirits industry began to shift in the 1500s, when the formation of international trade guilds in Europe and Great Britain prohibited women from practicing or becoming members. Many women circumvented this rule by having husbands or brothers register with the guilds on their behalf, and rural practitioners remained relatively unaffected.

Female brewers and female distillers began to be viewed as witches during the Spanish Inquisition

That is, until the Spanish Inquisition. As a result of their knowledge and craft, brewsters and female distillers enjoyed a relative degree of agency, independence and financial security. Unsurprisingly, these ancient medicinal and alchemical arts were roundly condemned by the church as witchcraft, and the societal position held by brewsters and distillers made these women prime targets. It is estimated that more than 80,000 women were executed during the 17th century witch panic, incriminated by vials of spirits and cauldrons of bubbling wort. It’s no coincidence that the broomstick, a traditional insignia for alehouses, became a calling card for witches. Nor that cats, frequently employed in breweries to keep rodents at bay, were identified as their familiars. Once revered as priestesses, wise women and scientists, the witch panic vilified the association between women and alcohol, painting brewsters and distillers as untrustworthy, pagan, corrupting and grotesque — the legacy of which has persisted for centuries.

“Unsurprisingly, these ancient medicinal and alchemical arts were roundly condemned by the church as witchcraft, and the societal position held by brewsters and distillers made these women prime targets”

By the 1700s, European women had virtually ceased to brew or distill commercially. Ultimately, the nail that closed the coffin on female brewing came with the Industrial Revolution, which transformed these traditional cottage industries into mechanized factory operations carried out by an urban male workforce.

Outside of Europe, women in many pre-industrial societies retained their traditional roles as brewers and distillers. In the colonies of early America, the ability to brew and distill spirits was a requisite ability for eligible young women; indeed, men demanded it in advertisements seeking wives. While many women operated small-scale farm stills, the majority of whiskey in early America was made and sold by the most entrepreneurial women of the time–prostitutes. Admittedly, this did not help improve the already maligned characterization of female distillers, but nor did it slow these women down.

Repeal the 18th Amendment' slogan on a spare tire cover. Dec. 16, 1930. Miss Elizabeth Thompson, was a member of 'The Crusaders', a national organization formed to overthrow prohibition

In the 1850s, American women made roughly two million dollars in spirit sales. And when the temperance movement sought to ban alcohol, the illicit booze market provided even more opportunities for women. Female bootleggers sustained the alcohol industry during prohibition, as it was in many states illegal, and in all states improper, for male officers to search a woman’s person. Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe, a former stenographer for a British liquor importer, set up a tidy business for herself in the Bahamas as a legal wholesaler, who also regularly ran bootlegged spirits into the states. Though she was arrested many times, Cleo was never convicted for her crimes, gaining celebrity for her beauty, business acumen, quick wit and quicker temper.

“Female bootleggers sustained the alcohol industry during prohibition, as it was in many states illegal, and in all states improper, for male officers to search a woman’s person.”

Aunt Mahala Mullins, a prolific moonshineress from Tennessee, boasted quite a different approach for skirting the law. The beloved matriarch of a Malungeon clan, Mahala was renowned for the quality of her spirits and her steadfast refusal to pay taxes on them. Despite her transgressions, Mahala never saw the inside of a courthouse. Weighing around 500 pounds, Mahala was unable to be moved by force, and through her hospitality and generosity had developed a friendly rapport with the local lawmen who coyly referred to her as “catchable, but not fetchable.” In his description of Mahala for the 1895 book Moonshiners, author Henry M. Wiltse epitomizes the dichotomous characterization of such spirited women at the time, writing: “This gross woman…whose manners are as coarse as her physical organism; who makes daily traffic of the ‘dark beverage of hell,’ is not without a spark of sentiment, a trace of those finer human impulses and aspirations which reach out toward the divine.” The legacies of the witch panic, prohibition and America’s puritan sensibilities had settled like a caul over women who defied modern convention to continue operating in the world of alcohol. They were seen at once as wanton and compelling, alluring and grotesque, devilish and divine.

Returning to Our Rightful Place in Craft Alcohol

Female Distiller at an Alembic Pot Still

Despite our profound pedigree in craft alcohol, many women may still feel understandably intimidated in approaching craft beer and spirits, feeling undereducated, undervalued, or simply underrepresented. The shibboleths of modern drinking culture are intentionally targeted towards men. In fact, advertising towards women was prohibited in the alcohol industry until 1987 and the first television spot didn’t run until the 1990s. Nascent media exposure and branding towards women frequently relies on crudely repackaging male tropes for women (Same Great Taste–New Feminine Look! Make it pink! Make it sweeter!). And yet, women’s aptitude for brewing and distilling, for enjoying craft alcohol, is not something that is merely a part of our heritage, it is in our genetics.

“Advertising towards women was prohibited in the alcohol industry until 1987.”

Based on work by Dr. Paul Breslin at Rutgers University and the Monell Chemical Senses Center, evidence shows that women may be biologically more adept at identifying flavors and compounds in beer, wine and spirits than their male counterparts. A paper published in Nature Neuroscience in 2002 indicated that women of reproductive age have an increased perception of certain odors, by an average of five orders of magnitude. Follow up studies suggest that women’s sensitivity to smells are up to 11 orders of magnitude greater than men’s. Women are also better able to access olfactory memories. Post-mortem examinations of olfcatory bulbs (the region of the brain that receives and processes signals from the nose) have found that women have on average 43 percent more cells and 50 percent more neurons than males. Research conducted at Yale by Dr. Linda Bartoshuk additionally showed that women are twice as likely as men to be supertasters. With training, both men and women are empirically able to obtain the same proficiency in nosing and tasting, but women are generally able to learn faster, require less training and have greater olfactory memory.

This innate ability has catapulted an increasing number of young women into prominent positions as head brewers and distillers, master blenders, renowned “nosers,” cicerones, sommeliers and educators. The current theory is that women’s heightened sensitivity perhaps evolved out of a primordial need to perceive low levels of contamination in food before feeding it to more vulnerable offspring, or to recognize the scents of kin in a social group. Could it not be, however, a touch of that divine gift to women by the forgotten goddesses of our ancient heritage and craft.

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