Women in Brewing Part 2: Devolution

Posted by Kat Rogers-Hern on

In the first instalment of this series, I wrote about the awesome early history of women in brewing. In this edition, we'll focus on where, when, and (most importantly) why it all went wrong.

In the years following the Black Death of the mid 14th century, the European brewing trade started to change. When it did, the changes were as quick as they were drastic. The high death toll led to a labour shortage, which in turn led to a major wage increase for those in the workforce. Higher wages meant more disposable income to spend on beer, driving up demand for the tasty product (Oppenheim). Growing urban populations and better living standards also supported this growth.

Men (who owned land, were educated, and had both financial and political connections) were able to establish commercial breweries and alehouses in order to meet the rising demand. This was great for the industry as a whole, but spelled disaster for female brewers. Smaller scale brewsters could not compete, and unmarried brewsters were the first to go; they didn’t have access to enough capital to compete in the new market, and were limited by their part-time or occasional status (Baugher, Bennett).

Married brewsters, on the other hand, saw their role within the industry change as it became increasingly commercialized. Since they generally had larger and more profitable breweries to begin with - due primarily to the capital and man-power (no pun intended) that they had access to through their husbands - these women were in a better position to adapt to the changing marketplace (Bennett, 38). By the 16th century, though, they had lost most of the independence associated with early brewing. Women who once worked in an equal partnership with their husbands were demoted to roles as unofficial managers, laborers, and tapsters (Bennett, 74). Brewing itself became a man’s game.

Religion also had a major negative impact on women working in the beer industry. The Christianization of Europe led to fears about the impacts of alcohol consumption on behaviour. It was around this time that the persecution of women in the beer industry got started. In 1540 the city of Chester, for example, banned women between the ages of 14 and 40 from selling ale as they were seen as being too sexually desireable. The theory was that intoxicated men just wouldn’t be able to help themselves (Bennett, 122). Women in the industry were also accused of infidelity, sexual deviance, dishonest business practices, and even witchcraft (Nurin, Bennett). Remember the witch’s cauldron? The popular theory is that this pot was originally a brew kettle.

Once they crossed the ocean and established a colony, though, early settlers once again entrusted brewing to women (see Women in Brewing Part 1 for more on this topic). Sadly, this didn’t last long either. As the US asserted itself as a nation independent of Britain, brewing left the domestic sphere. Women lost control of their most delicious household duty, and were left to continue with the rest of the cooking, cleaning, and child rearing while men developed and promoted larger-scale commercial brewing operations. Again, the commercialization was an important step for the industry, but a brutal one for the brewsters. It was during this period that some of the today’s largest breweries were established (Gentile).

The thing that I find so interesting about his period of brewing history is that it really wasn’t the changing role of women that drove brewsters out of the game. Instead, it was changes to the game itself.  Higher demand meant bigger breweries and, because of the politics of the day, bigger breweries demanded the kind of capital that only men had access to. As a result, brewsters lost control of this valuable (and enjoyable) practice to their husbands, brothers, and sons. It wasn’t until the 20th century that women really returned to the brewhouse, but we’ll leave that for the next instalment.


Click here for a list of sources used in the creation of this three-part series.


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