“What’s On Your Table?” is a series of articles exploring the relationship between food and systems of power, and how our dining tables shape global cuisine and family histories. You can find a recipe at the bottom of each piece to join in on the meal. You can read more in the series here.
As temperatures get nippier and the winter holiday season sets in, it’s just the time to cozy up to a warm, spiced holiday beer. When you do, you can raise a glass to the women brewers, or brewsters, who first created the drink. A male-dominated industry in modern times, women’s influence over the craft of beer brewing was mostly erased, pushed out, or forgotten over the centuries. Initially though, it was women who brewed the beers we savor today, only sidelined from the craft when — you guessed it — money or power became involved.
Holiday beer as we know it originated in Europe. The Vikings are credited with the first: Jólöl. That’s Viking for Yule ale. For thousands of years, beer brewing had been considered women’s work, a task completed by the hearth at home. It was seen as a gift of the goddess in more cultures worldwide than that of gods. Thus, the duty of brewing Yule ale and tweaking the recipe just right fell to women — perhaps exclusively to women, as renowned beer anthropologist (yes, that’s a real job!) Alan Eames has argued. If women’s work is often sidelined, the product itself was not: Viking King Haakon reportedly mandated households to contribute gallons of Yule ale each year, on penalty of a fine or — for gross violators — forfeiture of land.
This style of seasonal ale emerged in other corners of Europe and integrated with Christmas traditions. Its popularity is unsurprising. Ale was an important household item, safer to drink than water and a source of needed calories. All the while, women were behind the scenes of this staple. In fact, if you favor hops, pour one out for abbess St. Hildegard, the first to incorporate it into monastic brewing about 500 years before it took off in industry.
WHEN THE WOMEN WERE PUSHED OUT
As brewing became more profitable, women who sold their brews were pushed out of the biz. Following the Black Death, higher quality of life led to greater demand for beer (because who doesn’t need a drink after a pandemic, amirite?). The supply side had also begun to change. Hops went mainstream, giving beer a longer shelf life, thus ushering in its profit-driven industrialization. As it did, male-dominated guilds offered access to financing, licensing, and trade opportunities from which independent women were excluded.
Enterprising brewsters faced further sidelining as the Reformation era ushered in stricter gender norms and Europe’s phobia of witches took hold.
Enterprising brewsters faced further sidelining as the Reformation era ushered in stricter gender norms and Europe’s phobia of witches took hold. Propaganda from this era gave us the classic image of the witch we know today, donning a pointy hat and broomstick. This image is strikingly reminiscent of brewsters who dared seek remuneration for their work: These women wore pointy hats to be easily seen in a crowded market, carried beer in a cauldron, kept cats around to ward off mice from nibbling at the grain, and hung broomsticks outside the house to signify when their latest batch was ready for purchase.
This isn’t to say that women who brewed were rounded up as witches (they weren’t), and historians debate the true origins of witch iconography, but it’s clear that this imagery demonized ethnic minorities and the women who stepped out of contemporary gender roles consigning them to the home rearing children. In the case of brewsters, the church and popular culture increasingly imagined a special place in hell for these women who tricked men into losing their cents and their senses.
“NEW WORLD” BUT SAME OLD PATRIARCHY
While these women were pushed out of brewing, the beers they had innovated remained popular. The malty, spiced holiday ale Americans enjoy today harkens to British winter warmers and other European traditions that initially came with colonists to the “New World,” where this history of women brewing until it turned profitable would repeat itself. Lacking the industrial infrastructure for brewing in the colonies, the Virginia Company went so far as to introduce mail brides for male colonists to serve as brewsters, among other things. It recruited women with respected credentials in brewing and housewifery to come to the “New World” with the prospect of marriage. It was not uncommon for colonial women lacking skills in brewing to be chastised for their “slothful” behavior that relegated men to drink that lowly beverage, water.
Colonial women made the most of available ingredients, brewing ciders and ales from honey, molasses, peaches, apples, and more. Spruce was often used in place of hops, which was less plentiful and expensive to import. In wealthy southern households, enslaved women and men were integral to this process, creating beers that senators and other male elites sought out. There is some evidence that Native American women of the time also brewed beer from local ingredients, such as corn, but this history was obscured by early US policies that made alcohol a taboo subject on tribal lands.
Women continued to be the backbone of this labor until, yet again, profit and power entered the picture. As industrialization picked up in the colonies, brewing offered a new stream of income and a means of rubbing elbows with elites. Male planters and merchants took over the trade. We didn’t know what we were missing as a result. Industrialization at mass scale encouraged homogenization, detracting from those varied and unique recipes women had brewed in households while experimenting with the range of available ingredients.
It largely remained this way until the modern craft beer movement tilted the market back toward this tradition. That movement picked up in the late 1970s after Congress again legalized home brewing, allowing for renewed experimentation and innovation akin to the process women had pursued all those centuries before. Even so, today, male brewery owners outnumber women by three to one in this $600 billion industry. Despite these odds, women are making strides in the brewing world and competing for top accolades.
So, as you grab a pint and settle in by the fire this winter, you can toast the Viking women, nuns, and crafty witches who brought it into this world and refined the recipe to get it just right.
And if you’d like to pay homage by brewing your own, you can start with this recipe, courtesy of our own award-winning family brewster, Cathy Frye (thanks, ma!). This seasonal winter warmer is a favorite homebrew, later altered for use as a commercial beer under her label Phase 2 Brewing from 2018 to 2020. “Hoppy” holidays!
RECIPE FOR “FIRESIDE WINTER WARMER”
8.5% ABV, 40 IBUs
The fireside smoke in this gently spiced Winter Warmer is created by tea.
1.5 teaspoons calcium chloride
1 crushed Campden tablet
14 lbs pale malt (2 row) us (2.0 SRM)
8 oz chocolate malt (350.0 SRM)
4 oz roasted barley (300.0 SRM)
4 oz black (patent) malt (500.0 SRM)
4 oz oats, flaked (1.0 SRM)
12 oz corn sugar (dextrose)
1 oz Chinook pellets (13% AA)
1 lb clear candi sugar
1 oz grated, peeled fresh ginger root
1 oz Nugget pellets (13% AA)
1 teaspoon grated cinnamon
1 oz sweet orange peel
1 whirlfloc tablet
0.3 oz bagged lapsang souchong tea
1 11g pack SafAle S-04 English ale yeast
- Add 1.5 teaspoons calcium chloride and 1 crushed Campden tablet to 26 quarts of mash water. Bring water to 156° F.
- Mash the milled grains at 154°F for 60 mins.
- Ramp to 170°F and hold for 10 mins.
- Mash out. Sparge with 2 gallons of water at 170°F. Estimated pre-boil gravity is 1.065 specific gravity with 7 gallons of volume. Add 12 oz corn sugar to the mash.
- Bring to a vigorous boil, add 1 oz pellet Chinook (13% AA) and set 45-min timer. After 15 mins, add the candi sugar, making sure to dissolve it well without allowing it to burn on the bottom of the brew kettle.
- When the timer rings, add the Nugget, ginger, cinnamon, orange peel and whirlfloc. Set a 15-mins timer. When the timer rings, add the bagged tea, measure gravity, remove hops and spices but leave tea in while cooling down to 68°F.
- Remove tea, transfer to a fermenting vessel, pitch the yeast and ferment at stable temperature until a final gravity of 1.015 is attained.
Laura Daniels is a foreign policy professional who has written on peace and security, European affairs, and the politics of food. She’s also an incurable foodie.