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At one point in time, home brewing used to be a chore equivalent to baking bread or sewing clothes. Thats right! Prior to the black plague, the trading and industrialization of ale was on the rise, but brewing remained a feminine household task in most of England up into the 1600s. In her book, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters, feminist historian Judith Bennett shares her research on these female brewers. Brewing practices were carefully documented during England's medieval era. This information provides a view into the history of what was a highly regulated trade, giving historians a glimpse into the early work of women during a period when most female-associated trades went undocumented. Brewsters, or the title given to female brewers, is not a word we find in modern English. It is thought to define all brewers of this time, who happen to be predominantly female. This isnt to say male brewers werent around, because they certainly were, but brewing during this time was considered low-skill work and allocated mostly to females.

Women's Role In Medieval Brewing
Bennetts study includes historical facts based off of city records and writings of the Medieval era. It is evident, that brewing was passed down from generation to generation, as it seemed most women brewed at some point in their life. The records show us that the brewsters could have been any married, single, or widowed women. Though ale was available by trade or for purchase commercially, many women still made it in the home, in addition to being responsible for selling the majority of the household's ale. Women once brewed and sold most of the ale that was drunk England... women had to produce and market in vast quantities." (Bennett) A married woman could supplement her family's income by brewing extra ale in between other household tasks. Sometimes the women would gather together and share the workload, as well as the ale. They would also share yeast strains and tools, much like today's modern homebrewer.
Brewing during this time was considered to be both low-skill and low-status; a job usually saved for working-class women and the poor. For the single or widowed woman, it may have been used as an alternative to selling herself or begging. Bennett shares that the only reason we know so much about brewsters is because of how regulated the trade was. Brewers were expected to be honest, maintain the current price when selling, and pay appropriate taxes. Court records indicate at least a quarter of the women in the era received fines while brewing. Often, these fines were incurred by trying to sell ale without calling for the ale-taster, who oversaw the quality of the ale produced.

England's Ale Mostly Brewed By Women In The Era
Brewsters, while being responsible for most of the ale production, operated in a male-supervised trade. It is just a fact, that in this era, women had little to no economic, legal, or political power. Any notoriety received would often contribute to her husbands social standing. Even the office of ale-taster, a position a brewster would be best suited for, was unattainable for women.
Like other industries of the time, beer began to advance. By the 1600s, it was a specialized trade. Technological advancements allowed the production of beer in place of ale. Shelf life of beer was increased, expanding its reach. Soon the ubiquitous, low-skill trade of brewster was becoming one of status, and required skill.
Advancements in brewing were followed by new government regulations. Womens meager homebrewing became inadequate for the demand of the times. The economic growth of brewing allowed male brewers to gain higher income, purchase equipment, and hire staff. The authority to run a business was not one a woman possessed. Men had the capital and the credit, as well as the ability to maintain strong partnerships, which were needed in the trade (Bennett).

Ultimately Large Scale Brewing Was Dominated By Men
In time, women were neither forced nor victimized out of their trade. Any women's work that appropriately advanced became mens work. The low-skill, low-status job of brewing ale became a large-scale beer production industry that presented many new opportunities. Men were stronger and more driven to venture out. The brewsters were left at a profound disadvantage, and simply could not continue in the trade.
The records made in Medieval England give modern historians a view into the past work history of women. They also give a view into the transition of brewing from homebrew craft to brewery craft. Modern guilds and business grew from these historical transitions. Todays brewer can gain a deeper appreciation for their craft when they know more of the history behind it. So raise a glass; your great, great, great grandmother may have been a brewster. Cheers!
Bennet, J. (1996). Ale, beer, and brewsters in England. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.
Eames, A. D. (1993). Beer women history. In Brewess. Retrieved March 4, 2014
Bio: Author is an Oregon home brewer with a passion for beer history.

I'm loving these beer history articles.
I hated history in school, always found it boring. Add beer to history and it becomes exciting again.
They were indeed victimized in the times when gruits were in vogue, but hops were beginning to be used. The men saw an opportunity & the associations, or guilds, started making the " alewives" out to be purveying some kind of foul mixtures to take business away from them. The church started overseeing the selling of herbs, etc to profit from them. Then these enterprising men came along with the new hops & started taking over. They used to hang a broom out the window to show their ales were ready to passers by. I dug up some of this in my books. Interesting how the paradigm shifted.
Thanks for sharing this knowledge -- happy to know the history is being kept alive. We normally roll our eyes at regulations surrounding beer; some of the regulations are crazy. However, it looks like regulations came through in helping document the story of beer, so a tip of the hat to the regulators/pencil pushers.
Good article! There were a few cultures where brewing was "women's work"; men were really missing out! It is interesting that there is so much documentation on it. I've seen some gruit recipes online and even one claiming to be hundreds of years old but I wonder how many recipes exist today.
Timely article given the pro - female homebrewer threads in the forum. It's good to acknowledge our roots.
I've read Bennett's book and it's a solid read; however, she misinterprets a lot of the literature (Chaucer, Langland, and others) in an attempt to argue that female brewers were made out to be public enemy #1. In fact, such estate satires were aimed at all services and trades because (unfortunately) England's lowest class had a continent-wide reputation for being swindlers. So much so that it almost tanked their economy.
Otherwise it was a great book!
Katherine vonBora Luther, the wife of Martin Luther (the real one, not King), was supposedly a renowned brewer in Wittenburg, where the Luthers lived. The local magistrate there made it illegal to dump garbage or waste into the river on Tuesdays because that's when Katie would draw her water for brewing.
It was that sort of disregard for the water sources in the UK & Europe that led the Plymouth settlers to distrust our pristine water her in America. Besides the plague & all that where drinking ale & cleaning things up helped a lot in that case. But greed & avarice in those days on the part of the men was what caused so much harm, once again, to the lower classes, as I found.
@SatanPrinceOfDarkness Yes they do cover some of the process. Enough to understand an idea of how it was made then and some of the ingredients chosen. It also talks about how different ingredients or brewing styles traveled through the region.

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