Why don’t more women like beer? Maybe it’s because they used to be burned alive for it. Or, more precisely—men accused them of ruining their beer, called them beer witches, and then tied them to the stake.
All of which is even more unfair than you might think. This is because without women, men wouldn’t have any beer. According to many historians, women not only were the first brewers, they probably invented beer. One theory about how beer evolved is that a wet piece of bread was left out and, after someone ate the fermented result, the inebriating effect of beer was discovered and hastily duplicated. Since kitchen work and making bread was a woman’s job, it is most likely that it was a woman who first imbibed said bread.
Though we don’t usually associate kitchens and women with beer today, Kim Kramer makes the connection, revealing how uncomplicated the brewing process can be. “If you can read a recipe, you can brew beer,” says Kramer, an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency and part-time home brewer.
Up until the Middle Ages, it was women who brewed almost all beer, usually in amounts large enough for family consumption. However, when monasteries turned their attention to beer making in the Middle Ages, men entered the brewing scene. Although the monks originally only made the beer for themselves, they soon realized its potential as a moneymaker, and began selling beer to outsiders, with some monasteries even opening up pubs. Still, women in Europe were able to keep the edge over men until the late eighteenth century. Records show women opening up their own inns and pubs, some single women even maintaining their maiden name while doing so, possibly suggesting that beer garnered them some independence and a livable income. In 1509, a list of the existing 152 brewers in Aberdeen records only women. During the 1700s, seventy-eight percent of registered brewers in England were women.
But as demand and trade increased, ruling male governments soon passed laws to keep beer profits in their own hands by keeping women out of such a profitable trade. Aside from a brief period during World War I when women took over for their men (absent as soldiers), beer making has rested squarely with men ever since.
There are indicators that women may be making some headway in reasserting their presence in the brewing world. Members of both genders are attending brewing schools, and in other alcoholic arenas, such as wine tasting, women are even regarded by many as superior to their male colleagues. Experts speculate, however, that only one to two percent of all brewers today are women.
Women don’t have to become professional brewers in order to reclaim their beer brass. Kramer, a full-time professional who, living in New York, has little extra space, proves that even with limited time and equipment, women can make their own beer quite successfully. For $60–$150, you can purchase a starter’s kit that includes all of the equipment you need to make five-gallon batches of beer, and it will fit neatly in your closet.
For Kramer, brewing beer is not a political statement or a for-profit venture, but rather a form of entertainment; she brews for “pure personal enjoyment.” She’s also generous with her beer, sharing the finished batches with her friends. “They always know to bring the bottles back, though,” says Kramer. This is because Kramer doesn’t skimp on the quality of her bottles, taking pleasure in the appearance of her cobalt blue vessels. “I’m a bit of a bottle snob,” she admits.
Brewing can also be a reason to call together your friends, and Kramer often finds willing hands to help, especially when she adds a home-cooked meal to the deal. “You can do everything alone except for maybe the bottling,” she says, “but it’s just more fun with other people.”
Kramer, in fact, first became interested in brewing by helping her brother. “He was brewing a batch, I helped and saw how easy it was, so I decided I could do it myself.” She did. Her first batch was brewed on her birthday. “There was a big snowstorm,” Kramer says, “so we called the beer Brooklyn Blizzard.” Kramer says she tries to name all her beers, basing the name of each beer on its style, people involved in its making, or surrounding events occurring during the brewing of a particular batch.
Anyone wanting to get started brewing can buy the equipment and ingredients from several companies catering especially to home brewers. Kramer recommends MidWest Homebrewing and Winemaking Supplies, a company in Minnesota with a Web site where customers’ brewing needs can all be met online. Once you have the supplies in hand, “the process is pretty simple,” Kramer explains. “Basically, brewing can be broken down into three steps: the boil, which is the most fun and includes transferring the beer to the primary fermenter where, for roughly a week, most of the fermentation takes place. The second step is transferring the beer to the secondary fermenter, where it sits for roughly two weeks, and clarifies. The third step is bottling, and includes the addition of priming sugar, which is what causes the beer to carbonate.” The beer will not be ready to drink for several weeks once bottled, the exact amount of time depending on the style of beer. On average, the whole process takes around seven weeks—three weeks before bottling and four after bottling. “The waiting is definitely the hardest part,” says Kramer.
If you’ve never brewed before, there is plenty of help to be had. Numerous home brewing guides are printed each year, and Web sites, including MidWest Supplies, offer advice and recipes from other brewers. “There’s a huge community online,” says Kramer, who has even called the owner of MidWest for help. For the most part, other brewers are more than willing to share their own brewing tips and stories.
Once you get the basics down, you can begin to experiment. Kramer, for instance, said her best batch of beer to date came when she added hazelnut extract to a batch of Nut Brown Ale. She named this batch “Hazel’s in the Nut House.” And you don’t have to let brewing dictate your schedule. You can brew at your own pace, making as many or as few batches as you want. “Some people always have to have something going,” says Kramer, “but I only do maybe four batches a year.”
The most important piece of advice Kramer gives is that “you must keep everything sanitized. Luckily, I haven’t had a bad batch yet, but I have heard stories from brewers who have had to ditch entire batches because they failed to follow this golden rule.”
Whether or not you’re interested in the political aspects of women in the beer world, taking a look at home brewing is worthwhile. You’ll always have a reason to gather people together, a great item for gift giving, and, of course, the satisfaction of making and drinking the magical brew yourself. And. if anyone calls you a beer witch, you can take it as a compliment.