This will all be a coherent thought in the end. Trust me. I want to discuss a few things about beer and history involving geography, weather, nutrition, division of labor and feminism. Although I should probably go way back to the first millennia B.C.E., I’m going to concentrate on early Renaissance to the beginning of Early Modern Europe.
Why does one think of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, England, etc., when it comes to beer, whereas France and Italy are the wine countries? Just like real estate, it’s all location, location, location. The main ingredients for beer (water, grains of some sort, hops and yeast) grow well in the northern climates. Thus, beer and its various siblings and cousins (such as mead, ale, etc.) was created, crafted and perfected in these locales. However, apart from the materials being readily available, there was another reason why beer was so important in these northern countries.
Beer’s grain ingredients keep fresh long past their harvest date, whereas other alcoholic beverage ingredients don’t (think grapes without refrigeration). It is possible to harvest all of the grains for beer when ready and keep them stored without any special materials (salt or cold) as long as you keep them away from scavenger rodents. Hops on the other hand can go stale, but if they are going stale, you can use more. For our historical discussion, let’s remember that the brewers were not entered in Craft Beer Week. Therefore, it is possible to make beer all winter long.
Most of all, beer was used as nutritional fortification. Today, many pansy drinkers complain about calorie intake when drinking beer, which was one of the original purposes behind the drink. To survive cold winters in northern Europe, calories were key and when a surplus of food was rarely available, beer was a crucial staple in the local diet.
And here’s where this whole thing gets really cool…
Division of Labor and Feminism
Traditionally, men were the brewers in medieval England. However, for a 300 year stretch beginning in late medieval England, women took over the brewster role. The reason behind this change had to do with time management. It was easier for a woman to brew beer while conducting her other daily tasks, such as rearing children, which allowed men to leave the home for manual labor jobs. Women also created ways to trade off tasks with friends and neighbors to garner relief from the work load. Households would congregate and each household would trade-off brewing beer for the other households in the group so that one house didn’t have to constantly brew for themselves. Of course, some were better than others and this ensured a market for higher quality goods. This methodology created a scenario for guild formation and also regulations. However, by the 1600s, men had stolen the task of brewing back from women as technology and techniques became more advanced. At this point breweries for production on a larger scale started cropping up, which pushed women out of the limelight of beer creation.
As this brewery takes shape and hopefully flourishes from a household operation to mass production, it is easy to understand how time management affected the gender of the brewers in the late medieval/early Renaissance in England. I have heard many complaints on a week day that “I’d rather be brewing than sitting at work,” and hopefully with help from both genders, we’ll be able to make that happen.
If anyone is looking for more information, I learned about women brewsters in a class on Medieval families at Colorado College. I highly recommend reading this short, fascinating book: