The modern brewing community gives a great misconception of women in the beer industry. In actuality, their role has been pivotal in its production from the dawn of time.
Beer itself dates back to ancient Mesopotamia. Most of the first brew masters were all women — but once the process was industrialized, men dominated the factories. Before that, brewing beer was a necessary and practical chore for women.
Necessary, because people needed to drink — and not just for the sake of keeping the local tavern afloat. Water treatment and purification was essential. It could carry diseases that wiped out large amounts of the population, especially in crowded cities. The process of boiling and fermenting water, which creates beer, produced a much safer beverage that wouldn’t make people sick.
Practical, because beer provided a level of nourishment, filling up stomachs used to more meager meals. It could also be useful to earn a bit more income for women that made an excess, adding to the household budget.
Every member of the family drank beer with every meal, even children. That wasn’t because of bad parenting. The most common home brew was called small beer.
It had a very low level of alcohol, anywhere from 3% down to 0.05%, allowing productivity to go unhindered throughout the day. Famed author Jane Austen brewed her own beer.
Born in 1775, she spent all of her life in England, living mostly in Hampshire county but spending a few years in Bath. Her family had an old and respectable lineage, but this didn’t excuse members of the family from the chore of brewing beer.
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A witty wordsmith who wrote six novels littered with social commentary on women’s dependence on the institution of marriage for social and economic reasons, Austen proved she was anything but dependent.
Even though she never married and the author didn’t necessarily find shining fame in her day, Austen managed to support herself through her work.
Excess kegs could have helped, too. The whole family was known for making beer, as well as mead and wine for the family estate. Jane Austen’s speciality was spruce beer.
Its flavor was somewhere into the root beer family and the brew was fermented with molasses as well as the obligatory hops, and had hints of pine.
Proof of Austen’s lesser known creations was found in letters to her beloved sister Cassandra. She writes, “It is you, however, in this instance, that have the little children, and I that have the great cask, for we are brewing spruce beer again,” paralleling her sister’s expanding family with Austen’s expanding enterprise.
Unfortunately, recipes for Austen’s brew have not survived the test of time. The Jane Austen Center, the museum officially dedicated to her in Bath, does have a recipe for the Austen family’s mead though, available if you sign up for their free membership.
In 2017, organizers of the annual Jane Austen Festival worked together with The Bath Brewhouse to create a new drink for the 200th anniversary of the author’s passing. Though not made of spruce, Head Brewer Max Cadman looked to the Georgian Era for inspiration.
He created a new style of brew in which he infused Earl Grey Tea. The Jane Austen 200 Beer, an Earl Grey Red Ale, was a limited release and is sadly no longer on the brewery’s tap list.
Women disliking beer is a recent stereotype that only seemed to crop up when brewing was moved from the family home into the industrial factory at the end of the 19th century.
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For centuries, if not millennia, women were active participants in the industry and regular imbibers. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn of other famous women in history having brewed their own beer.