Women have been instrumental in brewing beer throughout most of human history. That fact isn’t likely to pop up on trivia night or in casual conversation in taprooms across the country. The critical roles and fundamental contributions of women have largely been erased or overshadowed by men. Author Tara Nurin’s book, A Woman’s Place Is in the Brewhouse: A Forgotten History of Alewives, Brewsters, Witches, and CEOs, explores how women lost their power and presence in brewing. The book also deconstructs how politics, religion, and capitalism rewarded men who assumed control of brewing to the detriment of women from past to present-day pioneers.
Tara Nurin, author of A Woman’s Place Is in the Brewhouse: A Forgotten History of Alewives, Brewsters, Witches, and CEOs. Photographs by Herlinda Heras.
Women First Led Brewing
Nurin’s book reveals how women were often the first brewers in families and villages before and while civilization developed. “Low-alcohol ale was the staple drink of the family diet in places where cereal grains grew and safe drinking water wasn’t available or believed to be available,” says Nurin, a beer expert and beer/spirits writer for Forbes and myriad publications. “So it follows that beermaking would add itself to the list of tasks required of the female head of household.”
Women began taking on the role of brewer as far back as humanity’s hunter-gatherer days in Southern and Eastern Africa, before ancient Mesopotamia formed what’s commonly, though perhaps mistakenly, referred to as the world’s first civilization. That duty continued through Medieval and Renaissance Europe, and extended through colonial America and Prohibition. “Once industrial-scale money came onto the scene, men assumed the role of brewer. This didn’t happen overnight but slowly over hundreds of years, at every time, and in every place,” Nurin says. “The end result is that men have ended up brewing. Even today.”
Pink Boots Society founder Teri Fahrendorf, who wrote the book’s foreword, encouraged Nurin to write the book several years ago. Nurin had already written articles on the subject, such as “How Women Brewers Saved the World.” Book development required extensive research before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“To research, I supplemented my existing library with other books about brewing history,” Nurin says. “These books contained little or no history about women’s involvement with brewing.”
Nurin read hundreds of well-sourced online magazine articles and traveled to many global libraries and museums to uncover more facts and historical accounts. Once COVID-19 became widespread, Nurin encountered much more difficulty drawing from academic sources. Librarians and curators working from home were sometimes rendered helpless when asked to access documents and artifacts to aid Nurin’s research. She pivoted to almost exclusively conducting interviews by email, video chat, and phone, double-checking sources, and serving as her own fact checker.
The Yeast of Their Concerns
The book establishes how women repeatedly lost power and influence as brewers and were forced out of the profession. Even when women shared brewing duties with men, specific rituals and practices developed that led to shunning women over time. For instance, Nurin describes how women and men both brewed in Northern Europe during the Iron Age around 1100 BC.
“Brewing was even more segmented by gender than usual. In some villages, women brewed, and in others, men brewed. But it seems to have been one or the other; under normal circumstances, it was never both,” Nurin says. “In some places, women were not allowed to come into the room where men brewed because of fears they would make beer spoil.”
The practice likely stemmed from unfounded concerns that were also grounded in sexism. People lacked scientific knowledge about women’s bodies and, frankly, how fermentation and spoilage functioned in brewing. Variations of this age-old notion have manifested in modern-day brewing. “In the 1960s, women working at a brewery laboratory in the Twin Cities were not allowed to go onto the production floor,” Nurin explains. “Men feared that yeast from women’s bodies would contaminate beer.”
Even with modern science, lunkheaded thinking and sexism led to divisive practices. Men brewed. Women could work in the lab, bottling line, or front office during the big factory era of brewing. Women were shut out of opportunities to make beer. Nor did they gain expertise, career advancement, respect, and better-paying positions for themselves or as an example for future generations of women.
Progress or Regress?
Access to capital also impacted women’s ability to brew. Progress doesn’t necessarily mean progress for all. For example, German immigrants arrived in the United States around the mid-1800s and spread westward. They brought the knowledge, experience, and technology to make lager. Lager has been around since at least the 1400s, but this light, crisp beer style was new to America. Prior to this point, ales influenced by Old World brewing were dominant. Soon U.S. lager sales and production quickly overtook ale in the market, and have continued to dominate domestic sales ever since. How did the rise of lager affect women brewers from the 19th century on?
Lager, a bottom-fermenting beer, takes longer to produce and age at a cooler temperature compared to ale. Production requires different equipment and processes that are more expensive, especially when scaled from homebrewing to a factory brewery. Women lacked equal access to capital, then and now, in order to invest in brewing, buy equipment and buildings, and grow a business. Nurin says, “Progress harmed women’s ability to participate.”
Religion was another lever for power that diminished and demolished the ability of women to brew. “As Protestants gained power in Germany, they burned down Catholic abbeys, where nuns lived and brewed,” Nurin says. “Men feared that women in abbeys would be promiscuous. Many women, poor or banished from their family, went to abbeys to live. They had no other option except prostitution. When the abbeys were burned, women had nowhere to live or brew beer.”
Brewing Boom and Whistles Blown
These dynamics are not relegated to the past. Women are still subject to sexism, inequality, lack of recognition and advancement, and other issues in contemporary times. Nurin points to New Albion Brewing Company, considered to be the first U.S. craft brewery, as an example. Jack McAuliffe, Suzy Stern, and Jane Zimmerman founded New Albion in 1976 in Sonoma, California. McAuliffe has received most of the acclaim for New Albion’s groundbreaking status.
“If it weren’t for Suzanne and Jane, then New Albion wouldn’t have gotten off the ground,” Nurin says. “Suzy and Jane put up the money to open the brewery and even did some brewing. Suzy kept the business running. The tragic, shocking reality is that no one’s heard about these women. They have not been written about.”
The modern boom of craft breweries has created more opportunities for women to work in the industry. Since 2000, the number of U.S. craft breweries has mushroomed from 1,566 to nearly 8,900 in operation last year. The dynamic is shifting, primarily as a result of sheer numbers. Brewing is still overwhelmingly male-dominated. Women do have more representation in brewing, sales, distribution, quality assurance, and other roles in the industry. That said, problematic forces and behaviors from the past continue to plague many breweries and other workplaces. Recent issues about racism, sexism, and other issues in the craft brewing industry have surfaced in social media, Reddit forums, magazines, and newspapers.
Nurin’s only reference in the book to Kansas City briefly mentions Keke Gibb, a former microbiologist at Boulevard Brewing Company. Under the username notfrankthecat, Gibb wrote a Reddit post on January 23, 2021, that led to others sharing allegations against the company based on their experiences. The public outcry and subsequent local and craft brewing industry media coverage led to a reckoning within the company.
“Keke blew open what people working at Boulevard knew for decades,” Nurin says. “She was the first to so publicly blow the whistle.”
“Being a woman in the beer industry is walking a fine line. You are a part of a ‘family,’ but that family only extends to those who don’t complain or stand out,” Gibb says. “Marketing and looks matter more than actually taking care of employees.”
“The response [to the Reddit post] was overwhelming and disappointing,” Gibb says. “The number of people who spoke out and shared their stories gave a glimpse into the beer ‘family,’ and what it is really like to be different in a male-dominated industry, whether you are female, a person of color, LGBTQ, or simply having a family. My greatest hope is that all fans of craft beer will listen and believe women in the industry when they talk about harassment or abuse. Don’t brush it off.”
Once the allegations became public, Boulevard Brewing issued a statement on January 25, 2021, no longer visible on its website. A second statement titled “Reflecting” followed a day later that listed a series of actions to be taken. In the following months, Boulevard posted a series of updates about its commitment to change. Those posts include more details about the conclusion of an investigation, findings shared, the commencement of harassment training, and the naming of new leadership.
Nurin’s book underscores that substantial work remains across the male-dominated brewing industry to change its practices and culture. Breweries have the means to create safe professional pathways for women to brew, lead, and advance. Will they do so?
Women have historically had a key role in making beer, whether it’s in a rustic kitchen or modern brewhouse. A Woman’s Place Is in the Brewhouse celebrates the overlooked contributions and influence of female brewers. The book also chronicles forces that have shaped and shuttered women’s roles in the industry from its cottage origins to contemporary corporate culture. Nurin says, “That’s the epitome of the book, the forgotten history of women in brewing.”
Editor’s note: Kansas City Ale Trail paid subscribers may access an exclusive excerpt from A Woman’s Place Is in the Brewhouse, plus view photographs shared by author Tara Nurin and shot by Herlinda Heras.
Pete Dulin is the founder and editor of kcaletrail.com. His most recent book is Expedition of Thirst: Exploring Breweries, Distilleries and Wineries Across Central Kansas and Missouri. Pete’s other books include Kansas City Beer: A History of Brewing in the Heartland (The History Press, American Palate series), KC Ale Trail (out of print), and Last Bite: 100 Simple Recipes from Kansas City’s Best Chefs and Cooks.