A good while back, we wrote a column about women drinking beer, looking at how the context of women and beer is changing in New Zealand. We concluded that with the beer landscape expanding, it only makes sense that more women will find more beers they like, and become more enthusiastic about drinking beer.
After the hullabaloo recently created by Rachel Beer trying to enter her homebrew into the Lake Hayes A&P Show’s Blokes Only homebrew competition, it seems we need to take another look.
The thing that surprised us most was the insistence by many of the men commenting on Stuff that brewing was for blokes, and their resentment that women have to butt into every single male domain.
Maybe these guys aren’t from Nelson. While it’s true that Maria is the only regular female participant in our local informal homebrewer’s group, everyone in that group certainly respects Tracy Banner of Sprig&Fern as one of the more experienced and rewarded professional brewers in the region. Further, Totara Brewing from Wakefield which makes very traditional Kiwi beers named a fresh hop beer Ninkasi, not because they thought this goddess was some pin-up girl for beer, but because she is known as the first beer maker in written history.
Brewing history is going through a bit of a revolution at the moment, with loose oral histories being supplanted by serious primary source research. So even if our beer library might not include the most definitive sources, we have consistently learned that brewing was the domain of women for most of known history. Beer was a staple in the diets of men, women and children alike. It makes common sense that it would have been just a part of cooking and food production, because brewing isn’t all that different from making bread or yogurt or cheese.
Looking at the English language, we have historic terms like “ale wives” and “brewsters” that reinforce the idea of women as beer makers. Women often sold their excess ale from their homes, and often ran pubs. Records from the 1700’s reveal that in one English town 78% of licensed brewers were women.
It was only with the Renaissance and the rise of centralised powers in the form of the Church and State, that brewing began to move into the realm of men. While nuns continued to make beer in some countries, the rise of commerce meant the right to brew was more and more concentrated in the hands of the powerful. Through taxes and the control of key ingredients, beer and brewing were slowly removed from the home. By the industrial revolution the shift was nearly complete.
The history of brewing in New Zealand, then, starts in the more commercial, male dominated era. Even so, there is some scant evidence that our pioneers included homemakers, women, making beer before there were reliable commercial sources. The last half century isn’t devoid of women brewers, either. We met a Nelsonian in her 80’s who talked about having to roast her own malts 50 years ago to make ale for her English husband. Last weekend’s Golden Bay A&P Show homebrew winner, Janet Huddelston, has brewed for over 30 years.
As brewing moves back into the home in New Zealand with the rapid expansion of craft beer and home brewing enthusiasts, it will only make sense that we see more brewsters in the scene.
Originally published in the Nelson Mail