Raising a glass: 10 women in beer
Gone are the days when ordering a beer might be deemed unfeminine. Today, women are working on the frontline of beer, helping to broaden its appeal and fight unwanted and outdated stereotypes that beer is a “man’s drink”.
For many, simply having to point that fact out is frustrating in itself. Of course it’s not only a man’s drink. However the fact is that the industry, at least in modern memory, has been dominated by men, particularly within larger brewing operations. Today, women are becoming increasingly present within the industry, having long played a key, albeit discreet, role in the development of the industry.
In fact it was women who were at the very heart of the beginning of beer, with stone tablets excavated from Mesopotamia suggesting that the majority of ancient brewers were women. The Code of Hammurabi (c.1700 BCE) indicates that “tavern-keepers”, who were likely producing the beer they sold, were women, with the task considered to be a domestic chore.
Egyptian art also depicts women brewing. The Greeks typically viewed wine as a man’s beverage while beer was viewed as effeminate with the Romans inheriting this prejudice. During the Medieval period, women were the primary producers of beer across much of Europe; their roles detailed in literature and civic documents and it was during this period that female brewers picked up the title tag names “brewster”, “alewife” or “brewess”. An alewife, a term used throughout England in the 15th century, is typically “a woman who keeps an alehouse”, but the term “brewster” was interchangeable and commonly referred to any woman who brewed and sold ale. As brewing became an increasingly professional and less domestic duty, brewsters began to disappear through the 17th and into the 18th century.
The goddess Ninkasi
Role: Ancient Sumerian goddess of beer
Ninkasi is the ancient Sumerian goddess of beer, and is mentioned in one of the oldest references to beer production ever recorded. Ninkasi herself is credited with bringing forth our ability to ferment, and therefore our ability to produce beer. Written on an ancient tablet The Hymn to Ninkasi was carved into a tablet in Sumeria around 1800 BC, and offers an insight into how beer was made at that time.
The poem is essentially a recipe for brewing beer, which was also known as kash. The recipe explains that grain was converted into bappir bread before fermentation, with grapes and honey then added to the mix. The resulting gruel was drunk unfiltered using staws.
The Hymn to Ninkasi is the oldest record that links the importance of brewing, and the responsibility that women had with regards to supplying both bread and beer to the household. The production of beer at this time was considered a domestic duty and one that women were bound to uphold.
The Ninkasi Brewing Company in Oregon is named after the goddess Ninkasi.
Hildegarde von Bingen
Role: German nun, herbalist, mystic and musician
While “kash” was one of the first incarnations of beer, it was a German nun in the early 17th century that was the first to discover that adding hops to beer radically increased its shelf life. Hildegard von Bingen (b. 1098, d.1179) was a benedictine nun, the Abbess of Diessenberg, and a well known herbalist, mystic and musician. Her writings include the earliest known reference to using hops in beer, in which she writes “Hops, when put in beer, stops putrification and lends longer durability.” Soon after, all beer across Europe had been hopped, almost solely due to von Bingen’s discovery.
Although never canonised, von Bingen is considered by many a saint, having overcome social, cultural, and gender barriers to become an advisor to bishops, popes, and kings.
Role: Owner and director of Brewster’s Brewery, Grantham, Lincolnshire, UK
Fast-forward several centuries and women are still playing a key role in shaping the beer industry, no longer from a domestic but professional perspective.
Sara Barton started brewing more than 20 years ago. First studying biochemistry at university, Barton become interested in the genetics and metabolism of yeast and went on to do a masters degree in brewing and distilling at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. She worked for the old Courage brewery in Berkshire in the late 1980s as a production manager and then, following an MBA, founded her own brewery, Brewster’s, in 1997.
In 2012 Sara was named Brewer of the Year by the British Guild of Beer Writers. She cites California’s Stone IPA as her favourite beer and Decadence – a 4.4% abv golden ale – as her favourite Brewster’s beer.
Brewster’s art deco beer labels have an appropriate air of femininity about them, with beers carrying playful names such as Hop a Doodle Doo, Et Citra Et Citra and Hophead.
Role: Head Brewer, Beavertown, London
As head brewer at one of the fastest-growing craft brewers in London, and one which has ridden high on the craft beer wave, Merrick is perhaps one of the most trendsetting brewers included in this lineup.
Known for its hops out approach to craft beer, Beavertown in north London produces a ballsy line up of beer ranging from its 5.4% American Pale Ale and a 6.2% 8 Ball Rye IPA, to its 7.4% Black Betty IPA and Smog Rocket Smoked Porter. Its striking labelling has also meant that it has become a memorable addition to the craft beer scene.
With previous experience as assistant head brewer at Meantime, production manager at Dark Star Brewing in Sussex and a stint at York Brewery under her belt, Merrick is the keeper of its fortunes.
“My colleagues used to be tickled by the fact I was a woman, American and a lesbian working in the brewery trade,” joked Merrick previously, speaking to East London Lines.
Role: Managing partner of the Oldershaw Brewery, Lincolnshire, UK
Kathy Britton owns the Oldershaw Brewery with her husband Tim Britton, however it is Kathy who takes care of the day-to-day running of the brewery. A family-owned business, Oldershaw Brewery was founded in 1996 by Gary and Diane Oldershaw, with Kathy and Tim taking over in 2010 – their love of beer prompting them to move from Buckinghamshire to buy the brewery. Three years later the pair became the first husband and wife team to become Beer Academy Sommeliers.
“There has definitely been a rise in female roles with in the beer industry”, says Kathy. “When I started there weren’t so many women in brewing. Now you see many more women involved from microbreweries to companies such as AB InBev and other global brands.”
Their beers include the more traditional 3.6% Grantham Dark and 3.6% Barkston Bitter. Its selection of blonde beers have a distinct feminine edge, with beers carrying names such as Heavenly Blonde, American Blonde and Blonde Volupta and accompanied by glamourously, retro images of women.
On the recipe to success, Britton says: “We have supplied beers across the country for over 15 years and our best-selling beers include a traditional bitter that hasn’t changed in all of that time and a more modern golden beer using new hop varieties. In our view you often need to offer a range of craft beers, ales as well as the big bitter brands and lagers such as Stella Artois or Budweiser.”
Role: Director of Corporate Affairs at AB InBev UK and Ireland
With so many female brewers stepping into the fray it’s easy to forget the women working within the corporate world of beer, who are responsible for some of the world’s biggest brands. Already the largest brewer in the world, AB InBev just completed a £71 billion buyout of SAB Miller, making it even bigger. The new company will be named Newco.
Emma Reynolds is responsible for all communications within AB InBev’s UK and Ireland arm, including media relations and corporate reputation, corporate responsibility, with a particular focus on promoting responsible drinking, protecting the environment and investing in communities and government and industry affairs.
Emma joined AB InBev in 2012 from the Tesco, where she spent seven years working in the areas of government affairs and policy, licensing and regulatory affairs, and most recently held the position of Government Affairs and Policy Director. Prior to joining Tesco, Emma worked in a public affairs consultancy, and before that was a policy adviser in the Conservative Research Department. Emma has a degree in modern history from Magdalen College, Oxford University.
Role: AB InBev marketing manager for Budweiser and Becks
Steph Okell also works for AB InBev and is currently marketing manager for global brands including Budweiser and Becks. Prior to this she worked on the marketing for other AB InBev brands including Corona, Stella Artois.
Most revently, Okell headed up Budweiser’s campaign to bring cheerleading to the UK, bringing six Miami Dolphins cheerleaders to the UK for a one-off event ahead of the 2015 NFL International Series at Wembley Stadium. The Dolphins performed at Tesco Wembley Extra, with Budweiser giving out prizes at the event, including the chance to win a pair of tickets to one of the NFL International Series games at Wembley.
Before entering the world of beer, Okell worked for big brands including Kenco coffee and Cadbury. She has a degree in Human Sciences from Oxford University.
Role: Brewer and director at Quantock Brewery, Somerset, UK
Quantock Brewery was set up in December 2007 to brew quality real ales in cask and bottles using traditional craft brewing techniques. All the raw materials are sourced locally, wherever possible, and the resulting beers are distributed to pubs and shops mainly in the South West, but also throughout the UK via wholesalers and national distributors.
Beers include its flagship 3.8% Quantock ale and 6% Quantock Stag, a strong ale. Seasonal brews include the Rocking Robin, a 3.9% Christmas ale and the Ginger Cockney, a 4% copper ale with hints of fresh ginger, which is said to be Ford’s favourite brew.
Last year Quantock Brewery scooped the Overall Champion prize at the Society of Independent Brewers’ 2014 south west regional beer competition for its Wills Neck 4.2% ABV golden ale. It follows victories for the beer at SIBA’s national beer competition earlier this year and in 2013.
Role: Beer sommelier and founder of Dea Latis
Annabel Smith is a beer sommelier and founding member of Dea Latis – a group set up to educate women about beer and encourage them to embrace Britain’s national drink. Made up of brewers, beer tasters, publicans, writers and marketeers, Dea Latis is named after the Celtic goddess of beer and water.
“Dea Latis aims to challenge women’s ideas about beer and present it to them in a way that encourages them to taste it”, its webpage says. “We don’t expect change to happen quickly or easily, but that’s no reason not to try.”
Having worked in the beer industry for over 25 years, Smith began her career from the ground up working in pubs across the UK. She later worked for Guinness training more than 35,000 publicans how to pour the perfect pint of black stout Guinness, before moving to work for the then fledgling Cask Marque as a beer taster and a training manager. It was during her 10 year stint with the company that she became one of the UK’s first beer sommeliers. Now a freelance beer sommelier, Annabelle works as a writer, consultant, trainer and motivational speaker to both the beer industry and consumers, under her company name BeerBelle. She is also a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers.
Role: Head brewer, Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, UK
Claire is one of the UK’s youngest head brewers, having founded Wellbeck Abbey Brewery in a listed barn on the Welbeck Estate in 2011 at the age of 23. Having studied microbiology and bio-chemistry at Sheffield University, she was unsure about which career path to follow when a lecturer friend suggested the food and drinks industry. She soon found herself at Kelham Island Brewery in Sheffield training as a brewer, later taking up the position of head brewer at Welbeck.
Together with a small team she manages the production of 15,000 pints of beer a week using malted barley, finest hops, the estate’s own natural spring water and a unique strain of nurtured yeast.
“It’s very demanding, but great fun”, she says of the role. “Brewing is a scientific process which is where my degree comes in. You have to consider what you want the ABV to be and work out how much sugar is needed for the yeast to ferment into alcohol, as well as deciding on what style you want. It’s a bit like following a cooking recipe, although the flavour can vary depending on the water used and how the hops affect aroma and bitterness.”