The First Beer in the World Was Made by Women – Witches Made Beer
Beer is one of humanity’s oldest beverages, dating to at least the fifth millennium BC. It is hard to pinpoint where exactly the first beer in the world came from or if it was invented in any one society or time frame. Drinking beer seems to have been common for the span of several millennia in many cultures across the world regardless of geographical location.
The manufacturing and consumption of beer are at least as old as the oldest written history records that exist, dated a little over 5000 years ago from Ancient Sumer and Ancient Egypt. However, there are some interesting theories with supporting evidence that assert that the invention of beer predates written human history.
What is certain is that the first beer in the world was made by women. Not just one woman, but all women across cultures and timespans were at the forefront of beer creation.
Beer Made by Women
A historical term for a woman who brewed ale for commercial purposes was Brewster, Brewess, or Alewife.
In many Western cultures, brewing beer is seen as a man’s job. However, for thousands of years, brewing alcoholic beverages was a job that women performed. This began to change only during medieval times, and later when the industrialization of beer took over homemade brews, women were relegated to secondary roles as pub waitresses, and in some cases, forbidden completely from participating in drinking socially.
In most, if not all cultures, women were in charge of cooking for the tribe or for their families. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that the first beer in the world was made by women since brewing was a by-product of both food gathering food and cooking.
There were two main processes by which fermentation was achieved, chewing, and malting. In modern-day Japan and Taiwan, women still chew rice to begin the fermentation process for making alcohol. Malting is the process of steeping, germinating and drying grain to convert it into malt. Many different grains can be used for malting, but most often are barley, sorghum, wheat or rye.
Most archaeologists speculate that beer was instrumental in the formation of civilizations. The development of beer and other alcoholic beverages by women is believed to be what propelled the shift from Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer civilizations to the Neolithic way of living, which involved settling down in a permanent environment and ensuring a stable harvest.
Origin of Beer Around the World: Historical and Archaeological Evidence
Pottery dating from the Neolithic settlement of Jiahu (China) has revealed that the brewing of the oldest known grog dates to as early as 7000 BC. Chemical analysis shows the composition of the drink to have been made of honey mead, mixed with a concoction of rice, grapes, and hawthorn fruit.
A Chinese legend credits Yi Di, the wife of Yu the Great, with making the first alcoholic drink from rice grains.
Before the arrival of the Yamato Japanese and Russians into what is now Japan, the indigenous Ainu people had a deity known as Kamui Fuchi, who was the protector of the brewing and brewers. She was prayed to and given offerings to ensure the warding off of evil spirits which might spoil the batch.
Xenophon of Athens (430-350 BC), a philosopher, historian and military leader, also reported of beer being produced in Armenia during his travels.
The Middle East and Africa
There are written records and hard evidence that show the Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Mesopotamian civilizations were drinking beer at least 5000 to 7000 years ago.
In Mesopotamia, the oldest evidence for beer is believed to be a 5,000-year-old Sumerian tablet that shows humans drinking the beverage from communal chalices, via a string. Workers in the city of Uruk (modern-day Iraq) were paid by their employers with volumes of beer.
The first chemically confirmed barley beer dates back to the 5th millennium BCE and was produced in the central Zagros Mountains of Iran at Godin Tepe, with the residues dated to be sometime between 3,500-3,100 BC.
The Sumerians made beer out of a substance called bippar, the by-product of a twice-baked barely bread which was then fermented.
A 4,000-year-old Sumerian poem honouring Ninkasi, a patron goddess of beer, contains the oldest known surviving beer recipe, which describes making beer with barley-made bread.
Apart from Ninkasi, the Sumerians also worshipped Kubaba. She is the only woman whose name features alongside Sumerians’ list of kings – an honour she earned not by birth, but by her work as a brewer.
Beer-making in ancient Egypt was done in a similar way as Sumerian beer, using the same dough for both bread and beer. During the construction of the Great Pyramids of Giza, each worker got a daily ration of four to five litres of beer, which served as both nutrition and refreshment that was crucial to the pyramids’ construction.
The Egyptians worshipped at least three goddesses of beer and alcohol: Menqet, Tenenet and Hathor. Hathor’s temple at Dendera was known as “the place of drunkenness“. The sun god Ra had a daughter, Sekhmet, and it is said that her bloodthirstiness was only calmed by drinking beer.
Archaeologists believe that the Sumerians and Babylonians were responsible for spreading brewing processes into Africa.
In other African societies, women were also credited for crafting the first beer some 5 500 years ago. For instance, in Tanzania and Burkina Faso, women were the sole makers of alcoholic beverages made out of a mash of fermented sorghum which they then sold to supplement their incomes.
In West Africa, people worshipped Yasigi, a Dogon deity who is often seen dancing with a beer to symbolize her role of distributing the beer made by women in ceremonial gatherings.
In South Africa, the Zulu people had a fertility goddess named Mbaba Mwana Waresa, which is revered for the invention of beer.
Alcoholic beverages were produced by the Mayans using a mixture of cacao beans, grinding maze, spices and other liquids as far back as 1600 BCE.
Pre-Columbian Andean and Wari elite women chewed maize, cassava and quinoa to break down the starch and then spit it out to begin fermentation, with the resulting drink being a highly desired foamy drink whose tradition carried forward into the Incan society.
Women became, after the Spanish invasion, not only producers of alcoholic drinks but also its main market vendors.
Women in North American cultures such as the Tohono O’odham, the Pima, the Maricopa, the Apache, and even in the South the Coahuiltecan and other tribes, brewed a type of beer or wine usually called tiswin that was made from Saguaro cactus and corn. These beverages were used in the “coming-of-age” rituals of young females, which symbolized a girl-child passing into womanhood.
Aboriginal Australia, just like many other cultures around the world, had a clear and distinctive division of labour between men and women. Men were tasked with hunting and farming, while women were responsible for gathering and preparing food. Aboriginal women prepared alcoholic drinks from mixed honey and flowers that had been steeped in water or pounded to extract the nectar.
Europe was no different than the rest of the world in having credited women as the makers of beer and alcoholic beverages.
According to some anthropological studies, in Norse society, all the equipment required to make drinks belonged to women and by law remained their property.
For thousands of years in Ancient Finland, women made sahti, a type of beer containing juniper twigs, barely, rye grains and hops, which was then malted and smoked in a sauna. Archaeological evidence has been found in the graves of pre-Viking Nordics indicating that women were the ones that brew and served alcohol.
In Finnish mythology, Louhi was a wicked queen of the land who made a type of beer made from bear’s saliva and wild honey.
Raugutiene was a Baltic and Slavic goddess, who was the protector of beer.
In Denmark, women were the primary brewers of beer until the establishment of guilds in the Middle Ages.
Germanic societies were reported by the Romans to drink ale produced by women. Migratory Germanic tribe women would typically brew their concoctions in the forest to avoid pillaging by invaders.
In England, ale-wives would traditionally make beer at home and sell the drink in the markets to bring extra income for their households.
Interestingly, in the decades before the Black Death in Europe, large quantities of beer were kept in many households due to the lack of potable water.
Debated Theories with Punitive Evidence
It is widely accepted that humanity has been consuming beer for at least 5000 years, but punitive records show evidence of preparation and consumption of alcoholic beverages to be at least twice as long as recorded history, with some claims going as far back as 13 000 years ago.
Beer is one of the world’s oldest prepared alcoholic drinks. It is probable that the first fermented beverages emerged along with the development of cereal farming about 13,000 to 10 000 years ago
There are theories that beer-making occurred in the settlement at Godin Tepe (now in modern-day Iran) as early as 10,000 BC, the year when agriculture was first developing in the area and cereal was first farmed. It is possible, but not proven.
However, the earliest archaeological evidence of fermentation consists of 13,000-year-old residues of a beer with the consistency of gruel, used by the semi-nomadic Natufians for ritual feasting, at the Raqefet Cave in the Carmel Mountains near Haifa in Israel.
Reversing the Roles: Religious Influence in Medieval Europe Through to The Industrial Revolution
Hildegard of Bingen was a Benedictine abbess with many achievements to her name, including a botanic treaty in which she discussed the introduction of hops (a type of flower) into the beer mixture, giving it the characteristic bitterness that we know of today, and whose preservative properties allowed it to be stored for much longer.
Interestingly, it would be the Benedictine monks who would end up taking the beer-making trade in Germany and Austria, and their monasteries are now considered the oldest breweries in the world. The Brewery of Weihenstephan started making beer in 1040, and is generally considered to be the oldest beer brewing facility in the world, though neighbouring Waltenburg started making it only a decade later, and frequently disputes this claim. They have now been brewing beer for more than 1,000 years.
What truly led to the downfall of women in brewing was the takeover of production by monasteries, making it a profession for monks and nuns, the foundation of guilds, and new concepts in the religious ideology that had spread throughout the continent with the Roman Empire.
Guilds were associations of tradesmen who oversaw the practice of their craft in particular areas. Guilds controlled production for the crown and military and their membership could be inherited. However, except in Haarlem (Netherlands), women were not allowed to inherit guild membership from their spouses.
Within the guilds, higher positions were occupied by men, even though evidence suggests that the majority of the brewing was performed by women.
A new ideology about women in brewing took place as they were forced out of the trade. This new trend spoke of “the construction of women as incapable of brewing; the link of this construction to the witch; and the position of widows as both brewers and ale-sellers“. Alewives were described as “strikingly vicious and nasty”, “who uses her charms to induce men to drink“, as well as being accused of witchcraft and were “condemned to eternal punishment in hell“.
Male competitors, aided by the newly formed Inquisition, who, after all, also had a stake in the beer market via its production in monasteries, started spreading rumours (which many people believed) about the women who wore tall, pointy hats, made potions in cauldrons and had black cats who were reincarnated demons.
This is the image that has come down to us across centuries. A group of witches practising witchcraft while standing over their cauldrons. The reality is much different from what the myths portray. These women were not witches; they were brewers.
The truth is that these women wore tall, pointed hats. They did so they could be easily spotted in crowded marketplaces, making it easier for their product to be sold. They carried their brew in large cauldrons as they had a big capacity, with some even holding 60 to 70 litres. And yes, they also kept cats (although not necessarily black), not to consort with demonic entities, but simply because cats helped to keep away the mice from the grain.
Outside of their homes or taverns, women would hang a broom as a symbol of domestic trade, as well as a six-pointed star that was used to symbolize the purity of the beer and the most important parts of brewing: “hops, grain, malt, yeast, water and of course, the brewster (brewer).”
In some European cities, women were outright banned from selling beer. But generally, a lot of women stopped brewing due to fear of being misidentified as witches. At the time, being accused of witchcraft meant that women were ostracized in their communities, imprisoned or even killed.
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, brewing beer changed to be a profession dominated by men, and with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, women were increasingly barred from the business of brewing and lost their prominence in the field. By the 19th century, very few women were employed in the brewing industry except in auxiliary roles such as secretarial posts, bottling, or barmaids.
“The teamwork that had existed earlier in beer [production] went away, and women had a new image: demure, virginal, married. Suddenly it was maybe not so ladylike to have a beer.”
It was then considered immoral for women to be drinking in public and drank women were often harassed and referred to as prostitutes.
During the 1920s women campaigned alongside men against the 18th Amendment, a national ban on the production, transportation and sale of alcoholic drinks. When the prohibition was finally lifted, women found themselves unable to go to a bar unless accompanied by a man. Some businesses had different areas and entrances for men and women that were separated by curtains or a screen.
Many campaigns were launched about bars being ‘men only’ spaces where men went to drink without having to be ‘nagged’ by women. Women who frequented bars were known as ‘women of easy virtue’ and faced constant harassment by their community and also the police. “For the offense of cavorting with men in taverns, such women faced police harassment, arrest without bail, mandatory venereal disease testing, and even quarantine.”
Beer became known as a man’s beverage because it was made by men. Luckily, thanks to many organizations, women are re-entering the brewing industry and reclaiming their roles as the ‘potion-making witches’ they once were.