May is AntiquityNOW Month. Throughout the next four weeks we will bring you stories about the surprising ways that antiquity lives today. And to get in the mood, here’s a take on the beer-swilling antecedents that have united us through the millennia. (Click here for suggestions for teachers and everyone else on ways to celebrate AntiquityNOW Month.)
Cheers! National Homebrew Day in the United States is this Saturday, but before you sip, take a good look at that golden liquid and know that if it weren’t for women, the bubbly elixir would likely be nothing but a musty pile of grain. The beer industry today is dominated by men. Women account for only 10 percent of professional brewers, and represent just a sliver of all homebrewers. But ancient history reveals that, as far back as 4,000 years ago (and probably further), brewing was done primarily by women.
Alan Eames, the late beer historian who earned the nickname the “Indiana Jones of Beer” by tirelessly searching from the tombs of Egypt to the jungles of the Amazon for clues about ancient beer, was fond of calling it the most feminine of beverages, pointing out that in almost all ancient societies, beer was a gift from a goddess. In Mesopotamia, for example, where some of the world’s earliest beer was made, the Sumerians appointed the goddess Ninkasi to oversee the craft of brewing. It was the only craft in Sumer society that was granted the protection of a female deity. The ancient Sumerians supposedly invented beer through a happy accident: baked grains were left in clay pots, got wet, sat there for a while and were finally rediscovered and consumed. The fermented grains were found to produce a cheerful, uplifting feeling, and Sumerian women promptly set about perfecting the drink. Their early recipes involved baking grains, breaking them into pieces and storing them in clay pots. Water, and sometimes aromatics, like fruit or honey, were added and the mixture was left to ferment.
Sumerians’ reverence of beer is evident in their songs and poems, preserved on ancient clay tablets. One of these is the “Hymn to Ninkasi,” which contains a recipe for beer. In 1989, University of Pennsylvania anthropology professor Solomon Katz and Fritz Maytag of San Francisco’s Anchor Steam Brewery paired up to recreate this ancient beer. Following stanza by stanza the instructions for brewing beer, Katz and Maytag were able to produce a beverage that they then served in the tradition of Sumerian women: in large clay jugs, with drinking straws to pierce the debris authentically floating on the surface.
Mesopotamian women not only brewed beer, they presided over the selling of it as well, running taverns where beer was paid for, not with money, but with grain. Women as tavern keepers was a practice that extended to Europe in the middle ages, and even to 18th-century America. In ancient Egypt, while most royal brewers were men, homebrewing was always presided over by the lady of the house, in a designated area of the kitchen called the “pure.”] Egyptian women developed several styles of beer, including brown beer, iron beer, sweet beer (brewed with dates), strong beer, white, black, and red beer, and bitter Nubian “boosa” – which, according to Eames, is the origin of the word “booze.” The Egyptians considered their goddess Hathor to be the “Inventress of Beer.” Many historians now believe the earliest beer was brewed in the Amazon region. In this part of the world, brewing was again a women’s trade. Women employed the technique of chewing grains, letting their saliva convert the starches in the grains into fermentable sugars. The “mash” was then spat out into clay pots, and the brewing process began. This method, too, has been tested by anthropologists and craft brewers seeking to recreate these ancient beers. The ancient Fins also credited their women with the invention of beer, telling a tale of three women, Osmotor, Kapo, and Kalevatar, who combined a bear’s saliva with wild honey, added it to beer, and created the new style of ale.
Women’s creativity and resourcefulness in brewing beer through the ages has been well documented. In colonial America, housewives often brewed with corn, pumpkins, artichokes, oats, wheat, honey and molasses. And in fact, although Thomas Jefferson is often referred to as the “Founding Homebrewer,” it was his wife, Martha, who actually did much of the brewing. Unfortunately, the end of the 18th century saw the decline of homebrewing. Men began to take the place of women as tavern keepers, and they began to commercialize brewing. Large-scale brewing led to less diversification in the styles of beer being produced. The unique homebrews produced around the world by so many centuries of women, using local indigenous ingredients and culturally-influenced brewing methods, were all but lost. Thanks to a recent resurgence of the craft beer industry, these unique and complex styles of beer are being revived (and invented afresh). But women are scarce to be seen among these new ranks of brewers. Case in point: The American Homebrewers Association holds the world’s largest homebrew competition, presenting its Ninkasi Award, named in honor of the Sumerian goddess of brewing, to the competitor with the best homebrew. A woman has never won the award. To inspire women to get back to our roots, and reconnect with this most ancient of womanly skills, we leave you with this Sumerian toast:
May Ninkasi live with you- Let her pour your beer everlasting.
Happy National Homebrew Day!
Author: Stephanie Castellano lives and works in Alexandria, Virginia, a historic town just across the river from Washington, DC. She is a writer and editor for a local professional association, and volunteers at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum. She loves discovering anecdotes and little-known stories from our collective past that have been forgotten in the sweep of grander events, and writing about them to bring the people and places involved back to life.
 Hartman, L. F. and Oppenheim, A. L., (1950) On Beer and Brewing Techniques in Ancient Mesopotamia. PDF (7.92 MB) Supplement to the Journal of the American Oriental Society, 10.
 Katz, Solomon H., and Fritz Maytag, “Brewing an Ancient Beer,” Archaeology, July/August 1991, pp. 24-33
 Yaeger, Brian. Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008. pg 27.
 A. Eames, “Goddesses, Myths, and Beer,” BarleyCorn 4 (3), 9-10,14 (1994).