Beer 101: The Demise of the Brewsters or The Rise of Men and Institutions in the Brewing Business, Part I

06-07-2016, The BeerVibe Crew


The Demise of the Brewsters or The Rise of Men and Institutions in the Brewing Business, Part I

It didn’t happen all at once in all places, but here and there brewing beer as an industry gradually came to be under male domination. The demise of the brewsters is as complicated part of beer history as anything else we can find. It is at least as complicated (and debatable) as is much of the history of the Middle Ages.


Although women have been the major brewers of beer for millennia, in almost all cultures, it seems that there has always been pressure on women in the beer business, somewhere. For a few examples, in the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian law code determined to go back to around 1754 BCE, law number 108 says, “If a tavern keeper (feminine) does not accept corn according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.” Law number 110 says, “If a ‘sister of a god’ open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.” There is opinion that the “sister of a god” means a temple prostitute. Much later on during the Middle Ages the Church, popular culture and entertainment portrayed women who made and sold beer appear to be immoral creatures who cheated their customers and were destined to hell. This theme appears occasionally in the so-called “doom paintings” of the time period.


Some devoted Christians wanted to isolate themselves as hermits, and some of these eventually came together as monks in monasteries. In the 6th century Benedict of Nursia, recognized as the founder of Western Monasticism, made up rules for the monks and nuns to live by. These rules required that their communities be self-sufficient, producing as much of their daily needs as possible. Among these needed things produced was beer. They also shared their food and beer with weary travelers, and were able to sell their surplus brew to help defray their other expenses. They also drank their brew, each monk being rationed up to 4 liters (about a gallon) a day. They were literate, took notes, and were able to improve their recipes and brewing techniques.

Then feudal kings and lords recognized the importance of beer. With the fall of the Roman Empire, during the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries, the Germanic tribes got to make their own laws, and the Goths, Burgundians, Franks, Alemans, and Bavarians granted every household the right to brew beer. They also got to demand taxes in the form of local produce and products, including beer. Kings had lords, and lords had lands with serfs. Kings and lords saw there was value made if they could brew and sell their own beer. There was some conflict between the lords and the monasteries when it came to beer.


Now with Charlemagne crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III in the year 800, brewing took the next big step. The emperor spent most of his time traveling from estate to estate. Along with each estate having a master’s house, a church, a grist mill, a smithy, bakery, peasants’ homes, and barns, Charlemagne insisted that they also have a brewery. Charlemagne required that upon his visit to each estate that he be given samples of beer, and that he meet with the brewmaster and observe him making beer. He insisted on high levels of hygiene. He wanted an annual report on the local brewing business, including ‘…a list of beers they brew so that we know which quantities of the different product are available.’ From Capitulare caroli magni de villis, a list of the emperor’s rules for running the estates.


Charlemagne knew the importance of beer, in keeping the peasants, lords, and himself, happy.

NEXT: THE RISE OF MEN AND INSTITUTIONS IN THE BREWING BUSINESS, PART II

Prior to the Black Plague of 1347-1350, most of the beer brewed in Europe was made by women. They were essentially barred from most other means of making a living or supplementing their family’s income. After the Black Plague, however, things changed.

Also, find out how hops figures into the end of the brewsters.

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