Women and beer: a pocket history

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Beer is an archetypal man's drink (as the tired old cliché goes) but the brewing of it was once a woman's domain. Here, Jane Peyton - Ocado's beer expert and one of just eight female beer sommeliers in the UK - explains how women and beer have come full-circle, from beer "witches" in medieval times to today's rise in female brewers and beer clubs:

"Beer has been brewed for at least 10,000 years and for most of that time it was women who were the brewers. Beer was made at home and all of the family drank it – including the children. It was a safe source of drinking water; and it contains soluble nutritional elements (carbs, proteins, vitamins, minerals and amino acids). Gender roles of the time meant that the home and everything that happened there, including the preparation of food and drink, was the responsibility of women. Men's duties were hunting and gathering wood. Even today in remote parts of Africa and the Amazon women are still the primary brewers, and in those cultures, for men to be involved in anything other than drinking beer would be very odd.

Women, witchcraft and beer

During the medieval era when witch hunting was rife, hundreds of women were accused of witchcraft and executed. Many of those women were brewers. The visual motifs we associate with female witches date from this time. The extraordinary thing is all of them - cat, bubbling cauldron, broom, pointed hat - are also symbols associated with brewing beer.

A cat would keep vermin at bay that would otherwise eat the malted barley; the bubbling cauldron is the vessel in which the ingredients are boiled. When the brew cools down, yeast lands on it and ferments the sugars, creating a dramatic froth. The broom was used for sweeping up but also by law, anyone selling beer was required to display an ale stake above their door as a sign that beer was on sale. An ale stake was a wooden pole with a bunch of twigs tied on the end. It doubled as a broom. Hanging foliage above the door to proclaim that alcohol was available for purchase dates back to Roman Britain. In a society where most people were illiterate, visual signs rather than written signs were used. The pointy hat was a practical way of being seen. Women with surplus beer would go to the marketplace to try and sell it, or a middle woman known as a huckster would act as an agent and flog the beer. They wore the pointed hats to make themselves prominent in a crowd.

So everything associated with a cartoon witch is actually the semiology connected with a female brewer in the middle ages. Some academics argue that women were accused of witchcraft so that others could profit from the local beer production. It was very rare that a woman accused of being a witch escaped with her life.

Beer and the Black Death

Two significant events in the 14th century had a major impact on the consumption and production of beer in England. The first was the Black Death (which reached its peak in 1348). So many people died during the plague years that when it was over, there was a labour shortage. Healthy labourers were in such demand they could name their price. No longer on subsistence wages, a significant percentage of this disposable income was spent on beer. More ale houses opened and the social landscape of the country changed.

The second factor was the Hundred Years War fought between England and France (1337 to 1453). Soldiers received a daily ration of eight pints of beer. Such demand by the military meant that a secure and reliable supply was required. Women brewing in the home could not provide enough beer. It was time to brew beer on a large scale in factories (breweries). Women did not usually work outside the home, and they were not permitted to own their own property (in marriage it belonged to their husband). They also could not take out bank loans. All this meant that women could not own breweries. This was the start of the decline in females being the primary brewers.

Today's female brewers

For the first time the current British brewer of the year is a woman. Her name is Sara Barton and she runs her own brewery, Brewsters in Grantham. I have brewed several collaborative beers with Sara including one called Beer o' Clock to coincide with the publication of my latest book, also called Beer o' Clock. Currently in this country, most brewers and beer drinkers are male but the more that women see other women brewing, drinking and evangelising about beer, the more women will be inspired to think that beer is their drink too, and that brewing is career for them. Brewing beer is just like cooking but with bigger vessels and more washing up! Sara Barton is a great supporter of women in brewing and she founded a group called Project Venus where all the women in the UK and Eire who brew professionally get together every few months and create and brew a beer. It's fun and sociable.

Delicious beer and food matchings

There is a myth that wine is the best thing to match with food. Yes some wine can be wonderful with food but it does have its limitations. Beer is much more versatile with food and it can do things that wine cannot - for instance match brilliantly with spicy food and a vast selection of desserts in a way that wine does not. Beer contains carbon dioxide which efficiently scrubs the palate of food and means that the flavours of the beer and food come together and create harmony. If you are interested in knowing which food goes with which beers there is plenty of advice in my Beer o' Clock book. If you have eschewed beer in the past because you think it is too bitter, maybe you have not tried a variety of beer styles. Not all beer is bitter! There are over 100 styles of beer to try and there may be one just for you. And with bitter beers, the food will often take the edge off the bitterness.

Here are some of my favourite beer and food pairings from Ocado.

Oak Aged Beer by Innis & Gunn - a unique beer with aromas and flavours of vanilla, marmalade, and a hint of whisky. It is brilliant with crème brûlée, lamb dishes, mild creamy curry and smoked salmon.

Organic Honeydew by Fuller's - this beer contains organic honey and is a golden ale with a gently sweet character and tasty biscuit base. It goes very well with grilled chicken, white fish, salad and creamy cheeses such as brie, and mushroom dishes.

Jaipur by Thornbridge Brewery - this India Pale Ale (IPA) is one of the best on the market. It has a beautiful citrus and tropical fruit aroma and a firm bitterness that resembles grapefruit. Food matches include spicy food such as Indian curry, fish & chips, Ploughman's Lunch, Stilton cheese, orange chocolate pudding.

Dark Side Stout by Bath Ales - stout beers have complex coffee, chocolate and roasted characters. They go well with hearty meat or mushroom dishes, game, blue cheese, apple pie or crumble, tiramisu and any chocolate or coffee puddings.

Hoegaarden White Beer by Hoegaarden Brewery - this is a wheat beer and so it will be naturally hazy. For people who want to try beer but are not sure if they will like it, wheat beers are a good introduction as they have low bitterness and a tangy citrus/banana character. They are very refreshing beers and go well with many different types of food - especially egg dishes, shellfish, Thai or Vietnamese dishes."

Jane Peyton is a beer sommelier, beer tasting tutor, brewer, and writer. She's also a beer expert for Ocado. Check out more beer matchings at the Ocado Ale Shop. Jane's two books - Beer O' Clock and School of Booze - were published by Summersdale October 2013

Black and white photos: Rex Features

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