Raise your hand if you ever brewed a beer. Okay, I was just making a point. Put your hand down. Now, if you ever made a homebrew, then you know what I mean when I say brewing a beer is cooking. That’s really it. You follow particular recipes using water, grain, hops, and yeast to create something that’s fundamentally different than those ingredients on their own.
Throughout history, women have traditionally played roles in food preparation on every continent. It should come as no surprise that for approximately 6,500 years, women were the predominant brewers of the world. Erica DeAnda, head brewer at Tumbled Rock Brewing, says, “It was kitchen duty back in the day, and this is kitchen duty.”
It used to be that taverns and beer halls were run by women, and many women had their home recipes as well. But as beer became more commercialized, things changed. Beer guilds were formed, mostly by men, and the women brewers were phased out by the time 18th century industrialization came around.
At home, however, the shift wasn’t as immediate. Thomas Jefferson is known for a few things other than serving as the third president of the United States of America, but let’s focus on his beermaking. He was known for brewing a mean Porter, but his wife, Martha, had been brewing for 40 years before Jefferson took on his first beer. No doubt she played a role in his brewing education. I’ve often heard of Jefferson’s beer, but rarely does anyone mention Martha’s.
Well, maybe that’s because, for most, history isn’t about reliving the past, but rather an attempt to place the bits and pieces we learn into our contemporary understanding of various subjects. We can’t possibly know what we’re missing until we stumble upon it, whether it be from television, a magazine article, or a babbling uncle with a knack for trivia. It seems to me that there are a lot of people who struggle to comprehensively shape an era predating their parents, and I’m one of them. So when we talk about men dominating the beer scene for the last, say, 300 years, we’re essentially discussing something that is difficult to imagine any other way.
Or it could be that I’m just making excuses for the guy who walks up to a woman’s brewery stand at a local beer fest who asks, “Is the brewmaster here?” rather than, “Are you the brewmaster?” To some, that might be subtle—that guy is certainly playing the odds as roughly 90 percent of brewers today are men—but subtleties are what mess up our psyches. It makes it so an innocent question is second guessed, and then finger pointing commences, and everyone thinks they’re right and that the insults directed at them are being directed at everyone but them. Somewhere in there, we hope progress is made.
One of those little psyche infiltrations for Erica occasionally takes the form of asking for help. “I still sometimes am like, ‘No, I got it. I got it,’ when I don’t got it.” I’ve done the same when working construction, but the context was different. We’re still living in an age where a woman owning a brewery is considered more exotic than a woman owning a pet store. “Michelle, the owner, was raised in bars and kitchens, so she’s been in this industry her whole life. We started talking about being a woman brewer and people asking, ‘What’s it like?’ And she goes, ‘I don’t understand that question because men ask the same things about women chefs. What do men joke about telling women? Get back in the kitchen. What do you mean what’s it like to be a woman chef? I’m in the place you told me to get into.’ … What’s it like being a woman brewer? I don’t have a beard.”
Most of the stigma surrounding being a female brewer doesn’t come from other brewers. “I’m just another bro,” says Erica. No, the stigma comes on occasion from the consumer end. Little quizzes and questions that aren’t from a place of genuine interest, but a hope to outsmart the brewer. It’s hard not to wonder if they’re doing it simply because she’s a woman. Luckily, it sounds like Erica’s negative experiences are few and far between.
But perhaps the real difference in being a woman brewer boils down to using equipment made for people who average five inches taller than yourself. “I have a picture of a good friend of mine who used to brew out in Santa Cruz. She’s now an R&D brewer up in Oregon. She’s standing on her mash tun, and she couldn’t reach these two valves, but she had to turn them together, so she learned how to do it with her foot. She’s extended in this awesome way that she learned how to. It’s just interesting to see the difference in the way men brew versus the way women brew.”
To support women feeling confident in approaching process differently, networks exist to encourage more women to join the brewing industry. Erica, herself, is part of the Pink Boots Society, a nonprofit organization supporting women working in the beer world. The goal of these sorts of networks isn’t to try to coerce women into becoming brewers, but rather to let women know that owning a brewery and brewing beer is a viable career path for women if they so choose.
Being a female brewer in today’s world is certainly a far cry from what it was a few centuries ago, but it’s a place women are reestablishing themselves as a force in the modern era, assuming they haven’t already. It used to be when a reporter asked Erica about being a girl in the industry, her response was a reserved, “It’s been great.” But now, her response is a much more immediate, “It’s badass.”
May our hardships be our foundations from which we grow our character.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie.