In a quiet, virtual ceremony at the end of October, Kelly Floyd of Arvada, Colo., was crowned the 13th annual Queen of Beer. This women-only international home brew competition had fewer than 100 entrants — and is dwarfed by the annual National Homebrew Competition, which draws thousands. For women like Floyd, the smaller brewing sorority’s appeal isn’t solely about the beers produced. It also serves as a modern chapter in the story of the women’s role in the evolution of beer.
“When I got started home brewing, it was all guys,” recalls Linda Rader, the 2005 Queen of Beer winner. “But brewing is pretty much cooking, and it started out long ago in the home. Every woman brewed. It was just part of what you did.”
Beer is the oldest, and still the most widely consumed, fermented beverage. Almost without exception, home brewers in ancient cultures were women.
Beer was more likely stumbled upon than invented. It can be made from just about anything: grain, honey, even peanut brittle. If it contains sugar, it can be fermented. Unlike wine and spirits, the most rudimentary beers require only a day or two of aging before they are drinkable. Given a few coincidental circumstances — residual sugar, the correct temperature and time — the fermentation process can occur on its own.
Imagine waking up to find that the bowl of half-eaten gruel from a few days before had “magically” fermented into a lightly intoxicating breakfast. Or that the barley stashed in storage bins for the winter, soured and sprouted from the recent flooding, had turned a little frothy and tasted oddly good. It was buzz-inducing manna from heaven. It must have been as if the gods were sending message: Beer will make everything better.
Beer would soon become much more than a tasty invention that stayed conveniently fresh. When hunter-gatherers traded their nomadic lifestyle for an agrarian one, the rivers and streams that had been a prime real estate draw became susceptible to contamination by human waste. Yet beer remained a safe, drinkable form of water, and brewing in the home became a necessity. Like cooking, it was a chore most often undertaken by women.
As brewing became more advanced, cultures developed a taste for a variety of styles. In ancient Egypt, female brewers made dozens of light and dark varieties by tweaking the amount of grain or adding herbs and spices. Powdered crab claws, tree bark and hot peppers might be ingredients in ancient Mesopotamia. In pre-Inca Peru, Wari women preferred a dash of wild pepper berries in their corn-based chichi brews.
Unearthing a buzz for beer
Brewing was so pivotal, that in some early societies, it became privileged work. Archeological evidence suggests that only wealthy Wari women were allowed to gather in the central brew house to make ceremonial chichi. In ancient Egypt, middle- and upper-class homes typically contained a separate brewing room. During excavations of the pyramids, lead archeologist Zahi Hawass uncovered the tomb of a woman named Tep-em nefret, the wife of a high-level craftsman employed at Giza (circa 2550 B.C.). Her tomb stele contained extensive drawings and references to home brewing.
In ancient Mesopotamia, sabtiem (female brewers) were the only working-class citizens with their own deity, the beer goddess Ninkasi. Eventually, brewing in Mesopotamia became such a female-dominated field that the Code of Hammurabi included specific laws for commercial brewers with gender-appropriate punishments, including public dunkings in the Euphrates River. As documented in the Yale University Tell Leilan Project, a 30-year continuing excavation of the Qarni-Lim Palace in ancient Syria (2200 to 1800 B.C.), royalty often was buried with brewing equipment. At times, the women who made these magical elixirs were even sealed in royal tombs to guide their kings and queens through the brewing process in the afterlife.
Today’s home brewing risks do not include live burial, but women still navigate the predominantly male world. As club names such as the Foam Rangers (Houston), Jesse James Brew Gang (Kearney, Mo.) and Chicken City Ale Raisers (Cumming, Ga.) attest, home brewing has taken on a testosterone-laced image in the 21st century. But women like Roxanne Westendorf of Cincinnati, the chair of the American Home Brewers Association subcommittee on Homebrew Clubs, and her Queen of Beer colleagues are reconnecting women with their ancient brewing sisters by doing what comes naturally to them: brewing beer.
This hekt (ancient Egyptian beer) recipe is made with a modern version of bappir (toasted barley and millet bread), the traditional loaf used to make Egyptian beer. Expect it to taste more like low-alcohol honey or fruit mead than a modern beer. It is unfiltered and thick, somewhere between a beverage and a gruel, as ancient beers likely would have been.
Note: The following is adapted from a recipe transcribed by Diodorus Siculus, a Roman scholar of Egyptian writings, about 50 B.C. You’ll need to be familiar with home brewing techniques to follow this recipe. Corn sugar and licorice root are available at brewing supply shops; barley and millet flour are available at specialty grocery and natural food stores.
In a bowl, combine the barley flour with 1 cup of corn sugar. Add 2 cups of water, stir well, then add 1 tablespoon of yeast. Mix well (the mixture will be very wet). Cover with plastic wrap and set aside. In a separate bowl, repeat with the millet flour and the remaining corn sugar and yeast. Allow both to rise for 6 hours.
Preheat an oven to 350 F. Grease two baking sheets. Pour the dough onto the prepared baking sheets (the dough will be very wet). Allow the dough to rest, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Bake for 40 minutes, rotating sheets from top to bottom halfway through, until golden brown. Remove from the oven and set aside until cool enough to handle. Slice each loaf into 1-inch slices and arrange them on the baking sheets. Bake for an additional 15 minutes, until lightly toasted.
¼ cup licorice root shavings
½ ounce anise seed
4 pounds light barley malt extract
3 pounds honey
4 cups sorghum molasses syrup
In a 5-gallon boil pot, bring 2 gallons of water to a boil. Crumble all of the toasted bappir into the pot. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature overnight. Strain the bread mixture from the water and return the water to the pot. Discard the bread (the mixture will still be very cloudy). Add the licorice, anise, barley malt, honey and sorghum. Boil for 45 minutes. Remove from heat and allow the wort to cool. Combine the wort with 3½ gallons of water and yeast. Pour into a 6-gallon carboy. Add the wine yeast and set it aside to ferment, covered, for 12 days or until foamy.
To serve, stir well and serve in small cups (the mixture will be thick).
Jenn Garbee is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times Food section and LA Weekly’s Squid Ink Food blog. She is currently writing a book about the role beer has played in women’s history.