Women beer-makers throughout history celebrated at Waterloo Region Museum

The Waterloo Region Museum is taking a look back at the key role women played in beer production throughout history.

Women were the primary producers of beer in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, says Waterloo historian

The growing involvement of women in the craft beer industry is consistent with their historical role as beer producers, according to Waterloo Region Museum curator Stacy McLennan. (The Associated Press)

A growing number of women are getting involved in Canada's booming craft beer industry - and that should come as no surprise, according to Stacy McLennan, the collections curator at the Waterloo Region Museum.

Women have played a central role in beer-making since the earliest days of its consumption, McLennan explained to host Craig Norris on The Morning Edition  Thursday.

The first beer-makers

Archaeologists estimate that humans have been drinking beer for roughly 9,000 years, McLennan says. For the majority of that time, women were the principal producers. In the days of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, the drink was brewed almost exclusively by women, and they were revered for that role.

"There were the odd male who was a brewer in a royal household, but for the majority of that time period, it was women who brewed beer," says McLennan.

That dynamic began to change in 14th century Europe. As beer production grew in scale during the medieval period, men started to become more involved in the industry, to the detriment of female beer producers and 'ale wives,' who sold beer in taverns.

"At that time, women brewsters — which is the female word to describe a female brewer — were principally responsible for making ale and for selling it," says McLennan.

But competition between female brewsters and the rising contingent of male brewers escalated quickly.

While female brewsters traditionally produced unhopped ales, their male competitors began to produce more expensive hopped beers. Hops acted as a natural preservative, meaning that the beer produced by men lasted much longer than the female brewsters' product.

"Once hops start to be used in the brewing process, men start to take over the industry," McLennan explains.

Ale wives' tales

Women's exit from the beer industry in Medieval Europe was hastened by the rise of anti-brewster propaganda, according to McLennan. As male involvement in the industry grew, public depictions of ale wives and brewsters became increasingly nasty.

"In the late 1500s, there starts to be all these depictions of ale wives, who were women who sold beer and ran taverns, as amoral women," says McLennan. "They brewed very foul beer and were unclean and kind of grotesque."

The imagery, which is evident in art and paintings from the time period,  had a significant impact on women in the industry.

"Men were just as capable of cheating their customers or brewing bad ale as the women were at that time. But these depictions helped convince the general public that it wasn't the trade itself that was bad, it was the presence of women in the trade that was bad."

Susannah Oland: Canada's colonial brewster

Women's involvement in beer production dwindled dramatically from the 1500s onward, making female brewsters incredibly rare in colonial North America. But there was at least one woman running a brewery in Canada in the late 1800s.

That woman was Susannah Oland, who immigrated to Canada from England in 1865 along with her husband and nine children. After settling in Halifax, Oland and her husband established a popular brewery called the Navy and Army Brewery.

Following her husband's premature death, Oland established a new brewery of her own - although she considered it prudent to conceal her gender. She named the business 'S. Oland Sons and Company,' using her initials to hide the fact that she was a woman. After her death in the late 1880s, ownership of the company passed to her sons.

Oland's influence is still felt in the Canadian beer industry today.

"She was the driving force behind what would become Moosehead Breweries in Halifax," says McLennan.

Women and the craft beer industry

As the craft beer industry continues to expand in Canada, an increasing number of women are once again getting involved in beer production.

"The whole craft brewery industry is really changing the industry within Canada and you see a lot more women involved, in some capacity, in a brewery - whether they are actually the brewers, or if they're involved with the marketing or promotion," says McLennan.

For her part, McLennan hopes her work at the Waterloo Region Museum will help folks interested in the beer industry to better appreciate women's integral role in its production.

"I hope that they come away with a better understanding of our involvement in the beer process throughout all of our history."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?