Beer and Being Female :
A Pre-existing Condition
Where did this nonsense about beer being a man’s drink come from? I find it fascinating that our modern day stereotype of beer and gender are so far removed from the origin of the drink and its practical use and consumption by women dating as far back as we have written records. In fact, the earliest written words that still exist are The Hymn to Ninkasi, who was a Sumerian goddess of beer.
Then there’s the history that brewing beer was considered a woman’s role along with cooking and cleaning and bread making right up until the industrial revolution. But the most interesting nugget of the history of women and beer being inextricably intertwined is how it relates to the way that our bodies use beer in childbirth and lactation, the epitome of femininity. Beer as a staple during labor and infancy, it would seem, is as much a preexisting condition as being female.
While Ninkasi was worshipped in Ancient Sumeria, Tenenet was being hailed in Ancient Egypt as the goddess of beer and childbirth. She was depicted as having the body of a human with the uterus of a cow on her head and a beer in her hand. The truth is that prior to modern medicine, beer has played a number of roles in bringing children into this world. Before there were anesthetics, there was beer. The relatively low percentage of alcohol in beer compared with wine or distilled spirits allowed for pain relief and slowed contractions during labor, making the mother more comfortable while remaining coherent. The baby would often be washed in beer as its first bath. The antiseptic quality of alcohol made it safer for the vulnerable new born to be bathed in than water, which wasn’t safe to drink and often caused illness and/or death.
This practice made its way north, and became the Scottish and Irish tradition of brewing a Groaning Ale upon the discovery of conception. These beers were typically brewed by the expectant mother during the first trimester and aged in barrels during gestation. They were often 9% alcohol or more and dark in color. In addition to the uses mentioned above, the family and midwife would also use the ale in celebration of the newborn’s arrival. The mother would continue to use the ale in order to aid lactation. The sugars left in beer after fermentation are exactly what our bodies need in order to produce milk for a nursing infant. Most lactation consultants today would advise to allow at least two hours between consumption and nursing, so as not to pass along the alcohol to the child, but the benefits of increased milk production are still realized after the alcohol leaves the system. For those that are vehemently opposed to imbibing during lactation, non-alcoholic beers contain the same compounds, and can have the same benefits!
Some doctors will also recommend a beer or glass of wine if a mother begins labor in a dangerous situation, say too early in pregnancy or in extreme circumstances that could harm the baby or mother such as midflight on an airplane. The alcohol will slow the contractions, and as long as the mother doesn’t overdo it, the effects to the full-term child should be insignificant in comparison with the danger of giving birth without proper accommodations or trained professionals present. By the same principle, having a beer can also alleviate menstrual cramps for those that aren’t pregnant. Please note that I am in no way trained to give medical advice, and that each person should talk to their doctor about their specific needs. I am simply intrigued by the sheer number of connections there are between beer and the female condition!
Groaning Ale wasn’t the only beer brewed for special occasions. Because brewing beer was considered “women’s work,” a woman had to show herself to be marriage material by brewing a Bride Ale. This beer would be made during a couple’s engagement to show her merit as a provider of necessary duties for her family. The Bride Ale would be served to close family and friends just before the wedding, and we still refer to the “Bride Ale Party” today when we speak of the Bridal Party.
Anita Riley is the Cellar Tech and Assistant Brewer at Lonerider Brewing Company in Raleigh, NC and serves as Co-Chapter Leader of The Pink Boots Society’s Eastern NC Chapter. Her book Brewing Ambition benefits The Pink Boots Society’s Scholarship Fund which encourages, inspires, and assists women beer professionals to further their careers through education. Brewing Ambition can be found at Lulu.com. She is a Certified Beer Server Cicerone and studied Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation at AB Tech in Asheville, NC as well as Rockingham Community College in Riedsville, NC. You can find her blog Brewing Up a Storm, which focuses on women in the beer industry at www.metrowinesasheville.com/brew-blog. Anita is a native to North Carolina.