“Beer is a good family drink”: Women and Craft Brewing in early North Carolina

Beer is a good Family Drink

When I left North Carolina in 2014 for my Ph.D. adventure in Scotland, a new trend was on the rise. Like many other cities in the state, and indeed the country, my hometown of Wilmington also became the home of several new microbreweries as the trend of home brewing and craft brewing swept the US. Since 2014, the number of craft breweries in North Carolina has more than doubled—totaling 257 from the coast to the Smokies. The state ranks 8th in number of breweries and 7th in production with more than 1.2 million barrels produced annually. [1]

Since returning to Wilmington this spring, I’ve been overwhelmed by the variety of local brews on offer at the city’s establishments. It also sparked some thoughts on how the practice has changed since the earliest European settlers arrived on Carolina shores. In reality, brewing was women’s work in the early modern era. These brewsters, a word now lost in the English language, were the expert craft brewers. As Judith Bennet writes, “Brewster once had a clear and unequivocal meaning: a female brewer. . . . In losing brewster, we have lost sight of a critical part of history.” [2] Today, only 29 percent of brewery workers in the US are female. [3]

Housekeeping manuals from the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century included tips and tricks for picking the best hops and malted grains, processing the wort, and preserving the brew for consumption. “The Complete Family Brewer” appeared in the 1747 edition of The Family Magazine in Two Parts, Containing Useful Directions in All the Branches of House-Keeping and Cookery and Mrs. Charlotte Cartwright included recipes and steps in The Lady’s Best Companion or, complete treasure for the fair sex (London, 1799) for women to properly manage the family brewing.

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An excerpt from ‘The Family Magazine in Two Parts’ (London, 1747)

In the early eighteenth century, there were few large-scale brewing operations in the American colonies.  Small-scale works, primarly situated within the home, were well-suited to areas that were sparsely populated. In 1710 a group of Swiss and German settlers from the Palatine region planned to immigrate to North Carolina under the leadership of Christoph von Graffenried. They would eventually settle the town of New Bern. One potential settler wrote to the expedition’s leadership, offering his wife’s expertise in the art of brewing for the benefit of the settlement if the proper equipment was procured from back home:

“Because my wife understands brewing so well and has done it for years, and the drink is very scarce here and neither money nor brewing pots are to be obtained here, otherwise I would not think of such a thing for you to do. But the pot must have two pipes but no worm; and if some reliable people should not be coming, would Mr. Ritter still be so good as to get it to me here.” [4]

Colonists also made use of local ingredients in their beer recipes. That seasonal pumpkin ale you might buy every October? It’s not as new of an idea as you might think. In addition to other ingredients such as spruce or persimmon, pumpkin served as source of fermentable sugar when barley was scarce. One New Englander described a hot drink, known as a “Flip” made with “home brewed beer, sweetened with sugar, molasses or dried pumpkin, and flavored with a liberal dash of rum, then stirred in a great mug or pitcher with a red hot hottle or flip dog, which made the liquor foam, and gave it a burnt, bitter taste.” [5]

Alcohol consumption was a widespread aspect of colonial life. From small beer to hard ciders and peach brandy to corn whiskey, distilling culture grew alongside that of the American population. Sarah Meacham has given the most thorough treatment to how colonial Americans (especially women) made their alcoholic beverages and how they were imbibed in taverns and ordinaries (often run by women) in her book, Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake (2009). Meacham writes that women in small planter households produced their ciders and ales in the months from July to December, but they lacked the time and resources to manage large operations such as cider presses, stills, and bottling facilities that larger planters might own and run year-round.

By the end of the eighteenth century, alcohol production was becoming man’s work. The enthusiasm among many men for the advent of scientific and agricultural improvements eventually pushed women out of a role that had traditionally been their own. Brewing in the US changed considerably by the mid-nineteenth century as more and more German settlers arrived and built large breweries, while introducing lager-style beers. Brewing moved out of the home and into the industrial warehouse. [6]

Today craft breweries are serving up hundreds of styles of beers, ales, and ciders for every taste. Some, including a few in North Carolina, give a nod to the history and culture of the state. In Wilmington, there’s Edward Teach, Ironclad, and Flytrap to name a few. But where are the women? One of the first breweries to be established after prohibition, Highland Brewing Company in Asheville, North Carolina, arrived in 1994 and has been mixing up a variety of beers ever since. Their original is the aptly-named Gaelic Ale and only until recently did their rebranding remove the ubiquitous Scottish Highlander in favor of a more modern Blue Ridge twist. Their operation is one of the few in the state to be run predominantly by women. [7]

So if you find yourself at the pub this weekend, raise a glass to the women who pioneered craft brewing in early America. Cheers!

Bonus: I love this episode on how women are taking back the culture of drinking whiskey from Stuff Mom Never Told You.

Works cited:
[1] Brewers Association Statistics by State: North Carolina (2017)
[2] Judith M. Bennet, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 3-4.
[3] Women in the Craft Beer Industry
[4] Baron Christoph von Graffenried, Account of the Founding of New Bern, edited by Vincent H. Todd and Julius Goebel (Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton Printing, 1920), pp. 319.
[5] Early American Beer | Inside Adams: Science, Technology & Business
[6] Sarah Hand Meacham, Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).
[7] Debbie Moose, “Women in Brewing are Breaking the Pint Glass Ceiling,” Our State Magazine (31 March 2017).


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