Colonial Brewing
The Americas

Mistresses of Malt: When Brewing Belonged to Alewives Pt. 2

8-minute read

Oh we can make liquor to sweeten our lips
Of pumpkins, of parsnips, of walnut-tree chips.

If you’ve read our first installment on alewives, congrats! You now possess a head full of factoids on medieval Europe and the ladies responsible for brewing beer there. 

We mixed in a few mentions of international female brewers in history, but if you noticed North America conspicuously missing then you’ve come to the right place. Ready to cross the Atlantic?

Sacred Spirits 

brewing was carried out by native american women of myriad tribes
why yes, I can walk and chew gum at the same time

Before European colonization, women were at the helm of brewing in many Native North American societies, too. Quel coïncidence!

Head to the Southwest of the US and parts of northern Mexico and you’d find Xalychidom Piipaa, Akimel O’odham, Tohono O’odham, and Apache ladies brewing up batches of tiswin (also called nawai).

Concocted from ground sprouted corn, this alcoholic bevvy was aged in a barrel until it sent up bubbles — when the bubbles were no more, it was ready to drink.

Tiswin could also refer to a sacred saguaro wine crafted by the Tohono O’odham, which used the cactus’ juicy red fruit to make a fermentation. You only did this for events of note, because the saguaro was a big deal. To this day it’s protected under Arizona’s native plant law — mess with one and you can get slapped with a class four felony. 

Apache women also brewed up tulpi, another corn creation similar to Mexican pulque, used for girls’ puberty rites. Head further south and you might enjoy a cup of algoroba, a South American beer crafted from leguminous plants or asua, crushed maize beer made by Quichua-speaking groups, or the Mayan balché. And to this day, women in Huacho Sin Pescado, Peru make a mean chichi

Quaffing in the Colonies 

Once Europeans hit this scene and founded settlements (which is putting the colonization of North America very mildly), they too tasked ladies with the brewin’. 

early colonial brewing
helen, for the love of god move your hand

Just like in England and elsewhere in Europe, women took care of all aspects of homebrewing before it became commercialized. When English settlers came over (few with a wife in tow), they brought their love for beer and distrust of water with them.

Used to water being the source of disease, people were skeptical to drink anything that hadn’t already been boiled and/or fermented. There was also social standing to preserve — many English felt that drinking water was for the poors.  

Little snag, though. The eastern and southern American coastlines enjoyed an entirely different climate than England. The biodiversity was far from the same, and it took time for settlers to figure out which crops would take — which meant wheat and hops were hard to come by. 

So colonies had to get crafty. And by crafty, we mean they imported women. 

Your Shipment Hath Arrived

In the early 1600s, the Virginia Tobacco Company sent a bevy of women to the Chesapeake Bay. For their financial endeavors to flourish, they needed happy colonists — and theirs were currently sober and lonely.

This initial batch of ladies included women who were likely desperate to get out of England due to tenuous circumstances or had nothing to lose.

Apparently, beggars can be choosers, since the recipients of said mail-order brides were not satisfied with who showed up. They complained that the women were corrupt and “of bad choice.”

The next batch arrived in 1621 and was curated more thoughtfully to suit the colonists’ criteria. These 57 women were daughters of the gentry or respected artisans, with some even related to knights. Each carried a letter of recommendation confirming her sterling reputation and skills.

colonial women sew an early american flag
what are we making again?

These skills would be critical to surviving in a new environment, and they included brewing, baking, whipping up butter and cheese, and sewing and spinning. 

Tinker, Tipple, Sip, Imbibe

Colonial women had a huge task set for them. They had to create entirely new recipes for beer and ale, plus figure out how to preserve their food and drink. 

What’s a perfect way to preserve peaches, apples, and pears? Make ’em into a cider. For beer, spruce served as a solid substitute for hops thanks to its bitterness. Barley could be replaced with certain fruits and veggies for their fermentable sugars, and molasses, pumpkins, corn, and persimmons worked for ale. 

apple wine from san francisco, circa 1893
an apple a day

These ladies experimented with what they had on hand, creating beer, ale, cider, spirits, and even brand new beverages. Other common ingredients included rye meal, toasted bread, sage, ginger root, fern, and more. Many recipes were likely developed by colonial women with help from servants or slaves. Still others benefited from indigenous knowledge.

The next century saw a rise in the female and enslaved populations, and wouldn’t you know it, by the late 1700s alcohol was in abundance. 

To The Tavernkeeper! 

Unlike in England, where men had taken hold of the industry by this time, things panned out differently in colonies. Perhaps people appreciated each other more, or maybe they weren’t ready to put women off brewing completely, but either way — ladies remained in the game.

Martha Jefferson was renowned for her wheat beer, despite her husband’s (guy you might have heard of named Thomas) sterling reputation for brewing. Over in New Jersey in 1713, Elizabeth and John Haddon built New Haddonfield Plantation, a three-story brick mansion Elizabeth ran. She ran quite a successful brew house in the backyard that still stands today. 

A few decades later, the Thirteen Colonies had their first recognized commercial brewster in Mary Lisle, who inherited and operated her father’s Philadelphia brewery for years.   

Meanwhile, In Canada 

susannah oland was known for her brewing, especially her brown ale, in canada
Rosamund Pike eat your heart out

Up north (and about a century later) Englishwoman Susannah Oland established a popular brewery alongside her husband. It began as a small operation in her garden shed, but when a friend of the family suggested they sell her “Brown October Ale” business began to pick up.

Susannah served as the chief brewer and ran the business, but had no legal claims over anything. When her husband died, she lost control of the brewery, which had a handful of employees at this point. Oland continued to work there, changing the name from Turtle Grove Brewery to the Army and Navy Brewery in honor of her main client base. 

After about eight years, Susannah inherited some money from an English relative and bought back the brewery. This time she called it “S. Oland Sons and Company,” so no one would get grouchy about a woman having a thing. 

She ran the business for the remainder of her life and trained her sons as brewmasters. After she died, her youngest son inherited the brewery. After a few relocations, a handful of name changes, and an explosion, Susannah’s legacy lives on in Moosehead Brewery

Cheers, Gals 

Fast forward to now, and you’ve probably noticed a bearded man in a beanie is usually the one laboring over a giant steaming kettle at your local brewery. But women are breaking back into their ancient domain. 

After the Industrial Revolution, most families ceased to make their ale at home — it was too time-consuming and pricey when you could finally snag mass-produced bottles on the cheap.

Once the mid-century rolled around, marketers put out campaigns that branded beer as the most masculine of drinks, and never appropriate for a lady. According to the likes of Schlitz and Budweiser, the only time the lady of the house should handle a cold one is when she’s handing it to her husband after a long day of work. 

one of many vintage schlitz ads showing a woman serving a man beer
here, this’ll help you crunch numbers

These days folks of all genders are bringing brewing back into the home. With neat little beer-making kits of every stripe available for the enterprising newbie and the experienced, anyone can dabble. 

Just consider pouring one out for Ninkasi once your bevvies are done.

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Continue down the rabbit hole:

Sources: Brewing in the Seventeenth Century.
Gastro Obscura. The Brides ‘Imported’ to Colonial America for Their Brewing Skills.
Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 1. Wives for Virginia, 1621. Native American Beers.

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