Women in Beer: from Sumeria to Summit
image credit – MPR news
This article was originally published under the auspices of The Four Firkins blog. As the website is no more, I am publishing it here.
The repetition, for those who have already perused this piece, is due to the fact that a book is in the works. It is an honor to have some of my research on the subject of women in beer be used in the forthcoming Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Things We Love by Simran Sethi.
The book is a brilliant and critical look at systematic compromises and tectonic shifts in global food culture. With an intriguing blend of fact and feeling, Sethi tells the story of anthropologically significant foods like chocolate and beer through the lens of the senses. I sincerely look forward to reading it in its entirety.
Research on the history of beer and brewing quickly leads to the Middle East. While some facts are disputed, much of the early evidence is very clear and points to the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi, and her mother-like role when beer was in its infancy as a beverage. Chemical evidence as many as 7000 years ago from the land that is now part of Iraq proves that ancient civilizations brewed beer.
The Sumerians were the most successful, and considered beer a lynchpin in their society. In fact, their word for beer is translated to “what the mouth desires.” 
Ninkasi was the favored of three mythological sisters, and the significance of this trio is more than just a fun fact or jumping off point for further brewing research. For centuries, the only area of society in Ancient Mesopotamia that was sanctioned and protected by female goddesses was brewing. Their father was Enki, and the daughters were said to be born of fresh water. Siris is depicted as both a vintner and an alewife, while Siduri is associated with the enjoyment of beer . Consider the significance of this governance in a culture where beer was consumed daily by everyone. Brewing and drinking, from the mundane to the celebratory, meant offering praise to the goddesses who provided the critical element .
The term “alewife” comes from 15th century England, a time when women performed the brewing along with other household tasks. But they didn’t just brew for their own families or even neighbors. It was common practice for women at the time to earn a significant wage from their beer. Many estimates of consumption suggest that up to a gallon of beer a day was not unusual for the average person during these times. “In 1577 there was 1 alehouse for every 142 inhabitants per town” . The decline of women as professional brewers came after the Black Plague and the Hundred Years’ War, when grain cheapened, the economy was ripe, and beer became an industrial game .
By 1600 all beer was hopped, although each region embraced the plant at different times. Hops were first noted as useful in 1150 by a woman: “The first documented record of the use of hops in the brew process was made by the Benedictine nun Hildegarde, abbess of Rupertsburg, Germany.” She was an author and a healer who not only recognized the properties of the plant itself, but also encouraged brewers to incorporate them .
Fast forward over the centuries, beyond the 1700’s when men in England discovered that there was money to be had in brewing, and took over most of the operation. Move past the early 20th century and American prohibition, the dark years where beer was villainized, often by wives who bemoaned the beverage’s effects on their husbands. Picture 1962, and one of Minnesota’s largest breweries at the time: Hamm’s. Unlike other breweries of the day, which employed men almost exclusively, the entire brew lab was comprised of females.
One of those women was Gerri Kustelski, a 22-year-old chemist with a freshly printed diploma.
Gerri’s very first role was as a cereal chemist at Hamm’s. She and about a dozen other women – chemists, technologists, and a microbiologist – worked under a female quality analysis manager who had been hired in the 40’s.
I met Gerri in her lab (I say “her” intentionally – it is her creation, curated by her 52 years of experience) at Summit Brewing Company. Her petite frame moves fluidly through graduated cylinders half-full of beer samples, extremely proficiently, even while thoughtfully explaining the process of bitterness testing to me.
I fumble with where to begin; She’s not just an encyclopedia, she’s an anthology.
“When I started at Hamm’s, we didn’t go out,” she explains to me, across the table in Summit’s quality sampling room. She gazes up, experiencing the memory. A smile spreads across her face. “Let me tell you something,” her eyes glimmer and I lean in. “We weren’t allowed to leave the lab, to go into the brewhouse. When we needed samples, someone brought them to us.”
Gerri describes how, as the cereal chemist, she would analyze the milled grain and provide the brewers with information, preventing the mash from becoming a paste. Because of the widely held belief, brought over from Germany, that women would affect the performance of the yeast, she had not even seen the mill that was crushing her samples. After some years, she worked to change the practice, becoming the first woman at Hamm’s to take grain samples straight out of the mill herself (using the most accurate technique, as her predecessor had not, she discovered).
Hamm’s experienced many changes during the decades after Gerri began, and when the building closed in 1997, she shut down the lab and immediately got a call from Mark Stutrud at Summit. “We had always joked about working together over the years,” she laughs. “It was only natural.”
So, in 1998, when the new brewery opened, the lab gained immense experience with one of the most proficient beer analysts in the area.
While Gerri didn’t particularly like beer when she began in 1962, she certainly does now, and prefers dark beers. Summit Winter Ale is one of her favorites. Around the time of the 1ooth anniversary of Hamm’s, in 1965, they began brewing one of their very few all-malt (no corn) beers, called Mr. Figgy’s Christmas Brew. It was the first beer that Gerri fell in love with.
When it comes to the change that Gerri has witnessed, it takes her considerable thought to put it into words. She sees the beer market as cyclical and notes that today feels much like the 90’s when things were expanding at a rapid rate. She fondly recalls the years that she has spent watching those around her, especially Mark Stutrud, and their passion for craft beer. She points out that more and more women are starting breweries, and mentions Deb Loch of Urban Growler, who apprenticed at Summit.
“As more and more roles are being taken on by women, look what it does for the men.” Gerri refers to family and friends around her who are equally as liberated to be themselves – “Just think — my husband never saw the inside of a diaper!”
As we step out of the building and into the beer garden, which is full of young families, I can’t help but think that she is right. Gerri has worked, according to her co-workers assembled on the patio around us, in the Minnesota beer market longer than anyone. She has more insight than merely what it means to be a woman in beer. She understands what beer is, not just chemically, but as a substance that unifies.
Special thanks to Gerri Kustelski, Summit Brewing, and Doug Hoverson (for acquainting us)
1. Mosher, Randy. (2009). Tasting Beer. New York: Storey Publishing
2. Hartman. “On Beer and Brewing Techniques in Ancient Mesopotamia.” http://www.cidmod.org/sidurisadvice/Hartman.pdf
3. Epic Curiousity. 5 little-known facts about women’s role in brewing history. http://epic-curiousity.com/2014/03/5-facts-about-women-brewing-history.html
4. Judith M. Bennett. (1996). Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300–1600. New York: Oxford University Press.
5. Martin, A. Lynn. (2009). Alcohol, Violence, and Disorder in Traditional Europe. Missouri: Truman State University Press.
6. Mendocino Brewing. http://mendobrew.com/blog/376_a-brief-history-of-hops/