How women pioneered Edinburgh's brewing industry

Edinburgh's women played a crucial role in the city's brewing industry.
Edinburgh's women played a crucial role in the city's brewing industry.
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Since the 1500s beer has been a part of Edinburgh's DNA. The role of Auld Reekie's women brewers, however, has been largely forgotten.

In 1530 a survey of brewers found that there were 288 beer-makers operating in Edinburgh - around 2.5 per cent of the city's population.

Given brewing's profitability and the marginalisation of women in those unenlightened times, it may come as a surprise to read that all 288 of the respondents were women.

This comes as no shock to ScotBeer Tours guide Sara Robertson, who outlines the crucial role of Edinburgh's female brewers as a part of her ale-soaked tour of the city.

"It had always been women that did brewing," says Robertson.

"Just as we have more traditional gender roles today, that was just expected then, that women would be doing the brewing rather than men."

'Better at brewing for biological reasons'

In the 1500s, before there were pubs and bars on every corner of Edinburgh's Old Town, beer would be brewed in-house by locals.

"Beer was just sold in homes," explains Robertson.

"Which is where you get 'public house' from, because the house would become open to the public."

Women proved more adept at crafting tasty amber nectar than their male counterparts, and thus assumed charge of the industry in its infancy.

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This skill for producing beer was remarkably down to biology, according to Robertson.

"The malting process wasn’t the same as today," she says.

"The brewer would chew grain and spit it out. As women's saliva is biologically distinct from men's saliva, it meant that the brewing process was more efficient when women brewed."

Author of A Brief History of Vice, Robert Evans, suggests that the greater concentration of enzyme amylase in women's saliva means that their beer was smoother and less sour than the man-made equivalent.

With water off-limits for many Edinburgh citizens for health and safety reasons, beer was often the alternative - and a smooth brew would certainly have been more palatable among locals.

A change in gender roles

In the 17th and 18th century the number of female brewers operating in Edinburgh decreased to nearly zero.

The sudden change was a result of the industrialisation of brewing, according to Robertson. As soon as there was money to be made, men forcibly assumed the role previously reserved for women.

"When brewing was just something you’d do to sustain yourself, the women were in charge, but when it became a business that’s when you see a big shift in the gender balance."

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Edinburgh men looking to take over from the city's female brewers took advantage of the superstitions and folklore rife in the city at the time, notes Robertson.

"In societies where men are more dominant than women and these women attain some powerful position, you see witchcraft coming in as a way to dis-empower them," explains the guide.

"The 1600s is the peak of witch trials across Europe, and it’s also when you see the transition to fewer female brewers and more male brewers."

Accused of witchcraft

Once applauded for their superior-tasting beer, women were now suspected of foul play because of it.

"Because they didn’t know how the women were doing it, they were accused of witchcraft and black magic," says Robertson.

The traditional caricature image of witches gathered around a bubbling cauldron may even have been inspired by female brewers.

"A witch with a pointed hat, the broom, the cat and the cauldron over a fire is actually a brewer," suggests Robertson.

"To brew, the first stage is to boil water, so you light a fire, the water’s bubbling away and then you pour in your malted barley.

"They weren’t using hops then because they don’t grow in Scotland, so they’d use herbs, gorse, even chicken and then mixing it in. So you’ve got this lady standing over a cauldron mixing it.

"As for the broom, there are a few theories, but you won't be able to print any of them."