A Forgotten History of the Women in the World of Beer

Reviewed by Gail Ann Williams 

The first modern “microbrewery” was cobbled together in 1975, at the dawn of the craft beer renaissance. You may know the story. Jack McAuliffe was the young man who’d tasted more flavorful beers in the UK while in the Navy, came home to find bland corporate beers in California and risked everything to build tiny New Albion Brewing from scratch, something that just wasn’t done. The short-lived brewery inspired others to made a go of it, leading to thousands of small craft breweries blossoming in the US and around the world today. It’s a heroic saga of imagination and gumption. Don Barkley, who helped brew for free for a time after the brewery got going and eventually took a bare-bones salary, often makes it into the narrative. 

But what about the two partners who also embraced the risky endeavor and struggled to make New Albion a reality? Jane Zimmerman and Suzanne Stern were McAuliffe’s fellow craft pioneers — business partners who scraped together money to start the brewery, managed business relationships, sold beer and sometimes participated in brewing and packaging. Have you heard of either woman? I live in Northern California and care about beer history, and I hadn’t. Journalist and beer community maven Tara Nurin honors their contribution, kicking off a sweeping account of women and beer in her ambitious new book, A Women’s Place is in the Brewhouse: A Forgotten History of Alewives, Brewsters, Witches, and CEOs

Nurin provides eye-opening snapshots of the role of women in brewing through the ages. Even if you’re confident that you understand how, along the way, brewing became a masculine and commercial concern and what that change means today, you’ll gain insights from her reporting of near term and deep history. Chapters shift back and forth from the twin starting points of the beginning of modern craft beer and the ancient echos of women brewing in the time when fermentation seemed like a miracle granted by a goddess — or maybe like witchcraft. 

The many surprises in this book include the revelation that women who were doing lab work at a macro brewery in the 60s were not permitted to go near the fermentation vessels to take samples of beer. Men kept them at bay and fetched the samples for them! Nurin quotes eighty-year-old chemist and sensory analyst Gerri Kustelski, who remembered dealing with that situation at Hamm’s Brewery in the 60s, saying, “there was a belief among many of the brewers that our hormones would affect the yeast.” 

(Curiously, this tracks with similar outrageous superstitions in the world of winemaking, where women were kept away from the wine lest it begin to sour or to “re-ferment in the barrel every month” because of “petticoats” entering the cellar. *

This year, 2021, has been the year of “Me Too” in the beer world, with grievances ranging from insults and harassment to criminal behavior suddenly finding a moment of public expression. That recent reckoning is covered briefly in the book. In that context, this year’s outcry seems more like a footnote to a long tale of inequity than an aberration. Nurin contrasts her own previously published reactions to those female social media influencers who show off their bodies while promoting beers to the attitudes of some of the men who faced outrage. When should people get a chance to hear criticism and change their opinions?

Her painfully honest take on complex issues in the current era is one example of the transparency that shines through at every stage of the book. Engaging and sincere, she questions, bemoans and champions the women and events she presents. What about those women who helped bring us America’s Prohibition era — as well as those who pulled us back out of it? Even their lives are included and respected.

Almost by definition, a book this ambitious in scope is a work in progress. It’s a medium sized book that could be a very big book. And Nurin is currently getting suggestions of even more overlooked women in the beer world as people read it. 

You’ll find stories of women from the Bay Area, including Judy Ashworth, Natalie Cilurzo, Denise Jones and Jen Jordan, as well as brewsters from ancient Egypt, medieval England and around the globe.

In full disclosure, it turns out I am briefly mentioned in this book. Reading that section, I felt the book overstates my contributions to the operations of Celebrator Beer News. (When I emailed the author, she immediately asked me to provide better wording for the next edition.) Nurin had appropriately noted that my formal and informal roles at the Celebrator were in partnership with my husband and co-writer, Steve Shapiro. I appreciate that she recognized how he and I tried to bring energy beyond our written contributions to that publication right up until the “brewspaper” suspended publishing.

Thanks to Nurin’s book, I resolved to pay better attention to the participation of women and other underrepresented people currently in the industry. When you read A Woman’s Place is in the Brewhouse: A forgotten history of alewives, brewsters, witches and CEOs, something will likely stick with you and deepen your understanding of beer and beer people. History is not only about the past. 

(Engraving of a brewster at work, source unknown)

Find the book at bookshop.org (or go to Amazon, etc.): https://bookshop.org/books/a-woman-s-place-is-in-the-brewhouse-a-forgotten-history-of-alewives-brewsters-witches-and-ceos/9781641603423 There’s also an audio version if you want to listen while driving or brewing.

Meet Tara Nurin. She’ll be in the area to sign and talk about her book in December. So far, she’s slated to appear at Russian River Brewing Co. on December 16.

Plus more appearances locally, including SF. Check back for more dates at the publisher’s events list at the Chicago Review Press author appearance calendar or follow Tara’s twitter account — https://twitter.com/TaraNurin — which also alerts you to her articles at Forbes and elsewhere.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

* Yep. The wine guys pushed women out too. I first heard the anti-female wine fermentation folklore from a Sonoma winemaker who started her own winery after initially being rejected with similar nonsense from older winemakers in California decades ago. I looked around for some documentation of those superstitions and found that ridiculous tidbit in Women of Wine, by Ann B. Matasar. Page 11.

Old misinformation is hard to eradicate.

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