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Here's to the ale and female of the brewed

Even the keenest enthusiasts for flavorsome beers can fancy something lighter-tasting. Or so they tell me. The woman with whom I share my life is an example. Asked to name her favorite beers, she has no hesitation: Draught Guiness, Fuller's Chiswick Bitter and, "when I want something undemanding, or on a hot day, any light clean-tasting lager."

One wintry day, I introduced her to August Beer, a light, sweetish, perfumy lager. As my partner is especially scornful of the prissy notion of ladies do not drink beer, I thought she might be entertained by the knowledge that this brew is made entrirely by women.

August Beer is the premium lager of the Moscow City Brewery, and is named after the "Second Russian Revolution of August 1991," the uprising that led to the Yeltsin presidency. I first encountered this beer as Moscovka, when I visited the brewery on the eve of the "revolution."

The taxi driver had never heard of the place, so I asked him to take me to Tolstoy's House, which shares a wall with the brewery on 23 Lev Tolstoy Steet, in a district that seems to be a Russian counterpart to Kensington.

The brewery was founded in 1863 by a wealthy merchant, and a subsequent managing director was the father of the poet, novelist, and journalist, Ilya Erenburg. These literary links are a matter of pride to Galina Plakhova, the brewery's present managing director. Everyone who knows her seems to refer to her as Madame Plakhova, as though she were living in the Moscow of Diaghilev.

Tolstoy died before Madame Plakhova was born, but she speaks as though she had known him. "He popped into the brewery regularly," she assured me.

Tolstoy died before Madame Plakhova was born, but she speaks as though she had known him. "He popped into the brewery regularly," she assured me. "He recommended people to drink beer, you know--as a drink of moderation--instead of vodka." (This has occasionally been state policy, though Madame Plakhova had to bottle Pepsi during President Gorbachev's brief campaign against all forms of alcohol.)

She told me that she had trained as a working brewer and had been in the business for the best part of 30 years. I met the shift brewer and the workers and they were all women.

"I am making beer of an export quality in order to improve our earnings," Madame Plakhova said. "It's a good job that the strongest man is a woman. We lost some of our best male brewing scientists in the last war. That is how so many women work in this industry."

But I am not so sure about this explanation. A Russian man told me at a party that evening: "Our hearts are in making steel, locomotives, railroads, and bridges, and we do not really understand industries like brewing." Giving me an avuncular hug and a vodka, he added: "Making beer is women's work." He probably read his fellows correctly; I think this attitude extends across the northern snows.

I have found women operating breweries in Estonia, and across the Gulf of Finland. The most popular beer in Finland is made in a brewery staffed largely by women in the Lapp part of the country. An even lighter lager with just a hint of malty dryness, it is called Lapin Kulta (Lapp Gold), and is available in Britain.

But not all beers made by women are light. In Bavaria, two convents make full-bodied lagers, though mainly for distribution within earshot of their own church bells.

She once vaulted into a copper fermenting vessel to show me how much cleaning it required.

Nor are all such beers lagers. The widely exported strong brown ales and fruit beers of the Liefmans brewery, in Oudenaarde, Belgium, were for years made under the demanding direction of Rose Blanquaert, a former ballet dancer. She once vaulted into a copper fermenting vessel to show me how much cleaning it required. She learned every job in the brewery, and one of her innovations was the cherub-patterned tissue that wraps the bottles of raspberry beer. Since "retiring," she has been running a beer café called De Mouterij ("The Maltings") in Oudenaarde.

And should you be in Belgium, you could do worse than stop at the village of Herzele, near the hop-growing town of Aalst, between Brussels, Ghent and Oudenaarde. There, you can sample the malty ales made by Anne De Ryck in the brewery that bears her name. She remembers as a child longing for the day when she could work in the family brewery, and being shooed from the hot kettles by her father. When, at 25, she persuaded him that she should take over, he installed a mechanical handling system so that she would not have to lift sacks of barley-malt.

Before the Industrial Revolution, all brewing occurred on family farms or estates, or in abbeys (or convents), and the work was much more communal. "Brewsters" and "ale wives" are frequently mentioned in medieval history. Brewing is a form of cooking, and men have always considered women to be capable of both.

In Scotland, Catherine Maxwell Stuart loved to help her father in the family brewery at Traquair House (which dates form 1107), near Peebles. And since his death, she has managed the brewery.

Just across the border at Tweedmouth, a brewery founded in the 1700s was reopened a couple of years ago by Alan and Carol Crawford. They acquired the premises as a joinery workshop, then had the idea of restoring the brewery, which had closed during the Second World War. It is now called the Border Brewery, and produces the fruity-tasting Hop Kiln ales. Alan looks after sales and Carol produces the beer, with the help of their daughter Julie.

She hoists 25-kilo sacks of malt, and shovels six or seven times that weight in "spent grain" after the infusion. "It's a hard job," she says, "but very satisfying. From a start at 6:30 in the morning, by five in the evening I have seven barrels fermenting away." What better way for a woman to work up a thirst for a pint?

Perhaps I should take my partner to the Borders for a St. Valentine's weekend. I am sure she would enjoy the countryside, and I hear they serve a good pint of Hop Kiln at the Angel in Tweedmouth.

Published Online: OCT 1, 1997
Published in Print: FEB 5, 1994
In: The Independent


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