When she wasn’t penning beloved novels, Jane Austen brewed her own beer. And she wasn’t the only Regency-era woman to try her hand at craft brewing, either. In fact, brewing beer was part of women’s lives for centuries, long before beer was branded as a beverage for dudes.
According to Jane Austen expert Laura Boyle, the Austen family was filled with “enthusiastic home brewers” who made their own mead, wine, and beer. Though technically part of the gentry, Austen grew up on a farm where her family produced everything except luxury goods. As an adult, she was intimately involved with housekeeping and food prep, a world that was seen as entirely feminine.
That world involved plenty of beer. Elizabeth Ham, a contemporary of Austen’s, wrote that “No one in these days ever dreamt of drinking water.” At the time, water supplies were fraught with health dangers, and brewing beer was seen as a way to create a safe drink that wouldn’t spread disease. Long before the epidemiology of diseases like cholera was understood, people realized that something about the boiling and fermenting process of beer made those who drank it less sick than those who sampled the often-tainted drinking water. Light or "small" beer with a low alcohol content thus became a staple for children and adults, who drank it with all meals and who often made it at home.
One of Austen's specialties was spruce beer, a kind of cousin of root beer that contained hops and molasses. In letters to her sister Cassandra, she told of making spruce beer: “It is you … who have the little Children,” she wrote, “and I that have the great cask, for we are brewing spruce beer again.” Sadly, Austen’s beer recipes are lost to time, though her family mead recipe still exists.
The Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, where Austen lived part of her life, has created a special Austen-themed brew along with the Bath Brew House in honor of the famed writer's 200th birthday. It’s called Jane Austen 200, and it’s being called “light, hoppy, and refreshing with added Earl Grey flavouring.”
The Center also offers a spruce beer recipe for those wishing to try their own Austen-inspired homebrewing projects:
5 gallons of water
1/8 pound of hops
1/2 cup of dried, bruised ginger root
1 pound of the outer twigs of spruce fir
3 quarts of molasses
1/2 yeast cake dissolved in 1/2 cup of warm water
1. In a large kettle combine the water, hops, ginger root, and spruce fir twigs.
2. Boil together until all the hops sink to the bottom of the kettle.
3. Strain into a large crock and stir in the molasses.
4. After this has cooled add the yeast.
5. Cover and leave to set for 48 hours.
6. Then bottle, cap and leave in a warm place (70-75 °F) for five days. It will now be ready to drink.
7. Store upright in a cool place.
Austen didn’t just make beer—she wrote about it. You may think of her novels as portraits of a more proper age, but they’re full of drinking, as when hunky Mr. Knightley offers spruce beer brewing tips in the novel Emma or when Elinor drinks wine to heal her broken heart in Sense and Sensibility.
Unfortunately, women were eventually shut out of brewing as the practice moved from the home and into factories. Today, the beer industry—and even homebrewing—is often thought of as being male-dominated. Which would probably make Jane shake her head and grab for a bottle of booze.