The beer used by breastfeeding mothers historically to increase milk supply is different from the beer we drink today, though some modern beers are similar.
The ancient civilizations of Sumer and Egypt discovered the secrets of malting and brewing over three thousand years ago, using the barley grain. Barley is thought to be the first grain ever cultivated by humans, about 10,000 BCE. It contains a certain polysaccharide that increases the milk-production hormone prolactin, and barley is used around the world in many different forms as a milk-supply boosting galactagogue.
According to pictorial hieroglyphs, women and slaves were involved in the labor of large scale beer production in Egypt. Later, in Greek and Roman times, barley was just one of many ingredients that might be freely combined in a variety of alcoholic recipes. When these ingredients included lactogenic herbs and fruit, the effect was doubtless noticed by breastfeeding women. The Greek doctor Dioscorides (1st century C.E.) gives us an alcoholic beverage to increase milk supply. It was made using dried black figs, freshly pressed grapes, fennel and thyme–all of which are known lactogenic ingredients. The Greek surgeon Antyllus (2nd century CE), mentions a fermented grain beverage that was combined with the crushed unripe seeds of the sesame plant and crushed palm dates–another potential galactagogue. In all likelihood, these were just two of many beverages that were enjoyed by breastfeeding women across the ancient world.
Moving on to Europe
During the Dark Ages, when the skills and knowledge of the ancient world were largely forgotten (suppressed), the art of brewing was kept alive in monasteries across Europe. Eventually, however, with the growth of farmsteads, brewing techniques again passed into the hands of women as domestic work. Each thriving family farm brewed its own beer, and the term “Brewster” referred to a woman who brews in her home.
Brewsters used barley and other grains with a range of herbs added in for their taste and medicinal properties. The preferred herbs had a bitter taste to balance the sweetness of the grain, were antiseptic to keep the drink free of pathogens, and were anti-parasitic (for instance, they killed intestinal worms). Lactogenic herbs such as pepper, cinnamon, coriander, caraway and anise were also used in brewing. They might have been added in when the Brewster was breastfeeding. Mind-altering, narcotic and sexualizing herbs might also be used in brewing. Such drinks were later ascribed to the practice of witchcraft and were forbidden.
Hops flowers, a bitter, relaxing and slightly narcotic herb, and an herb which reduces sexual drive and potency, eventually became standard for brewing. Hops is an estrogenic galactagogue with a strong reputation for the milk-ejection reflex. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), an influential nun, author, herbalist, songwriter and philosopher of her day, is said to have strongly advocated for hops as the standard herb used in beer. My guess is that Hildegard knew what she was doing for mothers. Thank you, Hilde!
For several centuries, brewing remained domestic work. It eventually became a source of family income, with beer sold through local pubs or directly from the farm. As economies began to evolve, however, the upper classes passed laws that successfully suppressed these small family businesses. Brewing recipes were strictly regulated, and fees and fines imposed. Brewing became impractical for small domestic breweries and pub houses, so the way was free for large industrial breweries that have prospered to the present day.
The predatory nature of industry, and the collusion of industry with the wealthy class and government is illustrated in this example with beer. Small breweries today are attempting to break free from the stranglehold of big industry. If you enjoy beer, I urge you to support them!
Guinness, one of the big breweries, specializes in stout that is made with barley malt and barley grain. The added grain makes the stout “silkier” and “thicker” due to beta-glucan, the polysaccharide (long-chained sugar molecule) in barley that increases prolactin. It makes sense that Guinness would be the commercial beer most frequently recommended today by breastfeeding mothers, as it is one of the very few to still contain beta-glucan. (See my article Malt as a Galactagogue for more information on beta-glucan in brewing.)
Beginning in the early 1500s, German law limited the ingredients to be used in beer to barley, hops, yeast, and water. Reasons for this went beyond taste preferences. By prohibiting the use of wheat, more wheat was available to bake bread. But limiting the ingredients also forced various other types of beer into obscurity. It effectively got rid of competition as the law formed a protective barrier to the importation of foreign beer. These restrictions would come to influence the international production of beer, as brewers in neighboring countries conformed to the restrictions of the large German market so that they could compete there.
Today, almost all major brewers incorporate “extra” ingredients such as corn, rice, wheat or oats into their brews. Luckily for breastfeeding mothers, the “pure” ingredients defined by German-type beer, barley, malt, hops and yeast, are intensely lactogenic. This is why classical European beer is recognized by breastfeeding mothers as the best beer-type galactagogue.
Once upon a Beer
Alcohol is anti-galactagogue. Studies on animals and humans show that alcohol impairs the milk ejection reflex, slows the flow of milk, and leads to a reduced intake of milk by the baby during approximately four hours after drinking. Because of the back-up of milk, the breast feels fuller. Because the flow of the milk is slower, it requires more time for a baby to remove milk from the breast. Because the breast feels fuller and the baby drinks longer, researchers say the mother believes that her baby is drinking more milk.
However, in traditional beer, particularly the “small beer” and “second brew” (see next section), lower levels of alcohol are present in the beer. In this case, the lactogenic ingredients used in brewing may prevail over the effect of the alcohol. Other factors that can override the anti-galactagogue effect would be whether the mother drinks the beer on an empty stomach, and how soon after drinking she breastfeeds again. It is likely that if several hours pass between drinking and nursing, the effects of the alcohol will have worn off, and the effects of the lactogenic ingredients will still be potent.
This seems to be the case, according to reports by exclusively pumping mothers. Pumping mothers will not be fooled by how their breasts feel or how long their baby drinks. They report that by drinking one glass of beer in the evening (beer rich in barley or hops, such as Guinness Dark Stout or non-alcoholic, malty St. Pauli Girl), they pump measurably more milk the next day. Some also say that they have more and stronger let-downs at the pump that same evening.
Small Beer – Big Effect
Historically, the beer used by mothers to increase their supply was nutritionally rich and low in alcohol. In home brewing, the so-called “mashing” (or boiling of malt, grains and herbs) was performed twice with the same grains and herbs. Whereas the first mashing returns a strong alcoholic beer, the second mashing returns a low-alcoholic beverage called “small beer” that was loosely filtered—a thin, porridge-like fluid that could practically be eaten!
Up until 150 years ago, “small beer” was viewed as a healthy, nutritious beverage that could be given to children, servants, to men performing hard labor, and to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. In Germany, the second mash was called “Nährbier,” meaning, literally, “nutritional beer.” Into the mid-20th century, Nährbier was produced in Germany commercially and recommended to breastfeeding mothers as nutrition and to enhance their milk production.
This then is the typical historic beer used by breastfeeding mothers: stronger in nutrition, weaker in alcohol. It is quite a different brew from any commercial beer today.
It is important to keep this in mind. Our typical, light-colored alcoholic beers do not contain enough lactogenic ingredients to counteract the anti-galactagogue effects of alcohol. These beers can lead to a decrease in supply! Non-alcoholic beer, however, especially if rich in barley or hops, can be a good galactagogue.
Our Grandmothers were Right!
Clearly, our foremothers knew what was happening in their bodies. They would use either a classic stout-type beer, rich in beta-glucan, to support their milk supply, or they would drink “small beer.”
The British OBGYN, Charles Routh, writes about beer in his book Infant Feeding and Its Influence on Life (1869). He writes that too much beer and not enough food will reduce supply and risk alcoholism. For these mothers, he suggests one oz of beer taken together with one oz cream (delicious!) every few hours–I believe he was weaning these mothers off of their beer habit. He also recommends certain stouts/ales used by successful wet-nurses.
During the 19th century, “temperance movements” formed in many countries around the world to discourage the use of alcohol. In response, beer industries produced non-alcoholic beer-like beverages using hops, yeast and malt. In the US, malt beer was called Near-Beer; in Germany, Malz-Bier, and in France, bière de nourrice, or “wet-nurse beer.” All were recommended as nourishing beverages for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and were reported to support milk supply.
Malt is derived from barley grain, and both as gooey malt syrup and as a powder is a widely used historic galactagogue.
Today, many new brands of malt-beer are available commercially. The best known is Guinness Malta. Malt beers are very popular in South America, Africa and Israel. Many mothers swear that Malta helps support their supply.
For more information about malt-beer and malt as a galactagogue, about how malt has changed and how this change may affect the lactogenicity of beer, see my article Malt as a Galactagogue – A Brief Overview.