Food & Drink

Meet the ‘Witches’ Who Pioneered Brewing Beer

KOLDERAL/MOMENT VIA GETTY IMAGES, ILLUSTRATION: ALLIE PAKROSNIS/THRILLIST

Beer is one of the most powerful elixirs around so it should come as no surprise that its origins are mysterious -- and involve a little “magic.” Some of the earliest brewers of the stuff have ties to witchcraft, and spooky symbols like tall pointed hats, cauldrons, broomsticks, and black cats actually have more in common with the brewing world than the underworld. It being Halloween, we partnered with Sierra Nevada’s Hazy Little Thing IPA to tell the whole story, both simplified (and silly) in the video below and the more complex version that follows.

Brewing beer as a household chore (and a lucrative one)

Historically, brewing ale was just another item on the long list of household duties women were responsible for; a tradition that goes all the way back to the Vikings. Fermented drinks like ale, mead, and wine, were typically safer to drink than water at the time, so stocking the stores with the stuff was essential. During Viking times, only women were allowed to keep and pass down these recipes, so female brewers took on something of a mystical allure. In fact, those who mastered brewing were usually known as shamans or priestesses, and they would sometimes tell fortunes -- especially when they had a little too much of their own supply.

Fast forward to medieval Europe, where those female brewers became known as brewsters or alewives. These women found they could make a little extra cash if they took their extra product to local markets. Doing this was pretty popular, too, as noted in the book Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600. The author explains that in English villages like Brigstock and Yorkshire, nearly one-third of the female population brewed beer. “In short, almost every other household in the countryside brewed beer for profit,” she writes.


The alewife uniform looks eerily familiar…

With so many people offering relatively similar products at small-town markets, alewives and brewsters had to get creative to stand out. This is when certain “witchy” elements start to make their appearance. First, there’s the large, pointed hats worn to catch people’s eye and let them know you had a little extra homebrew. (One popular image of a historic alewife shows such a hat.)

It wasn’t just hats, though: the large vats used for brewing were called cauldrons at the time. Broomsticks, AKA “ale stakes” were usually stuck in the ground outside homes that had extra beer for sale, too. Some would also hang six-pointed stars, which were said to represent the key components of brewing. And, of course, keeping a cat around to deter mice from getting into your grain stores was incredibly common.

These symbols weren’t just in Europe, either: In Peru, female brewers would attach red, dried bouquets to broomstick handles to signal they had beer for sale.


Hops makes the situation murkier

So, if all these symbols actually came from female brewers, why are they associated with cackling witches today? To get to that answer, you first have to look at what these female brewers were, well, brewing. Technically, they were making ale with just three simple ingredients: water, malt, and yeast. That yielded a sweeter, more sessionable, and slightly unstable brew. By the early 1500s, brewers in one tiny English town added a key ingredient: hops. This addition makes the ale into beer, and it’s similar to what we know today: more bitter, higher alcohol content -- and thus, it stays fresher, longer. Hops was pricier than other ingredients, and harder to come by, so beer quickly became a more commercial product, and one dominated by men, rather than women.
 

Homebrewing gets a poisonous rap -- and it sticks 

As brewing became more commercialized, tighter restrictions were placed on it: who could brew legally, what ingredients needed to be used, even what time of day you could brew. This made it more difficult for alewives and brewsters to compete. What finally did these ladies in, though, was a smear campaign that painted them as evil, poison-peddling witches. First, their products were accused of making people sick (both intentionally and unintentionally). Then, around the same time as the Spanish Inquisition, the same symbols alewives used started to become synonymous with witchcraft. For example, paintings of the Last Judgement in medieval churches often depict ale wives in hell, according to CBC News. Nearly 500 years later, the pointed hats, cauldrons, broomsticks, and cats still have the same reputation. So, when you see a witch this Halloween, pour one out for the female brewers of yore.