Meet the ‘Witches’ Who Pioneered Brewing Beer
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.
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.)
The alewife uniform looks eerily familiar…
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.