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Witches and the History of Brewing

Since the earliest evidence historians have of brewing, women have been doing the job. The first documentation of brewing beer or other fermented drink is thought to go back as far as 7,000 BCE, though we may still discover even older information one day. Many cultures have patron goddesses of brewing, like the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi. A song to her found on a 4,000 year old tablet contains the oldest known beer recipe.

In England in the Middle Ages, women, who were traditionally in charge of food preparation like baking, were basically in charge of everyone’s hydration. Not every area had a safe water source, and contaminated water could cause death, so ale was consumed by everyone, including children. Women called brewsters or alewives made this brew which had a fairly low alcohol content, enough to kill contaminants, but light enough to drink throughout the day.

These brewsters had much in common with the image we have in today’s society of a Halloween witch. Coincidence? Possibly not. Historians are tracing the connection between these alewives and propaganda from the Catholic Church depicting them as witches who cheat and charm their customers’ drinks. They aren’t entirely sure yet as to why this was done, though it is likely related to an increase in demand for ale, and the Church’s desire to control the money and the women doing the brewing. As demand for ale and beer grew, it began to be regulated as a larger business, one that women were kept out of by law. Women couldn’t join guilds, and these guilds had a monopoly on business, so those brewing outside of guild control may have been demonized to stop them from doing business. Historians are still researching the details, but check out some of the most common witches’ accessories and their corresponding uses in brewing. Your witchy Halloween costume may just be a brewster’s uniform!

BLACK HATS

Giving new (old?) meaning to the term “marketing”, brewsters wore tall, pointy hats while selling their beer on market days. This way, customers could spot them in a crowded market.

HERBS, POTIONS AND SPELLS

Early brewers had a deep understanding of herbs and spices, and could use them to transform unsanitary water into a low alcohol brew that could be safely consumed throughout the day. They could use them to change the flavor or tailor the brew with particular health benefits.

BLACK CATS

Beer brewing then as now requires a lot of grain, so a brewster’s best friend was a fierce pet cat to keep rodents away from the supply. Today you can still find many breweries that have cats with pest control jobs (check out @bonesanddomino, the Calusa Brewing cats, on IG).

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CAULDRONS

Nowadays brewer’s have a fancier setup, but during the Middle Ages in England, there was nothing better than a huge metal cauldron to boil your wort for your brew.

BROOMSTICKS

If there’s one accessory witches always have, it’s a broom. Alewives need their broom as well, although it’s not for flying around. A broom also known as an alestake hung over your door indicated that a fresh batch of ale was ready for sale.