Witches: The Original Brewers

Those who know me know that I am a lover of all things spooky, so writing about my favorite beer theory felt like a no-brainer for October.

I want to be clear that most of this is purely conjecture. I am no historian and plenty of this has been analyzed at lengths by others, so I encourage you to do some research if you’re interested. My purpose here is to share some interesting theories and spread a little knowledge about the history of women in brewing.

In today’s society, there are stereotypes that lead some of the public to believe that beer is only brewed by burly men with beards, but women have been involved with brewing and fermenting for millenia, even before men were. Prior to the 1500s, all food and drink preparation fell on women in the household, which meant they made the meals, cleaned the homes, and… brewed the beer.

Beer wasn’t seen as an optional, indulgent drink like it is today, but instead an important part of a person’s diet. Beer was brewed and drank by entire families for its calories and carbohydrates, not necessarily as a means to catch a buzz. These beers were often low in alcohol content since nutrition was the main focus, and it was meant to be drunk with nearly every meal.

While women took on brewing for their families, it also became a means of adding some income to the household; women sold some of their ales to the public to make some extra money, as other jobs were not readily available to them. Although most modern day breweries house rows of beautiful, stainless steel fermenters settled next to nearly-automated mash tun and kettles, this type of equipment wasn’t available, so instead, women were brewing in large, deep pots over an open fire, AKA: cauldrons!… or at least something similar.

When selling their beer, these women would also wear tall, often pointy hats on the streets or to the markets to help customers find them. If they were selling beer out of their homes, they were known to use a broomstick propped up next to or hung above their front doors to alert potential customers that they had product to sell. Cats were also frequently kept by these women to keep mice and other vermin from the grain, only adding to this very stereotypical imagery.

All of this ringing a bell? The theory is that some of the most iconic imagery of witches could potentially be tied to women brewing and selling their beer. That initially, the way they dressed and the related accessories were not for casting spells or making potions, but instead for brewing beer. Pointy black hat? Easier to find in markets. Brooms? Alerting customers that there was beer to buy. Cats? To keep mice away from the grain. Cauldron? For brewing the beer, of course!

I grew up in New England, just 90 minutes away from historic Danvers, Massachusetts where the Salem Witch Trials took place, and have a mother that loves Halloween and Spooky Season just as much as I do. This means I grew up watching all of the witchy movies you can think of, dressed up as one many-a-times over the years, and probably read the Crucible one too many times. Now as a woman in the brewing industry, knowing that some of these core memories could be related to the first female brewers 4,000 years ago? The coincidence is iconic, even if just to me 😉

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