Beer 101: She Brews And Sells Ales, That’s All

05-22-2016, The BeerVibe Crew


She Brews

According to some authorities, there were some good and honorable reasons for the things the

brewster wore and that she kept for her standard beer business equipment. To begin with, in a time and

place where few people were literate, a hat, stylish for the times but tall enough to stand out in a crowd

of shoppers in the marketplace, could draw the thirsty customer to the brewster (or ale-wife or beer-

witch). It was tall and pointy, and served to advertise her business of selling ale.


An item closely resembling a broom was an ale-stake, which was a pole with some twigs, straw, and

maybe some greenery tied to one end. The ale-stake was used to stir the cauldron. It was used

repeatedly, and could be handed down from generation to generation. What the brewster was likely

unaware of was that by stirring the pot with her ale-stake she was adding the fermenting agent of yeast

into the wort. Laws were also imposed requiring that the broom or ale-stake be displayed outside of

the door of a house where ale was made and sold. It allowed the customers and legal authorities to

know where the brew business was being practiced.


The cat, although much maligned by those who at the time preached that cats were somehow

connected with the Devil, were useful in keeping the mice and rat population down. They would have

eaten the brewster’s stores of grain and malt. The six-pointed star, resembling the symbol of Judaism,

came to represent the purity of the brewster’s product. The six points in the star represented key

elements required to make a quality brew: water, hops, grain, malt, the fermenting agent (later found to

be yeast), and the skilled brewster herself. The cauldron was the pot in which the ale was made.


It has been well argued that the Medieval picture of the brewster going about her business evolved into

our more modern picture of the hideous evil witch of fairy tales, complete with the broom, the pointy

hat, the boiling cauldron, the star, and the black cat. During the Middle Ages, while women in Europe

were the traditional primary brewers of beer, men were gradually taking over. This was especially true

when monks and nuns in monasteries had the means to bring the art of brewing beer up to an

institutional and industrial level. The discovery and use of hops in beer also brought bad news for the

brewsters, because hops was a preservative as well as a flavoring agent in beer, and now beer could be

stored and profitably exported.


In an age where superstition and traditional explanations of things carried more weight than the

rudimentary science that they had, it was handy to attribute good and bad things to magic. Nobody

understood what caused fermentation; it just happened, and it was magical. So if a batch of bad beer

came up in a monastery, it wasn’t because the brew got infected with bacteria; it could be blamed on a

beer witch pronouncing a curse on the monastery. Witch hunts happened during the late Middle Ages.

Who was going to argue otherwise?


Making accusations of witchcraft were fairly easy, especially when the Spanish Inquisition was heating

up and strong evidence of wrongdoing were not needed to get a conviction. While the Spanish

Inquisition focused its attention on heretics, Muslims, Jews, and demons in Spain, it’s influence was felt

throughout much of Europe and anti-Semitic propaganda spread around Europe, and with the

brewsters’ six pointed star so strongly resembling the symbol of Judaism, it isn’t hard to understand how

they could likewise suffer the wrath of both the Catholic and Protestant reformers in their anti-Jewish

zeal.


Women from earliest times to the Middle Ages were involved with making beer, nursing, midwifery, and

herbal remedies, and they had a traditional wisdom and feminine mystique that men couldn’t or

wouldn’t understand. Wise women from those times were often considered witches. They were

generally regarded as benevolent, but often enough, evil. But now if men wanted a bigger share of the

beer business, persecuting the competition was one way of getting ahead. The women making and

selling ale were increasingly portrayed as being among the dregs of society, and if accused of witchcraft,

could be eliminated. It is estimated that from about 1450 to 1750 around 100,000 people, mostly

women, were accused of witchcraft, and about half of them were executed. Researchers report that,

according to existing records, up to 60% of women condemned for witchcraft identified themselves as

either brewsters, alewives, or midwives.


NEXT: MAYBE THE FAIRY TALE WITCH WASN’T A BREWSTER AFTER ALL.

Coming: The Ultimate Demise of the Brewster.

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