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Hocus Pocus, Witches’ Brew

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Broomstick, black cat, cauldron, pointed hat – gather round for a good ol’ Hallowe’en scary story... We’re not talking witches, but alewives, some of the scariest women of the Middle Ages.

Given that women carried out most kitchen chores and used the same key ingredients to bake bread, it’s strange that so many people see beer as a men’s invention. In fact, beer has been traced back around 10,000 years, to its creation (by women) in Ancient Sumer.

References to beer goddesses crop up (pun very much intended) in folklore again and again, combining brewing with the harvest and hearth, with fertility and hospitality. From Ancient Sumerian Ninkasi, whose human priestesses were charged with brewing the ‘peace-bringing’ drink, to Ceres, Roman goddess of barley and mother of Persephone, who gave her name to cerveza, the Spanish word for beer, history is littered with beer-brewing goddesses, priestesses and spirits.

The Christian patron Saint of beer is also a woman – Hildegard von Bingen, a Benedictine nun, who revolutionised brewing in the 11th century with the inclusion of hops.

Alewives could work from their own kitchens, so women could look after their children while working, as well as providing them with something cleaner to drink than the local well water. The profession was so popular amongst women that by the 1400s, as many as a third of women in each village in England brewed and sold beer.

In the medieval era, most of the markers we associate with witches were simply the uniform and accessories of the alewife:

- They would make their brew in vast, cast iron cauldrons; advertising its availability with a broomstick above their doors (a tradition continued today in Peru).

- To sell their wares, alewives would don a henin, now the iconic witches’ hat. A status symbol of the upper class, the tall, conical hat was part of the era’s wider fashions: picture a medieval princess, and chances are, she’s wearing a pointed hat and veil. The henin was popular with most traders, to help the wearer stand out in a crowded marketplace, as an early form of marketing.

- Perhaps lost among the general ‘arcane’ symbols of witchcraft, alewives carried the mark of a six-pointed star to symbolise the key points of quality brewing: hops, grain, malt, yeast, water, and the brewer themselves.

- Finally, the familiar: any profession that stored grain needed pest-control in the form of cats. Most cats look black by night, especially when you’re telling scary stories about your neighbours...

So how did they become witches?

Interestingly, up until the 13th century, the Church denied the existence of witches, a throwback to a less Christian, pagan time. Then suddenly, witches not only existed, but were slaves and consorts of the devil, carrying the marks of brewers and healers – both, until then, predominantly female professions.

Therein lies the problem: like healers, alewives advertised knowledge surpassing that of men, becoming successful businesswomen who could fend for themselves. More than worries around herblore, there are a couple of markers that suggest the issue stemmed from fears of female economic independence. Rather than stopping beer production, or limiting it to the church, the gap left by alewives was quickly filled by male brewers and brewing guilds. On top of that, there are records of English laws passed in the 1500s that banned women between the ages of 14 and 40 from the role, suggesting the problem was with society’s expectations of women, rather than true fear of witches.

Between the church and men’s guilds, women were barred from the profession, and any who continued risked damage to their reputations, or worse. And so the markers of an alewife began to be used to hunt out witches, and by the 18th century, female brewers were unheard of.

These effects have lasted today, as beer continues a male-dominated industry, with the Brewer’s Association finding that in 2014, only 2% of US breweries hired a female brewmaster.

Things are changing, though. The American Brewer’s Association has recently chosen to ban “sexually explicit, lewd, or demeaning” brand names, language and imagery, favoured by many beer brands – a move echoed by the UK’s Society of Independent Brewers.

As more and more marketing spend goes to gender inclusivity and equality, why not start by inviting women back to the beer industry – an industry that they created.

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