Our friend Jane Peyton from the School of Booze came to visit us to talk about a beer competition (more of which later) and while she was here she pointed out to us the remarkable similarities between Brewsters and Witches. There really does seem to be quite a plausible link. We have lifted out the main points from a piece that she has recently written where Jane puts together facts of the time in medieval England and how Brewsters could quite easily be classed as Witches. Would Sara have been classified as a Witch in medieval times?
Until circa 1600 the majority of brewers in England were women. Brewing was low status, low paid work largely performed primarily by women in the home as part of their household duties. At the time Ale was a staple of the diet providing valuable nutrition, a safe source of drinking water, and fun! Surplus ale was sold by middle-women called ale-wives, hucksters, or tipplers.
So how are the classic witch motifs connected with female brewers?
Cats, malted cereal is an essential ingredient in brewing. Cats keep hungry vermin at bay and prevent mice and rats from eating the malts.
The Broom, an everyday household implement that also resembles an ale-stake. An ale-stake was a pole to which twigs or greenery were attached at one end. By law, purveyors of ale had to display an ale-stake above their door as a sign to customers, and the authorities that ale was sold at those premises.
The bubbling cauldron, ale is made by mashing water and malt together then boiling the resultant wort. Before electricity was used for heat, cooking was done over a fire in a metal container. When the wort cooled, the yeast went to work creating a bubbling froth as it fermented sugars in the brew. In the medieval period people did not understand what yeast was. To them something supernatural happened as water and cereal was transformed into alcohol. In other words, it was magic.
So Why Were Women Edged Out of Brewing?
In medieval England there was a revolution in brewing when hops were introduced from Europe. Hops give aroma, flavour, bitterness, and are a natural preservative. In the medieval period ale contained no hops, but beer did. Ale went sour very quickly but the hops in beer gave it a longer shelf life which meant brewing became a lucrative trade as beer could be transported to new markets without losing its quality as quickly as ale did.
With increased profits men started to enter the brewing profession. Trade guilds were formed as England became progressively urbanized. Society needed a regular source of ale and beer and so the authorities restricted its production to a small group of reliable brewers who were members of the brewing guild. Women were not permitted to join guilds and were edged out of brewing. Rumours were often spread about the local Brewster – questioning the quality of her ale; suggesting that she cheated customers; that she was dirty; or that she kept a disorderly ale-house. Witch hunting in Medieval England was rife so it was simple to ostracise a woman from society by accusing her of witchcraft. Brewsters were likely to be strong intelligent business women who would have a mind of their own. How easy would it be to accuse a female brewer of being a witch and conveniently remove the local brewing rival? Does this explain the connection between the brewer’s tools of trade and the popular image of a witch?
If you have any more thoughts or information please do add them on in the comments.