Back in September I was scrolling through Facebook when I noticed I’d been tagged in a post by a beer writer looking for ‘women who drink beer’. I went to the post with the intention of helping out, but when I saw the questions, and how unwittingly patronising they were, it upset me for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on. ‘Do you drink beer?’ ‘Do you find pubs too masculine?’ ‘Do you avoid certain styles eg bitter?’
I have never felt unwelcome at a bar, or a beer festival, or in a brewery, in my life. But suddenly, and at the hands of a fellow woman beer writer no less, I felt ‘othered’ – picked up and placed firmly outside the arena of brewing, beer, and pubs, as if I didn’t belong there. I felt like my opinions on beer were only of interest as some kind of novelty outlier, and so I got angry, and then I got sarcastic, and then the piece I responded with was retweeted 70 times in one day, making it the most popular blog post I had ever written.
Part of my anger lay in the fact that, far from being newcomers to the brewing industry, women were the original brewers, and held massive sway over the production and sale of beer in the middle ages. Brewing was seen as women’s domain because it was basically cooking. It was also linked to the traditional healing and medicines of which women were the experts, as they would cook up restorative potions as well as beers. The alewives as they were known, wore pointed hats as a form of advertising that they were selling ale. They usually owned a cat to keep the mice and rats out of the ingredients, and would place a broom outside as a symbol that they were taking part in ‘domestic trade’. So, pointy hat, cat, and broom? Ring any bells?
Of course brewing became a very lucrative business, and it involved women holding power as business owners, and early medics. The caused consternation in society, especially with the Christian church who liked women to be kept in their place. What didn’t help was the traditional brewer’s talisman of the six pointed star (the six points represented brewer, hops, yeast, malt, barley, and water). It bore so much resemblance to the Star of David that the Catholic church were able to use good old fashioned antisemitism and moral panic to decry the women as morally corrupt. They also started to link the old pagan traditions such as herbal medicine and healing to evil in the service of the devil. Whilst the brewers were dealing with bigger issues such as not being hung as witches, the men came in and took their trade. Strangely, the few men that brewed, usually monastic monks, were never suspected of being witches. Funny that…
Even when witchcraft was old hat, men tried to keep women from taking back the trade, in the form of the Brewing Guilds. Hops were being used in bigger quantities to keep the ale drinkable for longer, and the women brewers didn’t have the money to cultivate vast quantities of hops. The brewing guilds wrote it into their constitutions that women could not be admitted, and so cut them off from the asset sharing and community support a guild could offer. The guilds donated vast sums of money to the church to keep the message out there that alewives were not to be trusted, and often depicted them as burning in hell in their promotional materials. In 1639 the London Guild of Brewers wrote in their constitution that women were not to be admitted because they were “unfit to brew or sell ale or beer”. And that was that.
So tonight when your doorbell rings and there are lots of little witches on your doorstep, remember we only associate them with evil because they tried to brew beer. I’ll be raising one to Mother Louse and her kind. Brew on sisters!