The witch hunt for ‘alewives’ made beer brewing a man’s game

Ale wives usually resembled the image of the classic witch.

In these days in which new hobby brewers start every day trying to make beer and micro breweries pop up like mushrooms after a rainy day in the forest, beer brewing is pretty much a man’s game. As beer in general is considered a masculine drink, Brewing as a hobby can easily compete with building furniture or motorbikes from scratch. Seems completely normal now, but for roughly the first 6500 years of the 7 millenia that beer exists, the brewing was mostly done by women. Until the late Middle Ages to be exact. When the Spanish Inquisition made stirring a steamy pot filled with magical brew just a little too dangerous for women. The so called alewives could easliy be mistaken for witches who worked with the devil. Especially if their tasty brew made the customers behave a bit unchristian.

A woman’s game
For as long as historians can date back making beer was always a task of women. While their husbands were out fighting wars, hunting or working the land, their wives at home made sure there was never a shortage of home brewed beverages to provide a happy household. It’s no wonder that in most mythologies the divine creature who’s in charge of beer brewing is a woman. Just look at the Mesopotamian goddess Ninkasi, who got her own hymn, which is also the oldest recipe for beer. Or Tenenet in ancient Egypt, where a great civilization that was largely built on beer. This tradition of women in brewing lasted for thousands of years and was also a normal thing in Europe until the late Middle Ages. Not only would wives brew beers for their families, there were also women who made a bit more to sell from home or in local taverns. These ladies were called alewives.

Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel meet the witch.

Alewives
Most of these alewives weren’t making and selling beers to get rich. They were simply trying to keep their families alive, as many of them didn’t have a husband with a job to support them. Hold your horses feminists, it simply wasn’t possible for women to become a blacksmith, beltmaker or butcher at the time. So when women would become a widow or never married at all, they had to make money on their own by doing typical women chores like housekeeping and of course beer brewing. As beer was the only drinkable beverage in the Dark Ages, there was never a shortage of demand. So making a good brew meant having a solid income.

The witch image
To attract customers alewives usually wore long high hats, so they could be easily recognized in the crowded streets. Another trick to boost sales was to hang a broom outside the house as a sign that it was open for business. This tradition is still custom in Peru for places that sell the corn brew chicha. Most houses also had a six-pointed star at the door. The six points of the star were said to represent the most important parts of brewing: grain, malt, hops, yeast, water and the brewer.  Now inside the house there was of course a kettle with boiling brew and a cat to keep the mice from eating the precious grain. So there you have it: a woman living alone with her cat, wearing a pointy hat and holding a broom stick, while a mysterious brew inside her house marked with a star got everyone who drank from it under a spell.

Witch hunts
When the Spanish Inquisition started it primarily focussed on fighting judaism in christian Europe. But very soon it started to hit others as well. Everyone who was suspected to be involved with the Devil and his works was brought to trial. And as torture was a legal method to get the truth out many of them confessed just to make the suffering stop. Making someone a suspect was a very effective way to settle old scores or to increase your wealth. And that’s exactly what the Catholic church itself must have thought too. As selling beer was big business in times when the plague raged over Europe, these ladies with their knowledge of bubbling potions and spices had to go. So many alewives were excecuted after being charged for performing devil magic. Many others quit their activities cause they feared for their lives. This way the church gained a monopoly in both beer brewing and medicine. This is the darker side to why some of the best beers in the world nowadays are made by Catholic monks.

Legacy
And so the female brewer largely died in the 16th century as a last symbol of the strong independent woman, who didn’t need any man to support her. However the lady with the pointy hat who knew all about herbs and potions became the classic image of the witch as we know her today. Just imagine how many tales, books, tv-series and films are based on this classic picture of an ale wife. From Grimm’s witch that tried to eat Hansel and Gretel to Snow White’s stepmom to the Wicket Witch from the West, they all probably brew one hell of a beer.

Micky Bumbar

More stories on history and mythology on Lords of the Drinks

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