When you close your eyes and think of the word "witch", what comes to mind?
If you're anything like most people, it should typically conjure up an image of a woman in a tall hat either astride a flying broom with a black cat perched on the front or looming over a cauldron and cackling. But unless you are similarly inclined towards weird information, then you probably don't equate beer with that picture.
In fact, most of the common tropes of witches come from the old practice of beer brewing.
Let's take it back several centuries, back to the ancient era of hunters and gatherers. Evidence shows that while the men went out and hunted, the women stayed behind to gather herbs and vegetables. It was also shown that during this time the women also brewed alcoholic beverages for ceremonial purposes. This practice carried through into the Sumerian era, and with it the rise of high priestesses dedicated to the goddess of brewers Ninkasi.
Carrying forward to the Egyptian era, beer brewing was still considered a woman's job. However, it was also during this time that women experienced a new level of freedom that they hadn’t seen in years. This allowed them to sell their beer, up until the creation of large scale brewhouses that systematically replaced the female workers with male workers.
The Vikings - much like the Egyptians - put their women in charge of brewing beer. “Aul”, the early predecessor of ale, was the primary brew for these warrior women brewers. It was also during this time that clean water was hard to come by so women brewers began to brew a low alcohol, nutrient rich beer for their children and families. Through this process, beer brewers began to develop an extensive knowledge of herbs and the natural world and were often sought out for knowledge and wisdom. In fact, a German nun by the name of Saint Hildegaard is credited as being one of the first to recommend the use of hops as a preserving agent to help fight against the rapid spoilage of ales.
Over time, new rules were introduced to regulate the prices of vital beer brewing ingredients such as hops to solidly put it out of the reach of female brewers, or “brewsters” as they were called. Such regulations also prevented women from the ages of 14 to 40 to be able to work in the profession of brewing in order to keep women of childbearing age away from the profession. It was also during this time that many forms of anti-witch propaganda began to crop up, utilizing several visual cues from the brewsters.
You see, during this time brewsters began to wear tall, pointed hats so that they could be seen above the taller crowds of men in the market squares. To signify that a fresh batch of beer was ready, these alewives would post a broom outside their place of business wherein large cauldrons of frothing brew awaited. To help combat the problem of mice breaking in and eating the grain stores, these brewsters would also employ the use of cats to help patrol and mitigate the rodent population. It didn’t take much for this sudden fear of a rising witch population to lead to the persecution of these poor brewsters.
Mother Louise, Alewife of Oxford, England 1600's
It was some time before women were allowed back into the brewing process through most of Europe, eventually coming to America and running into a whole new can of worms there. And there you have it; a very brief history of women in their profession of beer brewing and their connection to witches. There's a lot more to unpack, especially during the middle ages but we'll leave off here for now.