Witches Wear Britches in Brewing

WORDS: Krista Hall, Certified Cicerone PHOTOGRAPHY Supplied - Krista Hall, Certified Cicerone

Beer is the third-most-popular drink around the world, behind coffee and tea and has been around for as long as witches for a reason.

MIXING potions in cauldrons, pointy hats, cats and broomsticks. Oh my! I always think of one of my favourite movies, Hocus Pocus, when I think of witches. But while its stars Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker didn’t mix up a brew or have a swig of beer in any scenes I can recall, there is a reason for this reference and a reason I am talking about witches in a beer article.

Beer is the third most-popular drink around the world, behind coffee and tea and has been around for as long as witches for a reason. Women brewed beer and were called alewives, but over time were termed witches.

You see, beer was a drink that was safer to drink than water at times, a nutrient-dense beverage that was full of carbohydrates and proteins in times of famine. It was also very cheap to make, so it didn’t matter whether you had much money, you could brew a beer.  Men would do the manual labour or hunting and foraging and women stayed home to raise a family and perform household chores, which for many consisted of brewing beer.

Women used to brew beer and transport it in big cauldrons up until the 1500s as a way to make an income or to get some nutrients into the family. The tall, pointy hats were actually worn as a bit of a marketing tool so people could spot the brewers among a crowd at a market. The ‘black cat’ or cat that is also associated with witches was to scare off mice from eating the grains, which is essential when brewing a beer. Brooms were also used but not for flying. They would put broomsticks outside their alehouses as a marketing tool, so people knew that beer was sold there if there was a broom out front.

Fast forward a few years and men saw an opportunity for the brewing market. They needed to get on top of the female industry and started spreading rumours that the women were brewing potions and poisons rather than beer, hence the term ‘beer witches’.  Unfortunately, these rumours took hold, and the males took over, dominating the market.  From then, women were too scared to brew again, too scared to be accused of brewing potions and termed a witch and burned at the stake.

It’s crazy to think about something we associate with Halloween, dress-up parties, books and stories stemming from women brewing beer. Religion and gender inequalities got in the way and took over the trade, and like many industries in history, turned it into a male-dominated industry which is pretty well still the case today.  Stats are still showing that beer is a male’s preference for alcoholic drink selection, but some studies have shown that women are a growing market and popularity is growing among females to choose beer as their go-to drink choice.  We are also seeing equality in the beer industry with many female brewers hitting the brew deck, which is exciting. Two Birds Brewing, established in 2011, was one of the first female-owned and operated breweries in Australia. With so many beer styles to choose from, it’s a lot easier to find a brew for everyone now.

The story of alewives is still up for debate as to whether it was really the alewives who inspired the witches we know today.  Either way, I feel like there is some association between beer and witches in some of the stories I have read.