Bewitched by beer

For Halloween the History Channel recently released a video discussing the link between female brewsters, the common image of the witch, and how males used this to push women out of the brewing industry. It mentions the black cauldrons used by brewsters, the cats they housed to keep rodents out of the grain, and the brooms and black hats that they used to identify themselves. While this video is a fun little snippet, (for some reason) the 60-second video failed to explain the complex web of social, legal, and economic barriers facing women during this time that ultimately lead to the male-dominated trade that we are familiar with today. For a much more in depth look at this topic, I recommend reading, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World 1300-1600, by Judith M. Bennett, which was a primary resource for this article, being the most extensive book on the topic.

The real alewives of England

In the 21st century we discuss ale versus lager, referencing the kind of yeast used, but in the end it is all just beer. Go back five hundred years and the discussion was about ale versus beer. Ale, also sometimes referred to as gruit, was made from herb and spice blends that helped preserve and flavor the liquid. Beer used hops to the same effect, just far more efficiently and effectively.

In the 1300’s ale was a widespread communal beverage that was made by women, called alewives, often in their own homes. Alewives could be classified by their marital (single, widowed, or married) and occupational status. Some alewives operated infrequently, either when there was excess grain or time to brew, as a way of supplementing their income. By-industrial brewsters regularly used ale brewing to supply a significant amount of their household income while professional alewives brewed full time, with ale providing the primary source of income for the household.

The Black Death in 1348-49 greatly reduced Europe’s population but resulted in better diets and a greater thirst for ale, which was the primary source of safe drinking water during the plague. Before 1350 there were few professional brewers however the push in demand moved ale out of the home, with most people either buying their brew from an aleseller or drinking it publicy in the alehouses. The market was splitting into producers and retailers and these bigger operations required more capital, which favored married women/couples.

In 1370, a record shows there were several dozen ale brewers in Sussex, a third of which were single women and widows. The rise in popularity of beer, which was a male-dominated industry, and the regulatory forces at work began to consolidate the ale industry and by 1470 there were only a handful of ale brewers left, mostly made up of married couples.

Alien Beer

While hops have been known about since ancient times, they did not find themselves being used regularly in beer brewing until about the 11th century, developing first in Germany and mainland Europe. Immigrants from Germany and the Low Countries, collectively referred to as the “Dutch” by the English, escaping the hardships faced on the continent, came across the channel during the fifteenth century. With them came a thirst for beer and they began to establish trade routes, markets, and serving houses for beer. The popularity of beer spread through the main towns and inland with beer being fairly widespread by the 1550’s. Although there were a handful of small towns and areas that resisted beer’s influence until the mid-seventeenth century. In 1651, John Taylor, the Water Poet, described beer as “a saucy intruder into this land,” but by the end of the century beer was accepted throughout the region.

Naturally, London was the epicenter of beer with eight beer breweries being recorded in 1483. A 1574 survey found 34 beer brewers with a little over half of them being either owned or operated by foreign workers. In comparison, the same survey listed London as having 58 ale brewers, with none of them being operated by the Dutch. Unlike ale, brewing was purely a male trade. It can be debated whether mostly males immigrated because only they could find work or if males were only hired because they comprised the majority of immigrants. Regardless, beer brewers exclusively hired males with very few exceptions. When the English began to establish their own beer breweries, there was an adopted hiring bias for males.

Ale was often served as fresh as possible since it quickly soured. Beer could keep longer but also required maturation, this led to the need for larger tanks and storage areas, resulting in a more industrious process. This meant that beer could be exported and traded; unlike ale which was more of a local product and did not travel well. The English military and navy, which required immense amount of drink, preferred beer over ale because of its reliability, further tipping the scales in beer’s favor.

The larger volumes beer brewing produced also made it cheaper than ale, at least initially. As beer became more popular the price difference between the two faded away. Beer was sold direct to the consumer but the larger quantities being produced  also lent itself to wholesale distribution. The added benefits of beer however required larger scale operations that needed more capital and resources to support. The financial requirements of beer greatly favored males and while there are a few records of propertied widows who inherited a beer brewery, or at least the sufficient resources to begin one, beer brewing remained almost exclusively a male industry.

Alcohol in general has been regulated since ancient times. In England during this era there was a well established system of regulation that was operated locally with ale-tasters and jurors providing the day-to-day and general oversight of price setting, quality standards, and measures control. As ale moved out of the home, a licensing system was established that regulated how many (and who) operated establishments in a given area. These were public officers and positions. Government was accessible to men only and resulted in a female-dominated industry being regulated by an all-male authority. As the gender shift took place in the industry, females also found themselves facing harsher fines and punishments than men. The regulatory control helped exasperate all of the problems that the changes in the technology and culture of beer brewing were causing.

A fading industry

Which brings it back to witchcraft. The unstable shelf life of ale resulted in alehouses gaining the reputation as selling spoiled products that were often hid behind spices and adulterants. Over time the social anxiety around ale was more directed towards the debauchery and seedy nature of the alehouse, often operated by poor widows. In religion, the alewives perfectly fit the dialogue about the female’s role in temptation and sin. This also represented the rising social angst around alcohol’s promiscuity and lifestyle that would play itself out over the next few hundred years, ultimately leading to the prohibitionist movement. The accusations towards alewives were not entirely unfounded and there are court records of trials for foul products and disorderly alehouses.

Yes, brewsters had some of the traits that were identified with witchcraft however the evidence is scattered that this iconography began with alewives, and was not just later applied towards them. While the 1500’s saw a growing fear of witchcraft, witch persecutions didn’t really begin until the 1600’s, at which time beer had already driven out most of the ale industry. Although there were several alewives accused of being witches during the 16th century, this was not a significant factor and really this gender shift had been hundreds of years in the making as a result of hops and beer being introduced into England.

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel, October 4, 2017


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