• Weird History

Women Dominated The Beer Industry For Centuries, Until Men Decided They Were Witches

For thousands of years, the history of beer was dominated by women. Ancient people worshipped female beer goddesses, female brewsters who filled Viking beer halls, and female saints who performed beer miracles. In medieval Europe, alewives made a living selling beer from their homes - until men decided they were witches. In the 16th century, men grew suspicious of female brewers, who had their own income source. One community banned young women from selling beer. In others, the tools of female brewers became the symbols of witchcraft.

Female brewers spent hours stirring bubbling cauldrons, often sporting tall, pointy hats. They kept cats around to protect their grains from mice and signaled customers that a fresh batch of beer was ready by posting a broomstick outside the alehouse. Men who saw alewives as temptresses, swindlers, and deceivers could easily imagine a witches brew boiling in their cauldrons. Churches painted with images of alewives in hell with demons cemented the association between female brewers and demonic magic.

Beer brewing was traditionally female throughout beer history. But the association between beer brewing and witchcraft helped drive women out of the industry for centuries.

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  • Photo: Smithfield Decretals / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In Medieval Europe, Women Brewed And Sold Beer

    Women dominated brewing in medieval Europe. Feeding the family was considered "women's work," and beer was a central part of the peasant diet, so nearly every medieval woman knew how to brew beer.

    They created a fermented ale from grains with a low alcohol content, which their families drank daily. Most medieval families downed multiple gallons of beer each week, so women sometimes sold extra beer to neighbors who didn't have the time to make their own. Women sometimes even invited people into their homes, which served as an informal tavern, to drink beer.

    In England, women who brewed and sold beer were known as alewives. In the 14th century, women like Denise Marlere ran brewing businesses from their homes. When Denise passed, instead of leaving her brewing business to her husband, she left it to another woman: her servant, Rose.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Black Death Changed Women's Place In The Brewing Business

    In the 14th century, the Black Death claimed the lives of millions of people. The devastating epidemic also increased ale consumption in Europe. With fewer mouths to feed and more disposable income, plague survivors ate better diets and drank more beer.

    The increased demand for ale began to slowly push women out of the business. Historian Judith Bennett reports that men gradually took over the business, pushing out single and unmarried women. By 1500, most female brewers were married, but their husbands often took credit for the business.

  • Photo: Moncure Daniel Conway / Flickr / No Known Copyright Restrictions

    The Medieval Church Targeted Female Brewers

    Female brewers also faced opposition from the Catholic Church, which depicted them as temptresses. Because they sold beer to men, alewives were smeared for tricking men into spending their money to get drunk. According to the Church, alehouses were dens of sin that seduced men into gluttony and lust. 

    Throughout the medieval period, images depicted alewives in hell being antagonized by demons. Historian Bennett explains, "Enacted in plays, drawn on the walls of parish churches, and carved into wood, it was a fate that medieval people imagined with resentful glee."

    The link between alewives and demons reappeared in later depictions of witches.

  • Photo: Jacob Truchsess von der Scheer zu Waldsee / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    During The Witch Trials, Female Brewers And Alewives Faced Gender-Based Aggression

    The witch trials were fueled by negative stereotypes about women. Female brewers faced the same misogynistics attitudes. Many were called swindlers, suspected of watering down beer. "For medieval people, it was easy to link these deceptions with women," explains historian Bennett. "Were not women, as daughters of Eve, naturally more deceptive and wicked than men? By such logic, any alewife, no matter how friendly and open, was suspected of being a secret swindler."

    Brewers shared several other characteristics with witches: They understood herbs and plants; they brewed up drinks in cauldrons; and they had the ability to harm men. It wasn't a stretch for 16th- and 17th-century Europeans to see female brewers as witches.