How Women First got Pushed from Kettle to Cauldron

October 30, 2017

By Geoff Parkins, October 30, 2017

Today’s craft beer scene has taken a sizeable and growing chunk of our nation’s brewing capacity out of the hands of huge conglomerates that produce beer in massive factories, and put it into everything from old tobacco barns to hipster-friendly derelict industrial buildings. The people involved are changing, too. Instead of just biochemists and industrial process engineers, today’s brewers are fraternity brothers, backyard barbecuers, and women. Seven years ago, the Pink Boots Society, an advocacy group for women in the craft beer industry, had 60 members. Today, they are over 1000 members strong.

There was another time when beer brewing saw a massive shift in personnel. In fact, it might have been when women were first pushed off the brew kettle. 

In England from about 1200-1400 AD, brewing performed an important societal and nutritional function. People hadn’t really begun to gravitate to cities yet. The island’s population was about three to five million, yet London’s population in 1300 was only about 80,000. Coffee and tea hadn’t yet been introduced to the Western world, fruit juice was prohibitively expensive, and drinking water could kill you if it didn’t come from an unpolluted source. Beer was critical for the population to be able to thrive.

Until that era, it was the women that brewed beer. Brewsters. 

Along with raising chickens for eggs, spinning and weaving, and a host of other crafts, women of that era were the ones who brought cash money into the household. According to Mary Beth Emmerichs, Professor of History (emeritus) of the University of Wisconsin, “Families back then were economic unions, not emotional ones. While the menfolk were in service to the local landowner, it was up to the women to earn the cash necessary for goods and services that couldn’t be produced by the family.”

Some traditions began from this practice.  

First, anybody who sold alcoholic beverages was required by law to display what was called an ale stake above the door. When it wasn’t in use to inoculate a batch of beer with wild yeast, the ale stake was a broom for sweeping up around the house. Also, when brewsters took beer to the market, they needed a way to be visible across the crowd, so they took to wearing a tall hat to make it easy to find beer.

This hat was meant to grab attention and sell beers when it first appeared.

Brewsters also had to have knowledge about the herbs that could be used to preserve beer. Back then, hops weren’t widely cultivated, and wouldn’t be in common use in English breweries for another 200 years. Instead, the brewsters used an herbal mixture called gruit.  

Gruit combines sweet gale, mugwort, ivy, yarrow, horehound, and heather. Brewsters would mix and match the herbs to vary the aroma and flavor of their beers. Gruit also has been said to have aphrodisiac and stimulative properties.

So now we have a nice, happy vignette of pastoral English life in the early 1300s, right? Not so fast.

Like so many good things, it came to an end, and in this case, a really awful end. By 1350, the Black Death had swept across England, having arrived only the year before. In the span of two years, between a third and half of the population got wiped out. In its wake came a wave of superstition and paranoia.

As the population numbers bounced back in the aftermath of the Black Death, demand for beer grew beyond the capacity of the butter-and-egg economy that was successful in the countryside for so many years. With the demand, came the realization that serious money could be made from producing beer on a larger scale. Wrote Theresa A. Vaughan in her piece called The Alewife: Changing images and bad brews: “Brewing was undertaken on a larger scale and was eventually subject to guild protection – guilds in which women could not obtain full membership.”  

Today’s Halloween witch costume is full of brewster symbology.”

The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) as recapped by Jane Peyton for Stylist:

“Soldiers received a daily ration of eight pints of beer. Such demand by the military meant that a secure and reliable supply was required. Women brewing in the home could not provide enough beer. It was time to brew beer on a large scale in factories (breweries). Women did not usually work outside the home, and they were not permitted to own their own property (in marriage it belonged to their husband). They also could not take out bank loans. All this meant that women could not own breweries.”

City women were given the boot from the breweries, and allowed only to serve beer in taverns. For a while, the woman-dominated economy outside the cities continued as before. But once the city demand was met, breweries started competing with each other.  It wasn’t long before enterprising brewers peeked over the city walls and saw opportunity.

So let’s circle back and find the cauldron: Remember what came along in the wake of the Black Death?  Superstition and paranoia. It was all too easy for the brewing guilds in the cities to send agents into the small towns to spread rumors of witchcraft. That whispering campaign is still in effect now.  

Today’s Halloween witch costume is full of brewster symbology: Her ale stake became a broom for flying, and her tall market hat became the tall, pointed cap. The cat she kept for keeping vermin out of the granary became her familiar. Her boil kettle became a more sinister cauldron. Her ability to turn water and barley into effervescent beer became damning evidence that she was in league with the Devil and was using powerful magic to create beer.

Once, the stake meant a friendly pint was waiting.

“Why the fear of women, of brewsters, and why the frequent connection with illicit sexuality?" asked Vaughan. "For Judith Bennett, the answer lies in the twin problems of the need to marginalize women away from a potentially profitable trade and the generic misogyny of the time period, when women of independence would be considered a threat to the social and religious orders. Her study of the economics of brewing makes it abundantly clear that, as profitability rose, women began disappearing from the court cases and the roles of newly-formed brewing guilds.” 

The brewing guilds got the Church on their side, too.

Brewsters were depicted in church artwork as being happy to be carted off to the gates of Hell. Below is a carving in the ceiling from Norwich Cathedral in England. From the description: “[A] naked alewife [a brewster demoted to a serving role] brandishing a tankard rides on the back of a demon as he wheels a naked man, covering his face in shame, in a wheelbarrow, presumably to hell.” 

Detail from Norwich Cathedral

It worked.  

Brewsters that didn’t burn at the stake or get hung, left town. New laws were passed. Wrote Pamela Sambrook in her book Country House Brewing in England, 1500-1900: “In the countryside women were not allowed to become common brewers or to brew beer for public sale in any other sense. Nevertheless, several brewsters found another way to use their skill and make a living by hiring themselves out to different households. They traveled back and forth between a number of country houses as professional private brewers.”

The legacy of the country house brewster is part of today’s craft beer revolution, as it is also part of the Halloween tradition. The wheel has indeed turned a full circle.


Thanks to Remo Remoquillo for the header illustration.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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