A long history ties together Medieval-era alewives and witchcraft. Many of the emblems we now associate with witches started with alewives, historians posit that they wore tall hats to help drum up business on crowded streets, brooms were placed in front of homes or taverns as a symbol of domestic commerce, and even employed cats to chase mice away from the grain needed to make beer.
Today, it’s rare to find a self-proclaimed witch working at a commercial brewery, using magic to make beer. Yet, witchcraft is one of the tools head brewer (and Wiccan) Kathleen Culhane employs at Superior, Wisconsin’s Thirsty Pagan Brewing, which in May opened in a new location, a former train depot.
It starts with the four elements, Culhane says: air, earth, fire, and water, which combine to create spirit, a correspondence to the alchemy of making beer.
“If you think about beer, your grain is earth, your hops are air—because aroma—fire and yeast are equivalent, because they both consume fuel and make something else, and of course, water is water,” Culhane explains. “You combine those four and you get the fifth element, a spirit—which is alcohol! It’s glorious.” In building a beer-worthy magic ceremony, “the ritual wrote itself,” she recalls.
For Culhane, the journey started as a homebrewer. “I have been a homebrewer for about as long as I’ve been a degreed chemist,” says Culhane, who earned a Bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of Iowa in 1995. Since then, she has brewed a grand total of “six or seven hundred batches” to date, she estimates, each logged in a notebook or electronically. Her chemistry-related jobs, “each gave me another piece of the puzzle that I needed [to run a brewery],” she says.
The witch part came later.
“I’ve been a homebrewer for 20-odd years,” she notes. “I’ve only been a practicing pagan for maybe ten, if that.” Raised Catholic, Culhane married and had children before realizing “the gender I was born into just really wasn’t going to work long-term.” What follows is obviously a long and complex story, but the upshot is that Culhane, who identifies as trans, moved to Minnesota with a partner who was a practicing pagan and became part of a community focused on “earth-centered spirituality.” (“When I don’t have a group of pagans to hang out with, I’m a Unitarian,” Culhane adds.)
You’re trying to create this beverage that you are going to share with people. It is a holy and sacred thing to do this.”
In 2015, Culhane founded Sidhe Brewing Company in St. Paul, Minnesota. (“Sidhe” is a reference to Irish folklore, in which little mounds of earth are home to tiny mythical creatures.) While there, Culhane attracted attention for building the brewery with witchcraft in mind, burying crystals in the corners of the taproom—citrine for success, rose quartz for hospitality—and hanging Wiccan emblems. Further, every batch of beer was warded with a Wiccan ritual.
“I had a rolling toolbox with a folding-down lid, and inside the lid, I had a working altar with various sacred objects,” Culhane recalls. Each brew day would start with a ritual, and conclude with a dismissal to “let the powerful beings that I had summoned go back to where they came from.” At Pagan, the altar hasn’t yet been constructed, but Culhane confirms that she intends to do that eventually, continuing her practice.
The point of these rituals, Culhane says, is to “clear your mind in order to create,” a function she likens to meditation. “When you do a ritual, the point is to focus your intent upon what you are doing,” she says. “In this case, you’re trying to create this beverage that you are going to share with people. It is a holy and sacred thing to do this.”
Does witchcraft impact how the beer tastes? It’s subjective, she acknowledges.
“I personally feel my beer tastes better when I’m able to perform a ritual working in creating it,” Culhane says. “There’s no way I can prove my beer is better because it’s magically brewed. I feel that. I think that.” However, she suggests that if someone “who is not at all witchy” enjoys one of her brews, they possibly might sense that someone “put a lot of themselves and their energy into this beer and making it taste good for me. That I think is valid.”
After Sidhe closed in 2017, Culhane ran another St. Paul startup, Culhane Brewing, for about a year before landing at brewpub Thirsty Pagan in 2018, replacing former brewer Allyson Rolph. Culhane relocated to Superior, a small port city at the western end of Lake Superior with a strong beer culture (the annual Gitchee Gumee Brewfest is held here, featuring Hammerschlagen, a German game which involves holding a beer in one hand while hammering nails with the other hand.)
It’s a series of ironies that a pagan ended up working at a brewpub called Thirsty Pagan. That wasn’t originally its name. When it first opened it was 1996, it was called Twin Ports Brewing, named for “twin ports” Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin. When current owner Steve Knauss purchased the brewery in 2006, he selected the Thirsty Pagan name from dozens of employee suggestions, all designed to keep the original TPB initials. He plucked the word pagan, Knauss recalls, because “it was the most edgy.” He never imagined he would have an actual Wiccan in-house.
“Not a single person working here was pagan,” Culhane notes, with a chuckle. “Until they hired me.”
Knauss says that Culhane’s witchy affiliations had nothing to do with bringing her in. “Hiring Kathleen was not so much directed at hiring a person who had a social belief or political belief or whatever,” he states. “It was about hiring someone who was an intelligent human being and could do the job.”
Culhane’s demeanor is a far cry from the somber witch stereotype, quippy and fast-talking, and it’s not a surprise to learn that she dabbles in stand-up comedy. And forget about Halloween-y pointy black hats, too: “I wear brewer drag,” she jokes. “I’ve got my overalls with pockets, my flashlight, my pens, my multi-tool, my hat to keep my hair out of my eyes. That’s my uniform.”
Illustration by Adam Waito