Witches Brew: How Women Shaped Beer History

Imagine the discovery of beer and the brave soul who dared put this foamy libation to their lips for the first time. It certainly would have seemed a kind of witchcraft. But in today's world of male-dominated brewing, it might come as a shock to learn that traditionally, brewers were women. In fact, it was women's role in brewing history that has shaped many of the tropes around the modern concept of the 'witch.' In honor of Halloween and Dia de los Muertos week, CCA explores the rich history of female brewers and the folkloric superstition that labeled these women as 'witches' in the first place.

 Witches enjoying their brew. Photo courtesy of BrewHoppin.

Witches enjoying their brew. Photo courtesy of BrewHoppin.

Beer is one of the oldest beverages on the planet. It's thought that the Babylonians and Sumerians started making beer as far back as 10000 years ago, and even then brewing was in the realm of women. Given the gendered division of labor for most of history, it makes sense: women were responsible for household chores and beer was another staple of the cellar. As biomolecular archaeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern points out, "While men were out hunting, women were out gathering the ingredients they needed to make other food and drink to go with the wooly mammoth or mastodon."

 Ancient Sumerian goddess of beer, Ninkasi. Photo courtesy of Froth N Hops.

Ancient Sumerian goddess of beer, Ninkasi. Photo courtesy of Froth N Hops.

Before we uncovered the science behind fermentation, beer (like wine) held a mythical status  throughout civilizations. In Baltic and Slavic mythology the beer goddess  was revered. The Finnish credited their goddess Kalevatar for bringing this divine drink to man, and the Vikings (as tough as they may have seemed) allowed only women to brew the "aul" that fueled their conquests. Sumerian women even doubled as priestesses, fermenting beer for religious ceremonies that honored their goddess Ninkasi, who they believed gave beer to humans in order to bring peace and well being to society.

For thousands of years, these female brewed ales were worlds apart from the hopped versions we're familiar with today. Typically low in alcohol, they often didn't include a bitter agent but perhaps some herbs or in the case of medieval Europe, a mix of bitter herbs called gruit. A blend of mugwort, yarrow, horehound, heather, and other herbs, gruit helped stabilize beer with its antiseptic and antibacterial properties.  Later on, it was also a woman, Hildegard von Bingen (Benedictine nun, herbalist and mystic considered a patron saint of beer to this day), who introduced hops and revolutionized brewing in the 11th century.

 Beer pioneer Hildegard von Bingen, considered a Patron Saint of Beer. Photo courtesy of 

Beer pioneer Hildegard von Bingen, considered a Patron Saint of Beer. Photo courtesy of 

As the cooks and healers of their communities, these women had an extensive knowledge of plants - which were good for curing ailments, cooking, and for the 'darker arts' we associate with witchcraft. Brewing had taken a strong hold in Western Europe by the 2nd century, primarily in monasteries, and so too had the Christian church. But it was not until the 14th or 15th century that brewing moved out of the home or abbey to become a commercial and artisanal activity. Barred from owning their own property or starting their own businesses, women found themselves gradually shoved out of the brewing tradition.

 Anti-witchcraft propaganda conflation female 'brewsters with witches. Photo courtesy of Stylist.

Anti-witchcraft propaganda conflation female 'brewsters with witches. Photo courtesy of Stylist.

Those women who still brewed and sold their ales did so by traditional means: with a large cauldron of boiling wort outside their home, a broom stick over the door to mark themselves open for business, cats to chase away mice that would otherwise eat their grain, and tall pointed hats to distinguish themselves at the marketplace. Simultaneously, witch trials began springing up throughout Europe and anti-witch propaganda tapped into these 'brewster' symbols to vilify independent women. Whether these hunts arose from fear of this economic independence, or their botanical knowledge at a time when chemistry was poorly understood and mistrusted, it is difficult to say. But after this literal witch hunt, female brewers in Europe were a thing of the past by 1700.

In 2014, a Stanford study showed that out of the plethora of microbreweries that have opened over the past decade, only 4% have female head brewers and yet women account for 32% of all craft beer consumption. Thankfully, with women like DeVonne Buckingham of Drake's Brewing Company and Julia Astrid Davis of Lagunitas, the tides are starting to turn. 

Over time, the symbols of the medieval 'brewster witch' transformed into what is, today our modern witch costume. While the witch trials persecuted many of these innocent women, it is exciting to see that women are coming back into the world of beer and as Gastropod describes in their fantastic podcast, 'Everything Old is Brew Again,' more of these traditional rustic styles are resurfacing.

So this Halloween, let's raise a pint to the women and 'witches' that revolutionized beer!


All the Swirl is a collection of thoughts and opinions assembled by the staff and industry friends of Charles Communications Associates, a marketing communications firm with its headquarters in San Francisco, California. We invite you to explore more about our company and clients by visiting www.charlescomm.com.