Women used to dominate the beer industry, so they were burned at the stake

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2021/03/10/women-used-to-dominate-the-beer-industry-so-they-were-burned-at-the-stake.html


Two sort of random comments:

  • Martin Luther’s wife, Katharina von Bora, became a very successful brewer after she left the monastic life for Luther.
  • A good study of witchcraft trials in Germany showed that the miller’s wife often got accused, generally by other women in the community. So I suspect it was any form of envy/competition. The book I read on this is The Last Witch of Langenberg. It’s interesting!

Wow, my research and publishing as a historian has some public relevance!

Sorry to say, this is pretty much untrue. The short answer is that hops and profitability led men to drive women out of brewing. The introduction of hops as a bittering agent in the 1400s was the more immediate cause. I have a fairly long lecture about the role of women in brewing, and the changes in the status of brewsters, and the change in the industry. In fact I think the transformation from ale production to beer production is one of the more fun ways to look at the changing status of women in the 1400s to the 1600s in Europe (the other being rape laws). I’ve also published some short pieces that describe this. Before the 1400s, in Europe, ale-producers (virtually all women) used various herbs and plants to offset the sweet barley flavor when they brewed ale. It was done out of the home, by women, seasonally to go along with the grain harvest, and the ale was consumed pretty quickly because fermented ale didn’t keep more than a few days. Hops are a bittering agent, act as a preservative, and allow for consistency in flavor. The preservative nature also allows beer to be transported over long distances. But it also requires a second brewing vessel capable of handling boiling temperatures, making it more expensive to produce. Most households couldn’t afford that. Commercial breweries could. So, hops transformed it from a household item that women could sell to make extra money to a commercial commodity. At that point men began to form brewing guilds and influence beer-production laws. The first indications that we have of the power of the brewing guilds—and therefore the rise of large-scale commercial brewing—comes in the form of laws passed in the 1400 and 1500s. For example, English towns passed several laws that made it illegal to brew beer unless the person brewed year-round, or brewed in certain quantities. Also, the English government encouraged large-scale brewing through tax incentives that ended up separating the production of beer from its sale—after the early 1500s, fewer and fewer alehouses (usually run by women) made their own beer—it became cheaper to buy it. By way of and example of the transformation, in London in 1464 all 21 licensed brewers and ale-sellers were female. By 1500 only one of the 15 licensed brewers and ale-sellers was a woman.

Now, there were “beer witches” and that is a tangential part of the story. But the more accurate, and very very short, answer is that hops made it commercially viable, and so men took over.


That is very cool work! You wouldn’t be able to put up any links or citations, would you?


So . . . I feel like I’ve probably compromised my anonymity already, so let me paste some links to “not-me” publications that I think get it right, and don’t get too deep into the weeds.

  • Meacham, Sarah Hand. Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009
  • Burton, Kristen D. “The Cities Calls for Beere: The Introduction of Hops and the Foundation of Industrial Brewing in Early Modern London.” Brewery History 150 (2013): 11
  • Bennett, Judith. Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 . New York: Oxford University Press, 1996
  • Unger, Richard W. Beer in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004
  • Hornsey, Ian S. A History of Beer and Brewing . Cambridge: The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003

The article in question ends:

“Editor’s note: This article has been updated to acknowledge that it isn’t definitively known whether alewives inspired some of the popular iconography associated with witches today.”



Ha! That seems to have been added after the first time I saw it. Parsing that, it really says “Everything you just read is BS.”


But academically rigorous BS.


Is there nothing Women can do that will not equate to an act of violence? A quick look at history and the apparent answer is a resounding NO…


Note that the surname Brewster specifically refers to an ancestor who was a female brewer. The -ster ending for a woman who did something has mostly disappeared in English (the only survival I think is spinster), but it’s still in common usage in Dutch- including in English loanwords, so while a men’s football or hockey team has a keeper, a women’s team has a keepster.

(Other male/female occupation-related surname pairs are Baker and Baxter, and Webber/Weaver and Webster.)


Also power grabs and theft. Look at what’s been done to giving birth, FFS. Midwives have been under attack for centuries. At the current rate of legislation and licensing, that profession might not survive in the US, except in very small communities. :angry:


With the great wisdom & guidance, my former partner & mother of my Son, we delivered at home, midwife graciously allowed me to be the front-line catcher of the newborn. There is no way to properly narrate how that home birth experience changed me as a Man/Father. Not for everybody, but it was for everything to me.

Thanks @PsiPhiGrrrl for mentioning what should be honored by all that walk the Earth, Midwives are in a league of their own.


How would adding hops instead of herbs require a secondary vessel and make it so much more expensive? The volume of herbs is generally greater than hops, so it isn’t a volume issue. And you always (using traditional methods) needed a secondary vessel (lauter tun) for mashing in. Or are you referring to needing to boil hops? Many traditional farmhouses boiled the hops in a small pan to make a hop tea (click for more instances) before adding it back into the primary vessel. There is also plenty of evidence that a wood barrel with rocks baked in a fire, then added to the barrel was used to boil the wort, which is another strike against the theory that the more expensive metal cauldrons/kettles were a requirement.

While I’m sure the commercial success of women, male led guilds & church taxation all leading to large scale breweries were all contributing factors, I don’t see what caused the tipping point to make beer-brewing a “woman’s” kitchen job into a male dominated industry, without the Inquisition outright slaughtering the competition to begin with.


Beer I bring thee, tree of battle,
Mingled of strength and mighty fame;
Charms it holds and healing signs,
Spells full good, and gladness-runes.

Hi. Good question. I was trying to be concise, and left out some information. But since you asked . . .

The short answer is that using hops requires a second boiling tank–and one that can handle high heat–that isn’t necessary for making unhopped ale.

Short-long answer . . . brewing beer requires heating grains to around 150-170 degF and letting them soak for a while. That extracts sugars, and strong wooden or even a fired-clay vessel can be used for this. But then the resulting liquid is much too sweet for the human palate. The cure for that is to put other things into the liquid to offset the sweetness. In ancient Egypt they used various fruits. In Europe the mixture was called “gruit,” which was a mixture of all sorts of herbs, roots, and other plants. Many other things were used to flavor beer, and some of the herbs used were downright poisonous, others induced hallucinations. The hallucinogen alkaloid, for example, is produced from henbane during the brewing process. [There’s a lot of evidence that the hallucinogens were intentional–surviving recipes for “wedding beer” for example, often contained hallucinogenic ingredients.] The hallucinations could well be the reason that superstition played an important role around the brewing kettle. Because things often went wrong with the beer brewing which nobody could explain with the body of beer brewing knowledge available in early times, the guilty parties were often sought in the mystical realm (hence, “beer witches”).

Prior to the introduction of hops, all the raw materials—grains and gruit—were placed into a single vessel, which was brought to the correct temperature. The beer was then cooled by pouring it into a cooling tray, which was usually a hollowed-out tree trunk. The result was a drink that frequently had grain residue in it.

Hops contain alpha acids that are release when the flower is boiled, and that process takes about 45 minutes to an hour. Boiling grains releases tannic acid, which has a nasty flavor. So brewing with hops means that you do the original process (soak the grains) in one vessel, and then completely strain out the grain into another, second vessel that can handle an hour of full boil. That second boiling vessel would have to be copper, since boiling in iron also releases bad flavors. Copper vessels were expensive, and as the industry grew in the 1400s and 1500s, larger and larger vessels were necessary in order to be competitive. And, as that time wore on, England became deforested, and so coal was necessary to run the hot fires, and most households couldn’t afford that much coal.

ETA: Farmhouse ales a re a bit different because the yeast adds so much “sour” to the flavor that the original sweetness didn’t need so much hops to offset it.


In a class I once took on the history of witchcraft, I was taught that spells were once often used in the context of baking bread. (Sorry, I have no references, just memories of lectures from over a decade ago),

Before people understood yeast, how did you explain bread rising? Well, if you used this spoon and bowl and stirred for this long, it would work, and if you believed it was magic that didn’t make it not work, and probably made you more likely to stick to script, and if you did something different, it might not work.

Before watches and clocks, how did you pass on a recipe so people knew how long to do things for? Well, you could always tell people to recite a song/poem/prayer at a given cadence a given number of times. And what candidates are memorable? Well, everyone knows their prayers, so you can use those or variants of those, but (especially if you pray in a language you don’t speak, like Latin), that can easily give “magic spell” vibes.

Do we know if practices like that were common in brewing? If so, since brewing does in fact produce a mind-altering potion (and realistically, we also know people sometimes added hallucinogenic plants and mushrooms to brews), that would go a long way to lending credence to anyone wanting to leverage that into accusations of witchcraft, for any reason.


We have to be careful with this kind of assumption. People knew that yeast worked, but not necessarily how or why it worked.So, they would shovel the mass of yeast from one finished fermentation to the next, new one in order to get it started. They also preserved the “mother” for vinegar-making, and the stuff for making sourdough. And yes, when it worked or didn’t work right, it was often ascribed to supernatural causes.

In terms of passing down recipes, it was often mother-to-daughter for brewing and other kinds of cooking. But they were also passed down as hymns and poems in pre-literate societies. One of the oldest pieces of writing we have is the Hymn to Ninkasi, which is both a prayer to a goddess as well as a recipe and instructions for brewing.

But it’s also true that anytime anything went wrong in pre-scientific societies, the explanation was often supernatural. What else would it be?


Could it be a spinoff?


Thank you. Damn, I love hearing from people who know their shit! Thank you for a lesson and knowledge I did not have.



I’m always ambivalent about articles like this. On one hand, God knows there’s been a lot of misogyny and sexism and cases of men taking over what were previously women’s things, because they became prestigious (computing is one of the best examples), but on the other, there’s also untold piles of bullshit about how this or that aspect of the past was awesome and enlightened, until men / Christians / white people / all of the above ruined it for everyone (a lot of the “common knowledge” about witches, and paganism, for example, is this).

So it’s really cool to find out what the real thing is, and (as often happens), it’s a bit more complex than the neat story on the surface. :slight_smile: