Essay

Witches’ brew

Reclaiming the ancient craft of ale making

THREE YEARS AGO, I wrote a book about witches.

I was trying to figure out how to talk about the slippery and slightly mystical qualities of women when they’re working together. I said something like a witch is a woman on the margins, and because all women are marginalised in a patriarchy, we are all witches.

In the time since, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the ways gender and patriarchy intersect with capitalism and consumerism. We in the global West are often still beholden to the cultural bogeymen of the mid-twentieth century, the time of the feminine mystique and the nuclear family and the first fast food. Along with a general suspicion of strangers and a pathological individualism, we have brought with us into the new millennium a set of food-based neuroses engendered by the age of convenience. To this day we suffer from a terror of germs, a mistrust of the homemade and an unquestioning acceptance of – and reliance on – industrially produced foodstuffs.

This deference to white-coat food science seeps into the most unexpected corners of culture. I am, for example, in a lot of Facebook groups to do with DIY food preservation, and a more joyless bunch of narcs and busybodies – ready at a moment’s notice to assure you that your canned green beans will poison your whole family – I have yet to find. On the whole my fellow Canning, Preserving and Homesteading Ladies are fearful devotees of the cult of institutionalised nutrition.

But nutrition – nourishment – is not the natural realm of the institution. It is a human birthright. We are a growing, cooking, eating, sharing species who have sustained ourselves to astonishing success thanks to our ability to turn the raw stuff of the world into palatable, nourishing fare. We have done this for thousands of years, everywhere in the world, in the home or the marketplace or the village centre as part of the domestic process of the everyday, because everyone has to eat. Making our staple foods – bread, cheese, wine, beer – is not difficult. And yet to produce these staples on a domestic scale in a modern Western household is to step, sometimes quite daringly, out of line.

So I’ve been thinking, again, about witchcraft, about the marginal and the power therein. Maybe a choice to disconnect from large-scale food production and conscientiously re-engage with pre-industrial methods of feeding ourselves and our communities is a choice to occupy a marginal position. Maybe that choice is a step towards magic-doing. Maybe, like most things, this decision has nothing to do with gender. But likely, as with most things, it will still show up in different colours when you look at it through the lens of sex, misogyny and our hard-held binaries. Or through a glass of beer.

 

WHEN I CAME of drinking age as a white Australian woman living in Queensland, I did not drink beer. It was the late aughts, and the beverage of choice for teens already driven to lunacy by hormones and tropical heat was spirits mixed with something sweet enough to make them palatable: rum and coke for the boys, Vodka Cruisers for the girls.

I had grown up stealing sips of my dad’s customary single dinnertime Victoria Bitter, but I think at sixteen I would have struggled to drink an entire stubby. Beer was bitter, it was heavy, it was masculine and it made me bloated. Why would I bother with it when a rainbow of fruity elixirs awaited me on the shelves of the inattentively staffed regional bottle shops, each promising the dual pleasure of tasting like lollies and getting me plastered?

Even when I grew up a little and found improbable employment as a bar and restaurant writer, I could not find within me a love of beer. I learnt about cocktails (and grew insufferable about the ‘right’ way to make a martini), developed a preference for syrah over merlot, abandoned the vegetarianism of my youth to more fully experience the delight of an overflowing charcuterie board, but I could not muster the enthusiasm to down more than one pot of whatever mild amber fluid was brought to our table at the local pub on two-for-one nights.

It wasn’t until I moved to Tasmania that I really started to enjoy and appreciate beer. I came to this state in my twenty-ninth year and settled quickly into a marginally more agrarian mode of living than the one I had enjoyed in suburban Brisbane. This is not an original transition: you cannot resist the lure of food and drink here, where the produce summoned from the Earth is lush and idiosyncratic and where the people are evangelical about the virtues of Tassie fare.

Before I even knew what cottagecore was, I was a convert. I started gardening; I made sourdough; I learnt about and guzzled bottles of Australia’s southernmost shiraz. Half my pay cheques regularly went towards eye-wateringly expensive lunches that I felt no guilt about whatsoever.

And now, after nearly twenty years of drinking, I’ve become a fully actualised devotee of the beverage that defines my species: beer. How I weep for my younger self and her impoverished palate. What a gastronomic waste the past fifteen years have been without beer. Right now, as the sun goes down early on a straw-coloured winter afternoon, I am drinking a pale ale by Tasmanian company Little Rivers, and I am already aglow. It is vividly bitter, thirst-quenching, fragrant and slightly sour. It is a pre-emptive reward for the work I am doing. It is an uncomplicated pleasure.

Yet throughout the West, whether you’re in Adelaide or Boston or the streets of Croydon, you’ll find that beer is for blokes. Most beer companies, whether microbreweries or multinational corporations, are helmed and staffed by men. While Japan might extend the broad church of beer ads to everyone, regardless of gender, those cheerful women holding a frothy cold one under a mass of cherry blossoms are the exception, not the rule: American beer advertisements are so hypermasculine as to be referred to by sociologists as ‘manuals for manliness’. I ordered a dark beer with dinner the other night and got asked kindly, but with a note of concern, if I was sure – as though I’d asked for a raw egg shooter, not a perfectly inoffensive porter.

And it’s just all so weird because beer is such a fundamental part of the human story and – beyond the general weirdness of arbitrarily gendering anything that’s as neutral as food or drink – for the first 6,000 years of brewing it was a women’s game. Not just any women; if you ask the right people, they’ll tell you, in fact, that beer was brewed by witches.

 

MOST ANTHROPOLOGISTS AND historians agree that the first beer was brewed in Mesopotamia about 7,000 years ago. One of the oldest pieces of literature in the world is a hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of beer, that also doubles as a recipe. To the Sumerians, the Babylonians and all the peoples of the cradle of civilisation who came after them, beer was a central organising principle of culture – the source of health, wealth and wellbeing, and the staple of the diet for every citizen.

These Mesopotamian cultures and their beer-drinking ways emerged after the so-called agricultural revolution, when groups of people who had, up until this point, lived as mobile hunter-gatherers transitioned to a settled state of crop and animal cultivation.

The catalyst for our ancestors’ settling down to grow barley and build pyramids, however, is still contentious. It makes sense to assume that the barley (and emmer wheat, oats and other ‘ancient grains’) they harvested went first to making bread, a calorie-dense staple food that could support a booming population. But anthropologist Solomon Katz proposed in the 1980s the intriguing ‘beer before bread’ theory, which suggested that early agriculturalists were driven to farming not by their wholesome desire for crusty loaves but by their lust for that other staple grain product: beer.

A quick note on beer-making: it’s not easy. While our ancestors might have stumbled across the earliest fermented beverages by chance – honey left to gather rainwater will quickly ferment into mead, and fruit lying on the ground will turn boozy given half a chance and a hot summer afternoon – brewing beer is a much more complicated process. Honey ferments quickly because it’s basically pure sugar, and sugar is what feeds the yeast that makes alcohol. Grain, on the other hand, has its sugars bound up tightly into carbohydrates. To make them available to yeast, we have to malt the grain – get it to germinate – which releases the sugars and changes the flavour. We then have to dry the malted grain, mix it with water, imbue it with the yeasts we need, allow it to ferment, drain the resulting wort and prepare it for drinking, all of which requires specialised skills, a specific set of equipment and a lot of time. But the reward for this effort is manifest: not only does beer make for a good party, it’s also far more nutritious than any of its constituent elements on their own.

This is the miracle of fermentation, described beautifully by Sandor Katz, the godfather and evangelist of fermentation, in his 2003 handbook-cum-manifesto Wild Fermentation. He explains that to ferment a food is to create new nutrients where there were none before. As yeasts and bacteria eat the sugars in the beer mash, they create B vitamins. They change the starches in the grain into more digestible compounds. In fact, they provoke such a startling upswing in the bioavailability of vitamins and minerals that beer, according to Michael Pollan’s hymn to food traditions, Cooked, ‘helped the early agriculturalists compensate for the decline in the nutritional quality of their diet as they turned from hunting and gathering a great many different foods to a monotonous diet of grains and tubers’.

Whatever the reasons we started doing it, we have not stopped. Beer was the drink of choice across Europe for the next several thousand years. And in direct contradiction of its modern oi-oi-the-boys connotations, for almost all of those thousands of years the brewing of beer remained the realm of women. The Hymn to Ninkasi was sung by the priestesses in charge of brewing the sacred beer, and both art and literature from the height of the Mesopotamian civilisations depicts women in charge of all the cities’ taverns.

But after enjoying millennia at the helm of the brewing juggernaut of Western culture, something happened at the start of the Renaissance that slowly but inexorably shut the gates of the brewery to women entirely.

More than milk, wine or water, beer was the basic liquid refreshment of the English diet. Because it was largely brewed without the preserving power of hops (which show up later in this story), it needed to be drunk quickly, which meant it needed to be brewed often and in astonishingly large quantities. According to a gem of a book by historian Judith M Bennett from the mid-1990s called Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300–1600, a five-person household might go through forty litres of beer per week. Brewing, like baking, sewing, cleaning and cooking, was an everyday domestic chore. Naturally that meant it was done by women – in the home, yes, but frequently in the marketplace, too.

Women who brewed – called brewsters or alewives – followed a recipe not wildly different from that of their Sumerian foremothers. Unlike those ancient brewers, alewives did not enjoy a level of prestige along with their product. Brewing in medieval England was low status, poorly paid and comparatively easy to do, which meant that generations of alewives’ businesses were essentially cottage industries – small scale, home based and locally hawked.

But the brewing industry in England transformed almost beyond recognition in the 300 years before the modern era, says Bennett, becoming ‘so large scale and so centralised that it was assuming a leading role among other contemporary industries’. It was also, curiously, dominated by men.

So what’s to blame for the near-total gender swap of the person behind the brewing vat in those few hundred years? Imagine, for a moment, an English alewife of the Middle Ages in the far corner of the marketplace. She stirs a steaming cauldron that seethes and bubbles. She adds herbs and spices to flavour the brew. A bundle of twigs tied to a stick marks her brew-house, and a trio of cats prowls the grain stores hunting for mice. Squint through the fumes and you’ll make her out quite clearly: an old widow bent double, stirring and muttering over the roiling mass. Maybe she’s even wearing a pointy hat.

 

IT’S A VERY seductive thought, and one that’s done the rounds a few times now: that the garb and accoutrements of the medieval alewife form the origin story for our popular-culture iconography of the witch – and that it was her association with witchcraft that pushed her out of brewing and into fairytale (or a flaming pyre).

Seductive and probably not true, unfortunately. There’s actually precious little evidence that the classic witch is modelled on alewives, even if they might have shared a couple of passing visual similarities. Those pointy hats, for example, were by no means worn only by alewives (take a look at the American pilgrims); nor were they a standard piece of the witch costume until quite a lot later in European history. As is often the case, convenience in history, like in food, is tempting – but ultimately unsatisfying.

Though there is some overlap in the kind of woman who brewed beer and the kind of woman who was accused of witchcraft. In the Middle Ages, such accusations were often strategic attempts to remove certain women from the cultural landscape rather than genuine concerns that a neighbour was consorting with the devil. Women accused of witchcraft were usually poor, old, marginalised and without advocates, and these are all terms that describe a lot of brewsters. Remember that the work was low skill, low status and low pay – which means it was some of the only work available to women who were widowed, unmarried or otherwise without the security provided by a husband or family.

Combine this convenient overlap with the adoption of hops as a preservative, and we have an unpleasantly quotidian reason for women getting bumped from the brewery. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Hops are vigorous perennial climbers closely related to marijuana, and they’re also the unwitting accessory to women’s expulsion from the beer industry. Prior to the widespread adoption of hops in the fifteenth century, all beer was really, technically, ale – fermented grain without a bittering or preserving agent that would usually last a week at best before spoiling. But a curious thing happens when you add hops to ale: the product becomes durable. Hopped beer can keep for up to a year. Hops also allowed brewers to get more beer out of the same amount of grain thanks to differences in the wort processing. Both of these qualities meant that, quite suddenly, beer was a viable commercial product. And, as the late British historian Joan Thirsk put it, ‘If a venture prospers, women fade from the scene.’

Women were quickly hustled out by the men taking over the industry, installing centralised processing facilities to house the specialised equipment necessary to brew large quantities of hopped beer and setting up male-exclusive guilds. It’s likely that this is the point at which alewives and witchcraft intersect.

If you are a man in the late Middle Ages getting started in the brewing business and you want to strategically remove your competition, and your competition happens to be a poor old woman without relatives to advocate for her, and you happen to be lacking some important scruples, or possessed of some particularly venomous strain of misogyny, you may well start calling that woman a witch. It doesn’t matter if it’s not true; it doesn’t even matter if you don’t believe it yourself. Even if the woman isn’t found guilty of the crime of witchcraft, you can just about guarantee her business will be ruined – and her customers will be yours.

And so, as the seamstresses and bakesters and midwives would too, the brewsters packed up their cauldrons and the medieval housewives stopped making their own ale and started buying men’s beer, and our ancestors took one more step away from the domestic, generalist, informal table where women made our everyday victuals and one more towards the bread and beer factories and the ‘hyper-masc’ scientism of industrial food.

 

ONCE UPON A time, all brews were ‘wild fermented’ – wild in that the yeast was living freely in our environment, not in a freeze-dried powder packaged up in a foil parcel, as has become standard practice in today’s breweries. The human-yeast symbiosis is at least as old as beer itself. We have been cultivating certain yeasts as part of our daily fermentation practice since the dawn of civilisation, whether it’s simply feeding the colonies that live in the wood of our ale barrels or pitching new brews with a flagon of the old one (or coddling a sourdough starter, as so many of us did in the depths of the pandemic). But at some point we overstepped that respectful relationship and started breeding concentrated, lab-derived strains of yeast specific to particular flavours and beer styles, doing away with the possibility of wild ‘contamination’ and instead adding these packets of brown dust to sterilised solutions of malt and water. So ubiquitous is the use of pelletised, sanitised yeast in brewing now that it has become literally unthinkable for many brewers to use anything else. Even in the age of small-batch craft beer, the industrial nature of the enterprise is inescapable.

But brewing beer is closer to intuition than to science. Or maybe closer to magic.

‘The history of beer is inextricably entwined with witchcraft,’ says Ashley Huntington, brewer and co-owner of Tasmanian beer icon Two Metre Tall and self-described member of the beer industry’s ‘lunatic fringe’. ‘Certainly a long way removed from the intolerably blokey beer culture that manifests itself in this day and age.’

He and his partner Jane are the sole creators of Two Metre Tall’s spellbinding selection of farmhouse ales, ciders and meads, all of which are created using local ingredients and wild fermentation in the bleakly gorgeous Derwent Valley. If you get a chance to pick up a bottle of their Forth All Grain Ale, do: it really is like some kind of wizardry, sour and complex, a completely different beast to your dish-spongy mainstay pub lagers. Little wonder that Ashley is so wholeheartedly invested in the magical origins of his work.

‘They didn’t even know what yeast was until the 1860s,’ he says about his forebears in brewing. ‘That’s why [brewing] was layered in feminine suspicion. The conversion of grain and fruit and herbs into this intoxicating liquor was proof of magic, and the brewers the harbingers of this magic.’

This kind of genially mystical approach to fermentation is familiar to me because I subscribe to it wholesale. I’ve been influenced most strongly by Sandor Katz, whose freewheeling and immersive approach to microbial symbiosis has, he says, played a significant role in supporting his health, as he lives with HIV. Delightfully, Katz’s philosophy is completely counter to the strictures of industrialised food:

Experts are likely to find my techniques primitive. They are. Fermentation is easy. Anyone can do it, anywhere, with the most basic tools. Humans have been fermenting longer than we’ve been writing words or cultivating the soil. Fermentation does not require vast expertise or laboratory conditions. You do not need to be a scientist able to distinguish specific microbial agents and their enzymatic transformations, nor a technician maintaining sterile environments and exact temperatures. You can do it in your kitchen.

Mild words that sparkle with the effervescence of revolution.

 

WHAT HAS THIS to do with witchcraft? I think any resistance to hegemony is a little bit magical.

In the early twentieth century, a comprehensive cultural shift around food began in earnest. In the wake of widespread malnutrition caused by wartime shortages and the Depression, health organisations sprang up to dictate to a shell-shocked population exactly what and how much they should eat to ensure both the health and the steady growth of the population. Vitamins and other micronutrients were identified, isolated and added to staple foods such as bread and salt. The concept of the ‘healthy diet’ appeared along with the Baby Boom, accompanied by its side dishes: the food pyramid and recommended daily intakes. In the space of a generation or two, we went from relying on ourselves or our immediate community to supply our food to relying on big, often global, organisations and institutions.

While this institutionalisation of our diet has certainly supported postwar population growth – as well as the unbridled economic success of the food industry and its enormous corporate conglomerates – its drafting into the service of consumer capitalism has also led to the unsettling prevalence of what Pollan calls ‘edible food-like substances’. These items are divorced from the recognisable foodstuff from which they are composed, manufactured with enormous complexity and transported over great distances, and consist of dubious substance both nutritional and psychic. They are a talisman of the loss we’ve been forced to swallow, along with our sterilised beer and our niacin-laced bread. Learning to buy our staples – to the extent, in fact, that we forget how to make them – is a Faustian bargain, both an astounding luxury and a dire impoverishment.

I have to stress that this is not a failure of the individual. Consumer capitalism has us all hamstrung. Almost no one has the time or resources to make absolutely everything they eat. Our intricate system of commerce dictates that we exchange our labour for money and our money for food – and skipping any of those steps is punishingly difficult for all but the most privileged.

But the overweening scientification of food is a tragedy. It denies us the ability to casually engage with the most human and most fulfilling of activities – creating our own sustenance – because of such a boring fiction: industrialised food tells us we are not smart enough to meet our most fundamental daily requirements. Food has become, somehow, the realm of experts. Most of us have been rendered helplessly and completely reliant on large-scale industry for all our dietary needs. And this fiction is built, as so many are, on the whip-striped back of women’s labour – on the domestic traditions that gave us beer and bread in the first place. 

Beer is only one symptom of our forced divorce from the happy socialism of cooking – maybe the pilot symptom, considering its manufacture left the home so much earlier than bread’s. Sterilisation, overcomplication and the devaluation of informal human knowledge keeps beer in the realm of the specialist and out of the hands of the general domestic. The gatekeeping of the industry that began in the fifteenth century is just as much in place now as then. Even having the capacity to seek out, learn and put into practice the elaborate process of modern homebrewing is a privilege, and not one that’s afforded to a lot of women. It’s very unlikely that you have the time to buy the incomprehensibly complicated equipment required to brew modern beer at home, let alone figure out how to operate it if (for example) you are a full-time carer. If you have to get dinner on the table every night. If you work all day and come home and wash school uniforms and keep track of medical appointments. If you work all day and then work your second job all night. If your mental energy is given over to worry about your financial security, your children’s futures, your spouse’s employment, your housing availability, your progressive chronic illness or any of the other familiar and underappreciated forms of labour and knowledge performed, in vast invisible quantities, by women.

This is not (only) sexism; this is capitalism. Devaluing or demonising women’s work is conducive to economic growth because it creates products to buy that would once have been made in the course of everyday domestic life. Recalibrating the creation of a staple food from a simple, everyday act to a highly specialised alchemy requiring industrial equipment and a team of men in uniforms is an excellent means by which to manufacture profit.

A woman who cannot make beer must rely on breweries to supply it. She must earn enough money to buy this beer. To ensure that she wants to buy the beer, she must be convinced that it is a marker of middle-class prosperity; to ensure that she does not make it, she must be indoctrinated with a fear and disgust of foodstuffs created outside of an industrial environment, a fear that overcomes any desire she might have to learn the skills to which she is born – even and especially if the benefit of those skills would be cheap, nourishing food.

This is our legacy from the industrial food revolution of the twentieth century. We are afraid of making our own food, confused about what constitutes goodness and safety, and disconnected from traditions that give our life meaning. We have been made this way because it is good for powering the economy, and little else.

Power: that other defining facet of witchcraft. Witches are women with power. Resistance to hegemony is power. Fermentation is easy. Anyone can do it.

We are human animals and one of the things that brings us joy is making what we eat. It’s not just the kind of fierce survivalism of eating something you’ve killed – it’s the satisfaction of acting out the rituals of thousands of generations of ancestors, the specifically human rituals of growing, cooking, fermenting and sharing food. It feels right because it is our right.

Beer, bread, pickles, cake. Whatever it might be, you’re born to make it. Taking back the means of production – even when it’s just a bottle of wild ale – is a powerful piece of witchcraft.

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