As fall deepens (with the exception of this unseasonably warm week), students at the Brooklyn Brewery at CIA Brewhouse have a couple of things on the minds. Brewing, sure, and the wise words of head brewer Hutch Kugeman. But that beer knowledge is also battling for share of mind with Halloween.
Luckily for the students– and us– Halloween has deep roots in beer. The harvest festivals of yore that gave rise to the day were often marked with rich, hearty ales and lagers that are still echoed by fall beers today. And it wouldn’t be a Halloween party without plenty of beer, possibly served out of a Pinterest-friendly pumpkin keg. But one of the season’s more enduring icons, the witch, also owes much of its backstory to beer and brewing.
The classic depiction of a terrifying, broomstick-flying, cat-owning, black-clad, pointy-hatted witch has been a part of popular culture from the Middle Ages to Minerva McGonagall (who admittedly doesn’t fly a broom in the books, but is clearly a sharp Quidditch scout.) These traditional accessories once belonged to medieval brewers, who used them for much more pragmatic ends. These brewers, commonly referred to as brewsters or alewives, represented the first steps beer took to transition from a homemade specialty to a commercial product.
First off, the cats. Brewery cats are found in breweries around the world, along with your author’s apartment. The malts and grains used in beer are a uniquely tempting food source for mice and other rodents, but cats have little interest in the stuff unless they can nap on top of the malt bag. The cats instead guard the precious grains from common pests, and of course provide company on brewing days.
The broom and tall, pointed hat both served as early advertising for productive alewives. A broom displayed by the door of a home indicated that domestic goods and services, usually related to brewing or cooking, were available within. If a brewster took up her pails and went to a crowded market, a hat tall enough to stick out above the heads and shoulders of shoppers was a simple way to attract attention.
And let’s not forget the bubbling cauldron of many witches’ tales. You could blame Shakespeare for the popularity of this image, but medieval brewers are much more likely. Beers of the age were often brewed with complex blends of spices and foraged plants to make them palatable, in a process that must have seemed almost magical to untrained patrons. It wouldn’t take much to imagine a sinister brewer making use of foul ingredients for malicious ends…except that everyone knows brewers are wonderful people who bless us with beer. So what happened?
Like a lot of other medieval downers, brewsters fell in the face of the increasingly powerful Catholic Church as it worked to bring more production revenues under their umbrella. With efforts ranging from obscene hop taxes on local brewers, to outright smear campaigns and witch trials as seen during the Inquisition and Crusades, beer was wrested from traditional alewives and centralized. Once a product of the hearth, beer was transformed into a male-dominated industry that filled the coffers of Church and state alike.
Drinkers did reap some benefits from this centralization, including higher quality controls and the honing of brewing sciences by monks in Germany and Belgium. On the other hand, the hysteria surrounding witches has been passed along for generations. Since the Middle Ages, witch hunts have periodically erupted with bloody results. The age old “signs of the witch,” from feline familiars to dark clothing and scientific knowledge have cropped up and been strengthened in those periods.
We’re lucky enough to live in a time where most people regard witches as harmless at worst, women as more than worthy peers and equals, and beer as an equal-opportunity delight. But human nature is a finicky thing, so it’s up to all of us to support and drive forward this relatively progressive environment to prevent further witch hunts, literal or otherwise.
For your Halloween party this year, we recommend welcoming the old signs of the witch into your decor to pay homage to the intertwined worlds of beer and the occult, truthful or not. You could even dress up as an old-school witch and dole out some knowledge with your tricks and treats, depending how patient your friends are. It might even be worth inviting a real witch to the festivities– if they can brew magical potions, can you imagine what they could do with beer?