The image of a woman wielding a broom with a tall hat and a bubbling cauldron of potion has been synonymous with witches for centuries now.
However, you’ll be shocked to know those ‘witches’ were once known as brewsters and the potion in the cauldron was beer in the making.
So how did the image assume the abominable insignia for witches or witchcraft?
Prior to the commercialisation of beer, the brewing of it was the exclusive role of the woman as far back as the fifth millennium BCE in Iran.
With the men out on the hunt to look for game, women were laboured with the ‘domestic’ duty of gathering ingredients and brewing beer. The practice is said to have continued up until the rise of the Roman Empire.
Seeing the promise of the brewing industry, simultaneously, the Catholic Church launched a witch-hunting campaign across Europe, which secretly targeted independent women such as the brewsters. Brewsters had an extensive knowledge of plants – which were good for curing ailments, cooking, and for the ‘darker arts’ of witchcraft.
With money to be made and power to wield, a connection was made between the brewsters costume and the art of witchcraft.
In order to be noticed by potential customers in crowded markets, the brewsters developed rather odd advertising methods. They wore tall, pointed hats, which also served as a hair covering (the traditional practice for women in Europe then).
Also, a broomstick was placed in the doorway of an alehouse in order to indicate that a brew was ready. Images of frothing cauldrons full of ready product and six-sided stars to indicate the quality of the brew also abounded. Lastly, out of manifest necessity, cats would be kept in the brewhouses to protect the grains from mice.
To vilify these women who refused to be shoved out of the brewing tradition by giving up their own businesses, the Church tapped into the Brewster symbols in their staged witch hunt.
It is left to say whether these hunts were a product of the fear of women’s economic independence or their botanical knowledge of plants at a time when chemistry was poorly understood and mistrusted.
However, by the 1700s when witch hunting across Europe was no longer in practice, women brewsters were also a thing of the past.
In today’s world, we are happy that women can freely feature in the brewing business without the fear of being branded witches and burned at a stake.