German Beer Brewing Witches? The Dark History of Women Brewers

Did the current image we have of witches (pointy hat, broom, cat, cauldron) come from Medieval female Beer Brewers? Did German Witches Brew Beer?? Were female brewers WITCHES? Or were they victims of world-wide hysteria? There has been some interesting speculation lately, so I thought I’d share the bits and pieces I found. After all, German does have plenty of witch stories… from Grimm’s Fairy Tales to Walpurgisnacht gatherings…many of us have Kitchen Witches to oversee the cooking…. and some of the symbolism makes sense (at least on the surface).

So let’s take a look, and maybe you can decide….

Witches Brew Beer

A Quick look at Beer History

Humans have been brewing beer for thousands of years. (Granted, the stuff you got from the ancient Egypt, made from dates and pomegranates, was NOTHING like what you get at the local brewery today.) Around 3000 years ago the Sumerians “discovered” the link between grains and beer when a bowl of leftover bread dough began to ferment… so they repeated the experiment, and pronounced it good. Interestingly enough, the German tribes “discovered” beer in a similar way. They crumbled baked bread into crocks of water, and let nature (and yeast) take its course. Flash forward to 800 BC, and beer was being stored in amphorae (jugs) near Kulmbach… and tablets recording beer production was found near Trier.

Keep in mind, the early brews were dark, murky and sour (like today’s “hip” sours) and most likely had stuff like husks and crumbs floating in it. When the Romans Legions arrived in the area, they described it as smelling like goat. mmmmmmmm.

Clearly, it got better.

Beer is Woman’s Work

Brewing, like baking involved using grain. Using this logic, it was “cooking”, so brewing beer was woman’s work, and part of the whole domestic science routine… (I love this old rhyme… unfortunately I can’t find it in German, even though Monday is Wash Day-Wash on Monday, Iron on Tuesday, Bake on Wednesday, Brew on Thursday, Churn on Friday, Mend on Saturday, Go to church on Sunday.)

women brew beerMothers passed brewing instructions down to their daughters. Home-brew (all the rage today) was part of everyday life in a time where water wasn’t particularly safe. Mostly brewing beer something done at home for the household… still, for widows and spinsters, brewing a little extra beer for sale was a good way to earn some income. Besides, some “wise women” were familiar with herbs and flavorings that might make the beer taste good.

But still, the flavor of Beer wasn’t tremendously stable. Until Hildegard of Bingen (read more about her here) put HOPS in the beer. Her work Physica Sacra pharmacopeia was the first mention of the preservative benefits of hops. Not only did this make the beer taste better, it would keep longer. This opened the door to bigger production levels!

Then the Church and State Jumped in

Around 1000 AD, Monks began brewing beer, not just for personal consumption, but also for sale. And (much like in Germany today) beer sales were quite lucrative.  Brewing Cities set up guilds for brewers, along with accompanying dues and taxes, and very few women were able to join. In 1516, the Reinheitsgebot (Bavarian beer could only contain water, barley and hops) put the nail in the coffin. The women entrepreneurs didn’t have the money to compete with these purity standards against larger scale production.

But some were still able to make money from brewing.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the quickest and most efficient way for the Church/State to put a stop to someone’s behavior was to accuse them of “witchcraft”. (Sort of like the communist scare of the 1950s). Naturally, women were in the cross-hairs because they … um… were women.

The German Beer Institute notes-
“In a culture where beer defines part of the national character, the question of who controls the brew is paramount. He who has his hand on the levers of power, also has his thumb in the people’s beer mug”.

witches brew beer

Did German Witches Brew Beer?

Where on earth did the idea that Witches Brew Beer come from??

Here’s where history gets a bit murky.

Let’s take a look at the Widow selling beer to make a little cash.

witches brew beerShe lives alone…. often at the edge of the Forest or Village. That’s enough to make most people scream WITCH!

Brewers used big cauldrons to brew their beer. For those of you who’ve never seen it, the Wort (the malt, grains, flavorings) needs to be cooked for a while. It’s bubbly and smells… um… interesting. And Witches have big Cauldrons!

Brewers have cats to keep the mice away from the grain. And WITCHES have Cats!

Women who sold beer would put a broomstick (a symbol of domestic trade) outside the door as a signal that the beer was “ready” for sale. AND WITCHES HAVE BROOMS.

Finally, the Women Brewers would wear pointy black hats so people could find them in the market, and in taverns. And everyone knows that Witches wear pointy hats.

Taking all of these things into account, it was OBVIOUS to them that German Witches Brew Beer.

Ironically,  many women in the Middle Ages wore pointy hats… they were called Hennin… and were worn to draw attention. A LOT of people had cats to keep away mice. And don’t get me started on brooms… EVERY German household has at least one.


Witch Trials

witches brew beer

Thousands of Witches were put on trial and killed in Germany, some of them women Brewers. (Those hats, those cauldrons, those cats…) The symbols of women brewers were turned into a propaganda tool for identifying witches! But were these women targeted because they were economically independent? Because they were in competition with church brewing? Or because they also had some knowledge of botany and healing?

By the late 1700s, the last witch was killed, and coincidentally, there were no more women brewers.

german witches

From the Medieval Crime Museum – Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Modern Brewing

Today women are still only a very small percentage of brewers in Germany, but the numbers are growing. The Meinel Sisters of Meinel-Bräu in Hof, Bavaria are 13th Generation brewers. Sigi Friedman took over Brauerei Friedmann from her father, and plans to pass the business to her daughter. And, of course, Sister Doris, the last beer brewing nun in the Mallersdorf Abbey Brewery. (Read More About them HERE)

And with my supreme bottle capping experience, I feel I can claim the slightest connection to all the German Beer Brewing women! Let’s hope the next generation brings more women to the Brauerei!




witches brew beer

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