S01E42 Irish Beer Alewives and Witches

Ep 42: Irish Beer, Alewives, and Witches

Happy St. Patty’s Day! What do St. Patrick and Irish beer have to do with the Wicked Witch of The West? EVERYTHING! And we really mean EVERYTHING! Learn how competition between local Irish brewer created the modern witch caricature, how the Grain wars of the 1600-1800s changed the brewing industry, why the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars were only possible because of English brewers and malters, and how Guinness finally stopped Irish dependence on English beer. Beer history is back, folks!

Links & Additional Resources

First, read this brief history of beer in Ireland to get your bearings. It begins a loooooong time ago…

Irish beer is ancient.

You can trace it back no fewer than 5,000 years, back into the earliest days of Irish agriculture, when the magical trilogy of fertile soil, soft rain and gentle, cool breezes made for a climate that could produce superb barley.

And then check out this article that focuses more on the brewing from the 1700s on.


ale beer brewsters book cover

Portions of the fascinating book Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World 1300-1600 by Judith M. Bennett are available on Google Books. Here’s one money quote:

Perhaps most important, like all women, alewives were deemed prone to disobedience…their work threatened the ideal of a proper patriarchal order. In flirting with customers, alewives undermined the authority of their husbands; in handling money, goods, and debts, they challenged the economic power of men, in bargaining with male customers, they achieved a seemingly unnatural power over men; in avoiding effective regulation of their trade, they insulted the power of male officers and magistrates; and perhaps most important, in simply pursuing their trade, they often worked independently of men.

And talking about how depictions of alewives in popular poems and ballads of the day affected the public’s perceptions:

They socially marginalized the alehouses run by alewives; they implied that alewives were particularly likely to cheat and deceive their customers; they suggested that the rink sold by alewives was particularly filthy and adulterated; and they dangerously associated alewives with disorder, heresy, and witchcraft. In everyday life, these sorts of accusations carried real force. In 1413, the brewster Christine Colmere of Canterbury lost all her trade when Simon Daniel told her neighbors that she was leprous; although the charge was false, her customers left her for fear of contaminated ale. In 1641, an unnamed widow who brewed for the garrison at Ludlow castle lost her trade because, despite her fine reputation, a male competitor spread false rumors about her person and her business. As both Colmere and this unnamed widow learned, a brewster’s trade could be damaged by words alone. What they lost though specific slander, other alewives–who worked in a world abounding with images that ridiculed them and maligned their trade–might have lost through more general opprobrium.

Here’s the insightful genius that helped connect Irish beer and alewives with our modern day cartoon image of witches, including connecting the dots on why we think of witches today as women with big, pointy hats, cats, cauldrons, and brooms. You know, something like this: