As the old sexist saw goes, “Beer is a man’s drink.” Yet, until the fourteenth century, women dominated the field of beer brewing. And the alewife, as she was known, was responsible for a high proportion of ale sales in Europe.
“Ale was virtually the sole liquid consumed by medieval peasants,” writes Judith M. Bennett in a chapter in the edited volume, Women and Work in Preindustrial Europe. “Water was considered to be unhealthy, [so] each household required a large and steady supply of this perishable item.”
Sometimes referred to as a “brewster” (female brewer), the alewife made the drink as part of a typical peasant diet, which also included bread, soups, meat, legumes, and seasonal produce. While most villages depended on local bakers to prepare bread “the skills and equipment required for brewing,” explains Bennett “were readily available in many households.” This included “large pots, vats, ladles, and straining cloths,” implements found even in the poorest households. In other words: anyone who had the time could potentially make and sell ale.
Ale production was time-consuming, and the drink soured within days. The grain needed to make it, usually barley, “had to be soaked for several days, then drained of excess water and carefully germinated to create malt,” writes Bennett. The malt was dried and ground, and then added to hot water for fermentation, following which the wort—the liquid—was drained off and “herbs or yeast could be added as a final touch.”
Most households alternated between making their own ale and buying from and selling to neighbors. Women—wives, mothers, the unmarried, and the widowed—largely oversaw these transactions, writes Christopher Dyer.
“Ale selling was an extension of a common domestic activity: many women brewed for their own household’s consumption, so producing extra for sale was relatively easy,” Dyer explains.
Ale-making was a revolutionary trade for women. “We have heard much in the recent past about the weak work-identity of women, … [how] women were/are dabblers; they fail to attain high skill levels [and] they abandon work when it conflicts with marital or familial obligations,” writes Bennett. But for women of the Middle Ages, making ale was “both practical and rational.” It allowed married women to contribute to household incomes and offered both single women and widows a means to support themselves. This was true, for example, in the English villages of Redgrave and Rickinghall, about 100 miles northeast of London, where records suggested that ale sellers were both poor and single or widowed.
Further west, records from the manorial court of Brigstock show the domestic industry of ale-making to be entirely female dominated.
“The high proportion of women known to have sold ale suggests that all adult women were skilled at brewing ale, even if only some brewed ale for profit,” writes Bennett.
The records that allow us such a close look at ale-making exist in part due to the Assize of Bread and Ale, English regulations from the thirteenth century that created standards of measurement, quality, and pricing for these goods. Since a large number of people sold ale “unpredictably and intermittently,” writes Bennett, “triweekly presentments by ale-tasters” to regulate quality were necessary. “Dominating” the ale trade in the village of Brigstock, according to Bennett, however, was an “elite group” of thirty-eight brewers—alewives—who were “frequently [supplementing] their household economies.”
What’s more, these alewives, particularly in Brigstock, “faced almost no significant male competition,” notes Bennett. “Only a few dozen ale fines were assessed against Brigstock males, and all such men were married to women already active in the ale market.” In the Midlands manor of Houghton-cum-Wyton, on the other hand, some eleven percent of fines were levied against men, while in the manor of Iver in Buckinghamshire, a whopping 71 percent of fines were charged to male brewers.
Broadly, in England around 1300, “a high proportion of women,” writes Dyer, around “a dozen or two in most villages and 100 in larger towns” brewed ale for sale each year. It’s unclear how much the women of Brigstock women earned, on average, through ale-making, but Bennett notes that “the high proportion of women known to have sold ale suggests that all adult women were skilled at brewing ale, even if only some brewed ale for profit.” These alewives weren’t affluent, writes Bennett; they largely came from households “headed by men [of]… modest influence.” In fact, in Brigstock, 74 percent of women were identified as ale “wives” throughout their brewing careers (meaning they were married and unwidowed). In other words, working in the ale trade here wasn’t linked to social status; wives from all backgrounds contributed significantly to household income.
Alewives remained a key part of the production line until roughly 1350, when the Plague decimated communities throughout Europe. After that, male brewers grew in number to meet demand. That doesn’t mean women altogether abandoned the business; those who were linked to a man—as wives or as widows—endured until constraints curtailed their roles, notes historian Patricia T. Rooke. By the 1370s, beer brewing in England was predominantly male.
“That of ‘huswyffe’ (housewife) became valorized at the expense of applewife, alewife, fishwife, or for that matter, glassblower, miller, auctioneer, bricklayer, nun, and prioress,” Rooke writes.
Diverging historical timelines have dispelled the myth that alewives, with their bubbling cauldrons, were hunted alongside witches at the time. (There was a time when alewives were persecuted for being financially independent women, after the Babylonian Hammurabi Code from 1755 BC decreed the death penalty for alewives who insisted on payment in silver rather than in grain.) Still, the alewife lives on in literature, at least. There is Siduri, who dissuades the title character in the Epic of Gilgamesh from continuing his quest to find eternal life, urging him to find happiness in his current world. And in the induction of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, the character Christopher Sly mentions “Marian Hacket, the fat alewife of Wincot,” as he drunkenly calls for more drink.
Today, women brewers continue to carve a space for themselves in the field, hearkening to the unsung role they played through the Victorian era. If beer is indeed a “man’s drink,” it’s really only thanks to women.