Alewives, Witches, and Modern Folklore (Part One)

Category: River Culture

on: Oct 15, 2018

 Mother Louse, possibly by David Loggan, late 1600s, National Portrait Gallery (London)


 Alewives, Witches, and Modern Folklore (Part One)

Even a cursory perusal of the internet regarding the connection between alewives and witches is certain to catch the eye. With increasing frequency, bloggers, journalists, and even the occasional scholar are inclined to foster the notion of a very close relationship. The History Channel recently weighed in with supposed evidence, which amounts to the following:

*The bubbling cauldron associated with witches hearkens to the brewing vessels of alewives during medieval times.

*The pointed witch’s hat is a remnant of the alewife’s hat, meant to draw attention to beer sellers at crowded public events such as carnivals.

*The witch’s broom is an ale-stake, a way to advertise a place to purchase beer among illiterate people.

*The witch’s familiar, the black cat, was a necessary companion to protect grains for brewing from vermin.

 The images of the medieval alewife, then, fit nicely upon the modern witch. It’s a neat idea—indeed, a little too neat.

  Christina Wade, who hosts the very informative blog Braciatrix (dedicated to the history of alewives and brewsters), took this idea apart piece by piece in a post from October 2017, so there’s no reason to litigate the matter again. It’s a great read from a scholar whose knowledge of the brewing industry is impressive beyond comparison. Be sure to check it out.

 Wade did not, however, mention the source of these claims: the writings of Alan Eames, and specifically his article “Of Witchcraft, Brewsters, and Beers” published in Ale Street News in 2005, where he proposed an intimate connection between cauldrons, hats, brooms, and cats.

 Writing a post like this pains me. I never met Eames, but comments by his friends and fans make abundantly clear that he was a beloved writer and figure in the beer industry before his untimely death in 2007. He is best known for his book The Secret Life of Beer: Legends, Lore, and Little Known Facts (Storey Communications, 1995), as well as copious articles and other publications. He was, apparently, also known by the monikers “the Beer King” and “the Indiana Jones of Beer.” And there are countless admiring recollections of his generosity, keen wit, and indefatigable support for brewers and brewing.

 Still, when you’re wrong, you’re wrong.

 Eames’ speculative essay is convincing because it is written with the air of authority, by someone who had spent decades as a self-identified “beer anthropologist” and who first spoke of the connections on an NPR show. It wasn’t peer reviewed and there is no supporting evidence for his claims, so its success rests on his persona. It wasn’t written for an academic audience either, but for a noteworthy and interesting newsletter that chronicles the craft beer revolution. The combined influence of Eames’ reputation and the reach of Ale Street News resulted in the creation of some modern folklore in the wider brewing community.

 Eames, incidentally, was closely tied to the Connecticut River Valley. His undergraduate degree was from the short-lived Mark Hopkins College in Brattleboro, Vermont, and he established a Three Dollar Dewey’s Ale House there decades later in 1985. (It did not survive, but the one he founded in Portland, Maine, remains.) Eames was a world traveler, but at the time of his death his home was in the river town of Dummerston, Vermont.

 In two weeks, just in time for Halloween, I’ll have more to write about the possible connections—or not—between alewives and witches and some specifics about the Connecticut River Valley. Tune in next week for two very interesting interviews!

 Until next time, cheers!

 Stephen Olbrys Gencarella