In Honor of the Alewife

My micro micro micro brewery

It started about four years ago.  I began brewing tea to make kombucha with a live bacteria-yeast culture.  This culture has mysterious origins like many of the cultures that are passed down.  No one can make one out of ingredients, you must get a culture from someone else.  There is poetry in that kind of realization of handing down colonies of beneficial microorganisms over the centuries.

With the kombucha culture, I made a liver lovin’, low alcohol content brew to detoxify my body, aid my liver function (the culture produces glucuronic acid, an acid the liver — in a healthy state — produces on its own to detoxify the body), and offer me some fizzy goodness.  After that, I started getting into herbal brews and whey coolers.  I was determined to have fizz in my life AND have it be nourishing and good for me.

After reading Jessica Prentice’s book “Full Moon Feast” for the second time and rereading Stephen Buhner’s book “Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers,” I took my brewing to an all new level (as you see above).  These cultural creatives inspired me to bring nourishing, tonic herbs back into the fermentation and brewing world.

Many of these recipes have largely been forgotten due to the Burning Times in Old Europe.  The Burning Times of the ‘witches’ (meaning midwives, alewives, herbalists, and anyone else that wasn’t Protestant enough), were during the 13th to 16th Centuries, mainly.  A broad estimate of 800,000 to 8 million women (and some men) were burned at the stake or simply tortured and killed.  Here is quote from a site on the timeline of beer driving the stigmatization of women during this time:

1591: This is the last recording of the burning of a “brew witch.” Brew witches are women who are blamed for any brewery that goes wrong. Many innocent women died this way.

 The nail on the coffin for many of these herbals brews being available at the most common of markets by alewives was the German Beer Purity Law.

Here is a quote from Prentice’s book,

There is a five-hundred-year-old German law–the Reinheitsgebot–that regulates the ingredients in beer and permits only four: water, barley, hops, and yeast. Nothing else can legally be called beer in Germany. The Reinheitsgebot was at least partly the result of a hot fight between advocates for hopped ale and advocates for the (then more traditional) gruit ales made from herbs such as marsh rosemary, bog myrtle, yarrow, wormwood, and sage. For many centuries ales had been brewed by women in small quantities from the herbs in the their wortyards. The ales had a wide range of properties–medicinal, stimulating, ceremonial, culinary–depending on which worts had been used in their brewing. The beer purity laws enacted in the sixteenth century in both England and Germany paved the way for the consolidation of beer brewing into the hands of a few commercial producers that would eventually put the local, artisinal, small-scale productions of the alewife out of business.

To honor the alewife in me (the Old English word ‘wife’ simply means woman) ~ the one that knows that small-batch is just better, that nourishing herbs are better than solely sedating hops, and that liver-enhancing, live yeast, low alcohol content brews are better than pasteurized and plain boring  brews ~ I’ve begun brewing to restore the alewife’s gentle way of getting herbs into the body on a regular basis…

And, just to show you how forgotten the alewife is (even in the art world!), when you search Google Images for ‘alewife,’ you get pictures of the alewife fish only…sigh…

A fish…yes…alewife fish…

Ok, after fishing around for a bit, I’ve found her.  Here’s a small window into how the ale wife might have looked:

The alewife?

The picture at the beginning of this post shows my recent spread of brews.  Starting on the left:

Mugwort-sorghum brew
Chamomile, lemon balm, vanilla brew
Zhotar (Arabic flower tea), licorice root brew
Molasses-mugwort-fennel brew
Wild persimmon-molasses-star anise-coriander-saw palmetto brew
Up front:  Ginger brew
Not pictured:  Rosemary, juniper, orange peel, coriander brew AND an assortment of medicinal meads (honey wines)

One day, I would love to open up a small brewery that offered these drinks.  I wonder if I could???  It seems that the alcohol licensing and all that jazz are very tricky and take lots of funds to navigate. If anyone has a handle of these things, please feel free to educate me.

Here are some pics of my ginger bug (needed to make ginger beer/brew) and the ginger brew simmering (with wild cherry bark, osha, and fennel):

Ginger bug fizzin’ away!

Ginger brew simmering

By the way, the wave of destroying treasured locally fermented brews (because only heathens drink this stuff, right?) is now happening in parts of Africa.  I believe I remember reading an article about women in W Africa (similar to the alewives in Old Europe) who make sorghum beer.  They are largely loosing their income and jobs because local companies wish to consolidate, control and monopolize on the brew’s production.

Ok, I found an article that speaks to this.  You can read about it here in an article called, “The Perils of Globeerization.”  Here’s a quote:

This brewing provides a degree of economic empowerment to millions of African women. A study conducted in Uganda and Kenya found that 80% of the women included in the survey brewed beer, and about half of them had brewed beer for sale at some point in their lives. According to the survey, very few men brewed, and virtually none of them ever brewed beer for sale. Yet, men were found to account for a majority of the consumption. In this way, home-brewing beer accords women a degree of social and economic influence, helping to maintain a peaceful balance of power between the genders, providing women with a source of income and respect within the household.

I think it’s time to bring back the alewife and it’s time to secure the small-batch production of ales and brews — in their cultural context — in any and all communities that wish to secure their traditional methods of brewing.  Support your local small-batch brewer!  Your mind and gut will be very pleased as well!

4 thoughts on “In Honor of the Alewife

    • The mugwort-sorghum brew is definitely yummy. My other favorite is the Rosemary ale. The great thing is that these two herbs are so easy to find!

    • Stephen Buhner has a recipe for gruit in his book ‘Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers’ — that’ll be your best resource and it’s an amazing book!

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