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Witch Story

Our image of hags with pointy hats has a brewing connection.


  • Mike Riedel

As the weekend approaches, you might plan to head out to all kinds of Halloween parties. The odds are good that you'll encounter the stereotypical witch. You all know her, because she's been ingrained in our minds since we were tiny ankle-biters: a hag armed with a broom, a cat and, of course, that tall, pointed black hat. But did you know that this image was carefully twisted by the medieval Catholic church to sway people away from the independent brewers of beer in favor of the church's monastic-made beers?

In the Dark Ages, brewing was considered women's work. Back then, beer was not the luxury beverage we enjoy now; it was a necessity. It significantly stretched the household's grain stores, and its inherent antiseptic nature made bacteria-rich water drinkable. If the beer was particularly good, the free market would push it into the streets, where the lady brewers sold their grain-based elixirs to taverns, merchants or whomever had the coin. To differentiate themselves from the other non-beer merchants, these female brewers wore tall black pointed hats that stuck out (and up) in the crowds of the marketplaces, identifying themselves as beer sellers.

Another more obvious way of attracting their largely illiterate clientele to the beer cart was the broom. In addition to their obvious cleaning function, brooms were a symbol of domestic trade. They were often placed front of a home or tavern. Finally, our third witch-y image: A cat was kept around the beer simply to steer away rats and other rodents.

As is true now, beer was big business then, and the Catholic Church wanted its piece of the action—and by "piece," I mean all. The church controlled nearly all aspects of life back then, and was keen to increase its coffers in this lucrative business. The church persuaded European society that these women were inclined toward evil, witchcraft and devil-worship.

Ogden's Talisman Brewing Co. honors these "ladies in brew" with a special seasonal beer called—you guessed it—Witches Brew. This beer has a pale golden-yellow color that's capped with a finger of splotchy, sudsy foam. The aroma hits quick with grainy and crackery malt, along with some citrus rind, vague berries and herbal nutmeg. The flavors start off with toasted bread and hints of cereal. Spicy orange peel with a bit of grapefruit pop up next, hiding a bit of sweet citrus flesh that seems to be enhanced by the malts. Next, you'll find a kind of tenuous juniper-like berry fruitiness that seems to be duking it out with a dose of allspice. The end of the swig rounds out with some spicy yeastiness, along with easy-going, leafy/floral verdant hop bitters.

Overall: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Due to the crazy adjunct ingredients that accompany this ale's base, I kept looking for a reason to smack it down for lacking cohesion, all the while oblivious to the fact that it was kicking ass on all cylinders. It's quite the Witches Brew.

So remember, when Halloween rears its head and you see all of those little witches—er, brewers—scurrying about begging for candy, snag a Talisman Witches Brew and pay homage to those women of long ago, who really got a raw deal from history just for making beer. As always, cheers!