Brewer or Alewife
The craft of brewing was largely practiced in northern and eastern Medieval Europe, where it was too cold to grow grapes for wine. The trade was unusual among Medieval occupations, as it was dominated by women. These female brewers, or alewives, served an important function, as the poor sanitation of the period often made local water supplies unsafe due to waterborne pathogens.
The ales made by alewives were brewed from barley-malt, water and yeast, and while far thicker and weaker than today’s brews, still contained enough alcohol to kill some waterborne organisms that could make people seriously ill. These ales would typically spoil before they could be exported, so the brewing of ale was an almost constant process. Sometimes, the ale was flavored with rosemary or similar herbs. it was customary for a green branch to be tied to a pole outside of the brewer’s residence to tell passerby that ale as ready for consumption; some of these branches were so prominent that they presented a hazard to people riding horses past them in the street.
Since people tended to congregate where the ale was served, the homes of alewives became the forerunners of what eventually became taverns.
In large settlements, a person was designated as the ale-conner, who had the dubious distinction of taste-testing each batch of ale before it could be sold. Job satisfaction among ale-conners varied with the quality of local brews. For example, one historical record in Cornwall, England, described the local ale to be “white and thick, looking as though pigs had wrestled in it.”
Later, hops were added to the production process of some brews, creating beer – although unhopped brews, called ales, remained popular. It was later discovered that the hops, in addition to producing improved flavor, also increased the alcohol content, extending the effective shelf life of the brew sufficient to allow export. By that point in history, brewing had gone from a cottage industry to a fully-developed trade, and ale and beer were produced in large quantities by both breweries and monasteries.