Meet Mary Lisle, America’s First Unofficial Brewster

Recently, I had the privilege to write and research an article about Mary Lisle, America’s first unofficial female beer brewer, also known as a brewster. The article I wrote for Tasting Table goes into the history behind women brewers (it’s a lot more extensive than most people understand) and how Lisle paved the way for women in the beer industry.

Beer is one of America’s favorite adult beverages, yet when most people think about brewers we picture men making batches of beer. That mental image may be common place, but it isn’t historically accurate. Throughout the world when it came to making ale or small batches of beer in the home, women were the ones making it, since it was deemed another part of their domestic duties, as noted in Beer and Brewing.

From my article: How Mary Lisle Became America’s Unofficial First Brewster 
A beer flight from Granville Island Brewing in Vancouver, BC from a January 2020 trip.

One interesting tidbit I found in my research, but didn’t make it to the published Tasting Table article was some information I read on Atlas Obscura, that found similarities between brewsters’ garb and that of a witch.

According to the article, alewives (or brewsters) had some pretty specific things they did to make sure they were easily recognized as alewives. These things included wearing tall, pointed hats to stand out in a crowd, placing broomsticks outside their doors which was a symbol of domestic trade, they brewed ale in a bubbling cauldron, and had cats underfoot to eat the mice that may have lingered in their workspace due to storing the excess grains. Coincidence?

The article went on to declare that the brewsters became the target of suspicion from the Church who saw the women alewives as temptresses, and the theory is that these disgruntled Church officials ended up accusing these women of witchcraft as a way to keep them from selling ale to men (and thereby tempting them, in their eyes).

I’m not sure we’ll ever truly know where the witch hunts came from, or what they were founded on, but I will say as I dig into research and history, it’s eye-opening to view things from a different lens. For now, this beer geek is grateful to the brewsters from our past, including Lisle, paved the way for others. 

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