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Basic Information

An Alewife, also brewess or brewsteress, is a historical term for a woman who brewed ale (or beer) for commercial sale. Women have been active in brewing since before the process's industrialization, and indeed back as far as Ancient Mesopotamia. For much of history, it would have been a normal part of the household economy to make batches of ale, with the entry level of retail simply consisting of selling surplus product to passers-by. In many places in Western Europe a household with ale to sell would hoist a green branch over a door or window, to signal their readiness to sell and show customers where to approach the house (rumour also suggests that the freshness of the branch could be a clue as to that of the ale: early brewing techniques did not always yield a shelf-stable product). Presumably to become a genuine ale-wife one needed to develop a reputation for making and selling (and hopefully some skill unless the market was very sparse) - and a household that always had ale to sell might be on the way to setting up a sideline as public house.

Of course, professional, or semi-professional status is likely to have its downsides … not least the need to become acquainted with the ale-conner.

See also beer seller - although this title might belong more to a street trader with a barrel than a housewife selling over the doorstep.

The earliest appearance of an alewife in the written word is the character Siduri in the Epic of Gilgamesh. There's a pretty common and wide-ranging tradition for knowledgable wise-women of ancient mythology to be brewers. Alewife bleeds into / cross-pollinates with witch and enchantress if you go looking far enough back.



Game and Story Use

  • An alewife might make an interesting short-term patron or quest-giver for the PCs in the right era. It's not exactly epic, so this works best for Warhammer Fantasy -style games where the PCs are the dregs of society dealing with minor squabbles and intrigues in an urban environment.
    • Perhaps the alewife is a budding mafioso or gun moll type, and wants the PCs to put pressure on her business rivals.
    • Perhaps her brewing equipment is cursed, haunted, or infested with gremlins, and she needs the PCs to save her business.
    • Perhaps she's a damsel in distress, and the threat to the local beer supply is enough to inspire the heroes to answer her call for help.
    • She could be the heart of the town, the wasteland elder / mayor / guild / local big-whig the PCs have to stay on the good side of, who sometimes dispenses quests for the betterment of the community.
    • Regardless of the particulars, the pay is likely to be in ale rather than coin. Which works fine if your Players are really into roleplaying and have characters who'd go for that, but doesn't really do much to stroke the risk-reward engine that drives so many gamers. So you might to make the ale special in some way: either legitimately magical, or just hand-waved morale bonuses might do the trick. Or you could dangle the carrot of a big resell value if the PCs go to the trouble of carting a cask out into the wilderness to trade to the halflings or dwarves or orcs… which may lead to further plot developments and adventure on the road.
  • See beer seller, ale-conner, and merchant for more ideas.
  • Depending on setting and system, you might riff on witch, wise woman, apothecary or alchemist as well. It depends a lot on tech-level. If brewing is super common and well understood, she's your friendly neighborhood alewife. If beer-brewing is mysterious and akin to potion-brewing, she's a sorceress.
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