Tasmanian author Karen Brooks had no idea when she sat in a Hobart bar that she was about to become engrossed in the world of brewing beer in mediaeval England. This ancient craft, predominantly a cottage industry and thus the domain of women, became the foundation for a love story across the class divide at a time when women had few rights and even fewer opportunities.
The Brewer’s Tale is all this and more. Karen Brooks spoke to The Hoopla’s Meredith Jaffé.
You can read Meredith Jaffe’s review of The Brewer’s Tale HERE.
Giveaway: Enter to WIN 1 of 10 copies of The Brewer’s Tale HERE.
What inspired you to write a story about a female brewer in mediaeval England?
Quite simply, it was a glass of whisky and the husky tones of a barmaid, Becs, at Lark Distillery and Bar in Hobart. I was there during one of the saddest times in my life, having just lost my best friend to cancer, and was half-listening as Becs explained to my sister and her friend about the origins of whisky. Only half-listening because I’d heard the talk before, knew it well, and was feeling so melancholy. The dram I was drinking (Slainte—a whisky liqueur) is made by a woman, the fabulous Lyn Lark, and it started me thinking about women and alcohol and their roles and I wondered if I could write a novel about that—not whisky so much, but the role women played in the manufacture of ale and beer. Somehow, I knew they’d once played a major role—it was one of those little snippets of information you have in your head but don’t really know why. As Becs talked, I day-dreamed the story and had the basis for The Brewer’s Tale before I left Lark that day; I made notes on my phone. I actually turned to my sister as we left and said, “Listen. I’ve had this idea for a novel…”
What was the role of beer and ale at that time?
In the period the novel is set (1405 onwards), ale (which back then was unhopped beer) had an enormous role in the lives and well-being of medieval people. Because water was viewed as dangerous (and it was, being brackish and polluted), ale was the main drink across the classes. The average person from tots to teens, adults and the elderly, kings and paupers, consumed between 1.5-5 litres of ale a day—many on top of wine, sack, cider and mead. In other words, most people were a little bit (and more) pissed most of the time! Beer, while popular in Europe, wasn’t really made in England in any large quantities until after, roughly, the 1420s. Prior to that, it was considered “unEnglish” to drink and there were laws in place that decreed a brewer had to choose whether to make ale or beer. Ale also provided much needed calories for people—it was a staple part of almost every diet.
Women were brewers but could they join the guild, the Mystery of Brewers? What protection and support were they afforded?
Up until the mid 1400s, the Mystery of Brewers, which later became the Guild of Brewers and was given a Royal Charter, did admit women but they were not allowed to be involved in any of the decision-making nor hold office, so it was membership with a huge caveat (really, what was the point except to make them pay fees and tithes to the Mystery). They could not wear the livery either (this was considered very important) or attend the annual schmooze-fest, I mean, dinner. In fact, though women were mostly the brewers prior to and in the early years of the formation of the Mystery, it was their husbands (who often had a different or associated trade—like milling or baking—their wives were the brewers but were not acknowledged as such for business purposes) who were admitted, so their wives were sort of de facto members. Mind you, they still had fines levied against them, paid assizes (taxes) and were suborned to the will of the Mystery once it was established and their produce monitored. The guilds were paternal-type organizations that governed trade, taxes, quality, collected fees, ensured there was representation in parliament, provided all sorts of in-kind and real support to brewers (almost all trades had a guild of varying power and control and with levels of membership), including if a (male) brewer died, they’d help the family. But women were not admitted to the cosy inner circles and, if they inherited a brewery upon their husband’s death, were not encouraged to maintain it on their own but sell it or re-marry so it became their new husband’s property. According to historical reports, by around 1500, most women had left the brewing trade.
In today’s society, it might seem strange that the church was big in the brewery business. Why was that?
The large abbeys, priories and monasteries housing priests, monks and nuns in Medieval times were not only centres of learning and faith, but functioned like miniature towns. They ensured God’s word was spread through services, copying the written word, and pastoral care, but practiced a huge variety of trades within their walls and sold produce beyond to earn revenue and maintain their abbots and friars in the manner to which they quickly became accustomed. Not all were wealthy of course, nor did they seek such a secular goal as the accumulation of material wealth, but many did (hence, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries late in his reign, he accrued vast amounts of riches). Brewing, because it was closely linked to baking and milling, which would have been done within monastic walls, was easy to do and a reliable product to trade as everyone needed ale to survive and there were decent profits to be made. While it didn’t take much in terms of equipment or space to brew in small quantities, it was often beyond many householders, so they would buy from the local church/priory, sometimes even to supplement their own supply if they fell on hard times. It was a trade open to exploitation for many, many reasons—and not just by the church.
The brewer of the novel’s title is Anneke Sheldrake. What sort of woman is she?
Above all, she is loyal, smart, kind, and a survivor. Capable of great love, compassion and forgiveness. Oh, and she’s beautiful—inside and out. She’s also too quick to trust, to her own and others’ detriment.
The fate that befalls Anneke, that sets her on the path to being a lady brewer, was that a common experience for women at this time?
Sadly, it wasn’t uncommon—loss, in many ways, being a way of life for medieval people—whether that was of children, family, fortunes, homes—so many had to struggle to make a living and simply survive. Anneke uses skills she’s familiar with and a trade by which her mother’s family once prospered to try and gain independence and save her family—but she has huge obstacles to overcome.
Anneke’s business partner, Alyson Bookbinder is also a fascinating woman. There’s a real story there, can you share it?
Ah… ever since high school and later university, I’ve been enthralled and a wee bit obsessed with Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, in particular, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, and the magnificent, lusty woman named Alyson who tells it. In her prologue, she admits to being married five times—even meeting one of her husband’s at the previous one’s funeral. I always wondered about her—what her life must have been like and, when I began to research The Brewer’s Tale (it was one occupation Chaucer omitted from his sequence and I hope he forgives me for using his concept of a “tale” with Anneke), I thought about Alyson and what she might have gotten up to post her pilgrimage to Canterbury. Thus, Alyson Bookbinder, owner of The Swanne (a bathhouse—bordello by any other name) in Southwark was born and she plays an integral role in the second half of the book. I am going to write her story one day as well—what we don’t learn from Chaucer.
The main male characters represent the best of men and the worst of men. Tell us about Leander Rainford and Westel Calkin.
Without spoiling the story, Leander Rainford is a frank man who is quick to judge and to temper, but is also loyal, brave and believes in social justice. Often misjudged himself, because of his affliction, you’d think he’d learn not to make assumptions on the basis of external appearances alone, let alone gossip, but he’s only human and when we meet him, still has lessons to learn. He’s flawed and that makes him vulnerable, dangerous and totally human.
Westel Calkin is someone who makes a timely entrance. He looks like an angel with his innocent blue eyes, spun-gold hair and soothing voice. He proves himself to be a source of great comfort to Anneke as well as a hard and reliable worker. But he too is flawed and thus, many of the qualities Leander possesses, so does Westel. But their differences as men and people lie in the choices they make and what they do with the power their sex and the times afford them.
You were not a beer drinker yourself but you immersed yourself in understanding how beer is made in order to represent the process authentically in the novel. Now your husband has started up a micro brewery. So has your attitude to beer altered?
Yes, it has. I had such a limited understanding of beer, the complexities of the taste, the craft involved in the making and the passion of brewers. While I still don’t enjoy drinking beer very much, I have developed a good palette and an appreciation for fine craft brews. My admiration for craft brewers knows no bounds. I also enjoy working in my husband’s brewery and have a whole new level of appreciation for the magic he works upon his beers and ales.
You’re writing a new novel now, can you tell us a little about it?
It’s called The Locksmith’s Daughter and is set during the reign of Elizabeth I, when England was in the throes of transforming from a Catholic nation into a Protestant one and there were treasonous plots and plans a plenty to overthrow the heretic queen and restore a Catholic noble to the throne. It was during this time that one of the most formidable spy networks in English history was established. My book is about a young woman, Mallory Bright, the daughter of a brilliant locksmith, who possesses an uncanny ability to unpick any lock and thus expose deadly secrets. At a time when women are regarded as little more than men’s chattels, she’s recruited into Sir Francis Walsingham’s network of espionage and becomes his first and only female agent and given a role to play, while all the time ferreting out information for her employer. But these are suspicious times, facades and fakery are all the rage and no-one is who or what they seem. When Mallory uncovers a terrible secret that those with the most to lose want kept hidden at all cost, her position at the centre of Walshingham’s system is compromised in ways no-one expects. So, what happens when a country’s greatest asset becomes their greatest threat?
*Meredith Jaffé is a writer, avid reader and The Hoopla’s books editor. Her reviews have been featured in the NSW Writers’ Centre 366 Days of Writing and in 2013 she was a member of the expert panel that selects the longlist for the Australian Book Industry Awards. When she is avoiding work, she cooks, plays Scrabble online or occasionally updates her Facebook page.