Brewsters, St. Brigid, and Bathwater Beer

It’s a shame that Patrick is the saint most people associate with drinking. His fellow Irelander, St. Brigid of Kildare, has a much stronger, and more amazing, connection to beer.

St. Brigid
Statue of St. Brigid in the Great Saint Martin Church in Cologne (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The Catholic Church celebrates a saint’s feast day on the anniversary of the saint’s death. It celebrated the feast of St. Brigid last week on February 1.

According to legend, St. Brigid had a special gift for making beer. Her brewing methods were unique; she preferred the bathtub to the mash tun. She once slaked the thirst of a colony of lepers by changing the water for baths into beer. Another time, she transformed dirty bathwater into clean beer for a group of visiting clerics.

Not content with water-into-wine-style miracles, St. Brigid also tried her hand at feeding-of-the-5000-type feats. During one Easter season, she allegedly used one barrel of beer in her convent to supply beer to eighteen local churches.

St. Brigid also praised beer in verse. She reportedly penned a poem in which she announced she would “like to give a lake of beer to God” and would “love the heavenly host to be tippling there for all eternity.” You can read the full text here or listen to the prayer below.

St. Brigid’s story reminds us of a frequently overlooked fact. Before the 18th century, most beer was made in the home, not commercial breweries, and women did most of the brewing. Known as “alewives” in England and “brewsters” in Germanic territory, the women who made beer were the engines of brewing progress for most of human history. In 2016, Craft Beer and Brewing Magazine published an excellent feature on the history of women in brewing.

If St. Brigid were still around, she likely would enjoy Irish-style red ale. The beer style earns its name from the amber color its moderate amount of kilned malts and roasted barley impart. With its buttery, caramel sweetness, an Irish red is a good choice for someone seeking a craft beer without the floral bitterness of a pale ale or the flavors of roasted chocolate and coffee typically found in stouts and porters. Its lower alcohol content (typically between 4 and 5 percent ABV) also makes Irish red what beer lovers call a “session beer” or “sessionable”: a beer to have when you’re having more than one.

Anyone in our neck of the woodsthe Charlotte, NC, area—can find an excellent Irish red by traveling to Bayne Brewing Company in Cornelius, NC. The nanobrewery’s Mountain Red Ale is one of the most flavorful examples of the style we’ve ever tasted.

A flight from a recent BachBeer trip to Bayne Brewing Company. The Mountain Red Ale is on the far right.

Readers in other parts of the country will have more luck finding Conway’s Irish Ale by Great Lakes Brewing Co. Whichever Irish red you choose, be sure to stock up now before the St. Patrick’s Day rush.

North Carolina resident Barbara Gallagher has written pieces that have been performed in music halls and churches across the world. Gallagher’s classical credentials are impeccable: she received her master’s degree from the Juilliard School and studied with Vincent Persichetti. But Gallagher has not limited herself to traditional classical composition. Her broad output includes music for both Celtic and Catholic radio programs, and her St. Brigid of Kildare Suite for solo piano could have appeared on either. The piece alternates between sweetness reminiscent of an Irish red ale and rippling figurations that evoke St. Brigid’s bathwater eddies. Gallagher performs the music virtuosically. Listen to it in good health. Sláinte.